Bonanza had a great run from 1959 to 1973, and produced an incredible 431 episodes! The Cartwrights touched the hearts its viewers worldwide. The show was about the American dream… perhaps the reason it has become the second longest-running Western in all of television history. Here are some interesting and unknown facts about this legendary Western:
The Actual Bonanza
“Bonanza” is actually a slang term that was used by miners to describe ore, or any other large mineral deposit. The term is also linked with “jackpot,” and, interestingly, a real-life bonanza was discovered close to the actual location of the Cartwright’s ranch.
Anyone who has seen the series knows that female characters close to the Cartwright family never stuck around too long. It seemed like every sweet girl who got involved with the family either died a tragic death or left town. It became a long-running joke among the cast members that the Cartwright family was cursed. Unfortunately, no women survived more than a few episodes.
Lorne Greene Ranks High on Favorite TV Dads
David Dortort, one of the show’s producers, didn’t like the way that American fathers were being represented on sitcoms. He thought that TV dads were being portrayed as morons, and he wanted to change that. He wanted Lorne’s character to be a kind, caring father that other men could strive to be like!
Guy Williams was the First Choice for Adam Cartwright
You may remember Guy Williams as John Robinson in Lost In Space, but believe it or not, he was first-pick to play Adam Cartwright! However, before he could say yes to Bonanza, he joined the cast of Zorro. He did join the cast for five episodes as Will Cartwright, the cousin. The producers wanted to be ready with a replacement for Pernell Roberts, just in case!
Pernell Roberts Didn’t Really Like the Show
You may remember Pernell Roberts as playing the eldest Cartwright son. Roberts considered himself to be similar to his Cartwright part, to the point that he thought himself above the 34-episode season. So, in 1964 Roberts left Bonanza to join a theater company. It was explained as Adam “going to sea.” The next fact is about Michael Landon’s acting skills.
A Mysterious Death
Victor Sen Yung, played the character of Hop Sing, the Cartwright’s cook. Did you know that he was an accomplished Cantonese-style chef in real life? He even published his first cookbook in 1974 called the Great Wok Cookbook. In 1980, he was found dead in his home under what the authorities called “mysterious circumstances.” After police investigated his death, it was discovered that Yung died of asphyxiation after turning on a faulty kitchen stove for heat.
Michael Landon’s Commitment
Michael Landon played the Cartwright’s youngest, and probably most popular, son Little Joe. He was so committed to the role, in fact, that he appeared in mostly every single episode of the series. There were only fourteen episodes that he didn’t appear in, making his grand total an amazing 416 appearances. More amazingly, he even started writing and directing his own Bonanza episodes.
Roy Coffee was One of the Most Recurring Characters
The show had several recurring characters throughout the seasons, but Roy Coffee appeared the most often. He was on 98 episodes of the show! As you may remember, he was the nearby sheriff of Virginia City and an all-around decent bloke. Coffee was played by Ray Teal, who acted in over 250 movies throughout his career and more than 90 TV shows!
Was The Cast All Equal?
Bonanza was a show with four main cast members, and they were all truly equal when it came to being stars. The four leads were Patriarch Ben, Adam (the oldest son), Hoss (the best son), and Little Joe (the youngest, and of course in our opinion most handsome, son). The producers really wanted to make sure that everything was fair on set, so much so that they would even swap the billing order of the cast members! The next fact is about Lorne Greene’s post-Bonanza career!
Unexpected Music Career
After Bonanza became a huge hit, Lorne Greene’s career shot up instantly, and he took advantage of that success by releasing a set of folky country-and-western albums. In 1964, he even managed to release a number one hit with his spoken word ballad “Ringo.”
The M*A*S*H Connection
Two years before his untimely death in 1972, Dan Blocker was one of the main candidates that Robert Altman was considering for an unknown lead role in M*A*S*H. Unfortunately, Altman never got permission to cast Blocker and we lost a potentially wonderful M*A*S*H regular…
Stars Were All Musicians
Believe it or not, most of Bonanza‘s stars created music, and all four of the Cartwrights even sang on a 1964 album entitled “Christmas at the Ponderosa.” Lorne Green was the most successful in music, and he had a big hit with his single “Ringo.” He was also known for a great performance of the Bonanza theme song which everyone loved.
