Were you a “Bonanza” fan? Whether you were or not, join us as we go back to the 60’s and share some incredible facts about the iconic TV show, “Bonanza”, and its cast members. We can bet you have never heard these juicy tidbits before!
Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright
Lorne Greene was a musician and actor hailing out of Canada. He got the role of Ben Cartwright on “Bonanza”, who was the widowed father of the Cartwright family. He was very well-loved by fans and even named one of the most loved fathers on television by TV Guide! This role really launched him to fame and it was after this role that he became a household name.
Sadly, Lorne Greene passed away at the age of 72, in 1987, from pneumonia. His career was impressive, and he appeared in many TV shows and films during his life!
Not a Typical TV Dad
TV shows back then typically had one way of portraying father characters. They were usually controlled by their wives, and stupid or plain silly. The producer of “Bonanza”, David Dortort did not want to follow suit with this generalization and decided to build a character that was bright and respected.
In this era, TV shows were typically 30 minutes. David Dortort wanted to change this - he asked that the show get rid of the 30 minute length and move to one hour. His reasoning was he wanted more time to get in depth with the characters and thought an hour would be better suited for the task.
They Always Wore The Same Clothes
If you are a die-hard “Bonanza” fan, then you may have seen that the people on the show are always wearing the same exact thing. They have never changed clothes! Yes, during all 400 plus episodes the cast wore the same thing!
“Bonanza” was one of the most expensive TV shows during that time period, they had a seemingly massive budget, but they still needed to find ways to cut costs. By having the characters never change their clothes, the production team could lower some of the production costs by subbing in different stock footage when they were able to make it work.
Michael Landon as Little Joe Cartwright
Michael Landon was a man of many talents. He was an actor, a writer, a director and even a producer. On the show “Bonanza”, he played the character Little Joe, who was the youngest of the sons.
He really hit it big with “Bonanza” - prior to landing this role, he had some bit parts in other shows and films, but nothing like his starring role as Little Joe! He was also well known for his role on Little House on the Prairie. Sadly, his career was cut short, as Landon died at the young age of 54, in 1991, after battling cancer.
Michael Landon Wasn't The Actor's Real Name
Many actors, when joining The Screen Actors Guild, also known as the acting union, must choose stage names if their given name is already taken. Michael Landon was actually born Eugene Maurice Orowitz. However, he did not want to use that as his stage name. When he joined the union, he wanted to go by Michael Lane. However, to his dismay, that name was already taken. He had to start thinking of a new name.
He decided to browse through the phone book. He came across a name that he liked, Alf Landon. Shortly after, the name Michael Landon was chosen.
A Cast Of Many Talents
The actors in “Bonanza” were all very talented. They were all, of course, talented actors, but did you know that these actors could sing well, too? Four of the actors in the Cartwright family were singers on the Christmas album released in 1964. Additionally, not only were the cast members musically talented, the theme song for the show “Bonanza” also became a hit song!
Lorne Greene had even more success as a musician aside from the Christmas album. He released his own single, entitled “Ringo”. This single became a massive hit in both the United States and his homeland, Canada.
Pernell Roberts as Adam Cartwright
Pernell Roberts Jr. was another actor and singer who had a role on “Bonanza”. He was the character Adam Cartwright, who was also the eldest son of the family. He left the cast of “Bonanza” after 6 years to pursue other opportunities. After leaving the show, he appeared on tons of other shows. Bonanza was not his only claim to fame. Pernell also had roles in over 60 TV shows! And, he also dabbled in theater.
In 1990, Pernell retired. Sadly, he died at the age of 81, in 2010, from cancer, but left behind a long and impressive career.
Pernell Roberts Wasn't A Fan Of The Show
We had mentioned earlier that Pernell Roberts left “Bonanza” after only six years. This definitely was a surprise to fans, since when he left the show in 1965, Bonanza was one of the top-rated shows. Everyone wondered why he would have left such a seemingly great experience.
Only the producers and crew knew the truth. Pernell had political differences with the show and his disrespect for the writing in the show caused him to leave. In fact, people were surprised he did not leave earlier, as his views we're known from the beginning. He had stated he left the show because he had to take care of his emotional well-being, and that the set was an unpleasant place to be.
The Bonanza Restaurant Chains
“Bonanza” star Dan Blocker took his “Bonanza” fame to the next level. He used his notoriety from the show to open “Bonanza” inspired buffet restaurant chains, such as the Ponderosa Steakhouse and Bonanza Steakhouse.
He opened the very first Bonanza Steakhouse in 1965. It was located in Kokomo, Indiana. In 1971, the restaurant chain grew and even made it to Canada! At first, Bonanza Steakhouse and Ponderosa Steakhouse were actually different companies, so there could be both in any region. The companies later merged together, and now they are both owned and operated by the Metromedia Restaurant Group.
Victor Sen Yung as Hop Sing
In most cases, actors on TV are portraying a character that is different from who they are in real life, that is why they call it acting! However, the actor Victor Sen Yung, who played the chef to the Cartwright Family, was actually a chef.
In fact, he was quite an accomplished chef. So much so, that once the show was over, he did not need acting to support himself. He supported himself completely as a chef. He even appeared on various cooking shows on television. In 1974, he also wrote a book entitled “The Great Wok Cookbook”.
An American King Arthur
Dortort initially had a wild idea when it came to “Bonanza”. He was picturing the show to be the story of King Arthur, but presented as an old western tale. He was picturing the star, Ben Cartwright as King Arthur. He envisioned that all of Cartwright's sons were his knights.
Just by watching the show you may not be able to tell that was its initial vision, but think about it. Cartwright really did lead his sons as if they were King Arthur's knights. Dortort’s vision may have come to fruition after all.
Dan Blocker as Hoss Cartwright
The role of the middle Cartwright son, Eric, was played by none other than Dan Blocker. Eric “Hoss” Cartwright was sweet, but not very bright. This was a great acting role for Dan, as he was the total opposite of his character on the show! Dan was actually very smart and knowledgeable!
Dan was not always in the entertainment business. Believe it or not, before he decided to get into acting, he was a teacher and earned a master’s degree. He died young, at the age of 43. Unfortunately, he passed away just 2 weeks before filming for “Bonanza” was resuming, in 1972.
A Very Big Baby
Another wild fact about “Bonanza” star Dan Blocker, will make your jaw drop! Dan was born in 1928, and weighed a whopping 14 pounds at birth. At this time, Dan Blocker was the biggest baby ever born in Texas.
When Dan started grade school, he was huge! By the time he hit first grade, he weighed in at over 100