There’s a Reason the Costumes Never Changed
From season four to fourteen, all of the show’s characters wore pretty much only one set of distinctive outfits. Cowboy attire to the max we shall say, and the characters became very associated with the wear. The reasoning behind it, however, was purely economical. It made the costume budget much cheaper, and also made editing a lot easier when it came to re-shoots.
Bonanza Nearly Didn’t Make It
Bonanza nearly lost out to its competition Perry Mason, prompting NBC to almost cancel the show. However, because Bonanza was one of the first shows to be filmed in color, it gave people a reason to buy color TVs, just like the ones sold by NBC’s parent company RCA. The show was moved over to Sundays, boosting the ratings and making Bonanza a huge hit.
Star Trek Connection
Almost every character from Star Trek The Original Series made a guest appearance on Bonanza at one time or another. Hard-core fans of the show surely remember the various roles from guest stars such as- William Shatner, James Doohan, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Grace Lee Whitney, Majel Barrett, and Walter Koenig.
Ben Cartwright’s wives were each from different nationalities and backgrounds. His first wife, Elizabeth Stoddard was played by actress Geraldine Brooks.Elizabeth came from English ancestry and was living in Boston when she met Ben. She was the daughter of a sailor and met her future husband while he himself was a seaman. The two married and together had a son, Adam Cartwright, but Elizabeth died soon after childbirth.
Wife Number 2
Ben Cartwright’s second wife was Inger Borgstrom, played by actress Inga Swenson. The character on the show was Swedish and was immediately attracted to Adam with her motherly-instincts and love of children. She fell in love with Ben and the two went out West together. Of course, it wouldn’t be long until the Cartwright Curse appeared again. The newly married couple was only out West for a few weeks before she was killed by a band of Native Americans. She gave birth to Hoss Cartwright before her death. According to Little Joe, Inger “was like a clean, fresh sunrise”
The Saga Continues
Pa’s third and final wife was from New Orleans called Marie DeMarigny. Marie had quite the sordid past. Her son was stolen away and her ex-husband died in a scandal. In the series, it’s suggested that Marie was once a prostitute and that her father was hung for being a pirate. She gave birth to a son with Ben, Joseph “Little Joe” Cartwright and suddenly died in a horse accident when her son was only five-years-old. That was the end of that.
Pernell Wanted To Leave
Pernell Roberts Played the character of Adam Cartwright, the oldest son in the family who had a university degree and was the most educated out the brothers. After six years of acting, he threatened to leave the show, which then caused him to get fired. Pernell Roberts claimed he didn’t enjoy making the series any longer.
Pernell Roberts’ Replacement
David Canary played Candy Cannady, who was brought on “Bonanza” to steam up the plot after Pernell Roberts role was terminated, and took on the role as “close as family” friends with the Cartwrights. Candy was known as the fun-loving guy who joined the family in their adventures on the ranch. He was the Cartwright family’s foreman and fans were wary at first, after being devastated that Adam Cartwright was killed off.
The Knights of Bonanza
Screenwriter and producer, David Dortort used King Arthur’s story as inspiration for Bonanza, with Ben Cartwright portraying the legend himself, as his sons were his knights in the famous tale of brotherhood.The analogy came about when Dortort viewed the paternal character as an example to his children, something that was definitely felt by Bonanza fans.
Their Budget was the Real Bonanza!
Bonanza is still considered one of the most expensive shows to have been produced to this day! The series’ production burnt a lot of a money especially on the set and the salaries. Apparently, the network paid the guest actors more than the recurring ones, believing initially the standard cast wasn’t good enough.NBC allocated between $100,000-$150,000 per episode!
Toupees Were A Thing
We bet you had no idea, that Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker and Lorne Greene were all shedding their hair as they grew older onset and following Blocker, who began using a toupee as he turned 40, the rest of the cast got their own hairpieces. Michael Landon was the only one of the fabulous four who managed to keep his head full of hair. Even the character Hop Sing had a fake ponytail. Would you believe?
Michael Landon Wore Heels
Not only did most of the actors wear hairpieces, there was one actor that wore heels. Actor Michael Landon who played Little Joe wore heels while filming. He was particularly short, measuring in at 5’9, but was desperate to keep up with his fellow actors. Most of the men were six feet or over, so he added a few inches with his shoes.
A Bittersweet Farewell to Pernell Roberts
When Pernell Roberts said farewell to the show, the network decided to split his income into the rest of the actors’ salaries. The three received his share. It has been quoted that Lorne Greene had told Pernell Roberts not to quit the show because of the high income they received. But that didn’t stop Roberts from pursuing a bigger dream.
The King Himself
Bonanza’s run on the air continued for three incredible decades and consistently ranked in the top three most watched network TV series. They also gained a number of A-list viewers. Elvis was a huge fan of Bonanza and even requested a picture with some of the stars upon meeting them. After moving to a new time slot and gaining Chevrolet as a sponsor, the series sky rocketed to the number one spot on television by 1964. A title that Bonanza held onto through 1967 when it was usurped by the variety show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS.
Michael Landon may have been an extremely committed actor on the show, but he was apparently one of the most difficult actors to work with. He contributed creatively to the series and had a “crystal clear vision” of what the show should be. Landon was described as “fearless” by co-star David Canary. The actor was known for fighting with the network and personally making changes to the show even without approval.
The “rural purge” was a period starting in 1970 when many still popular rural-themed TV shows were canceled across all major US networks. The Beverly Hillbillies, Hee-Haw, Lassie and Green Acres all got the axe. There were just way too many rural-themed shows on the air and that they targeted a much smaller demographic. Bonanza was one of the final victims of the rural purge, being abruptly canceled in 1972. The final episode aired in 1973.
Death Of A Series
Bonaza may have had another few strong years ahead of itself had it not been for one thing. The sudden death of Dan Blocker. He suffered a pulmonary embolism following gallbladder surgery and passed away at the age of 43. He was survived by a wife and four children.
Bonanza Theme Park
A lot of Bonanza fans would visit the Eastern side of Lake Tahoe in search of Ponderosa, only to find a regular old lake! So, when land developers Bill and Joyce Anderson found out about this, they decided to develop a large theme park at Incline Village, Nevada. The park opened in 1967 and included a complete recreation of the Bonanza ranch home. Unfortunately, the park closed in 2004.
Actor Dan Blocker was nothing like his character Eric “Hoss” Cartwright. In real life, Blocker was an educated war veteran. Dan served as a combat soldier in the Korean War, he received the Purple Heart for the wounds he sustained in battle. Blocker received a master’s degree in dramatic arts and worked as a teacher before his acting career took off. He taught high school English and drama at various schools in Texas, New Mexico and finally California.
Ever wonder why “Candy” Candiday mysteriously vanished from the series, returning few years later? He apparently left due to a salary disagreement. After that, the actor decided to immediately leave the show. Two years later, Landon and Dortort decided that they wanted him back. After leaning on the producers, Candy came back. He picked up right where he left off, even if two years had passed. Oh, and he was given a significant raise to come back to the series.
Johnny Cash Connection
The Bonanza theme song, orchestrated by David Rose, remains on the list of Top 100 Western songs of all time to this day. In fact, it was so popular that iconic country singer Johnny Cash recorded a full-length vocal version. The lyrics of the song were changed slightly, but still referenced the Cartwright family and the Ponderosa.
Bonanza was the first show in television history to actually address the death of a character. After the sudden death of Dan Blocker, who played Hoss Cartwright, the directors decided that no other actor would be able to take his place. So they added his death into the show. The character’s death was mentioned in the show “very simply, in passing” and the episode became one of the most-watch Bonanza episodes ever.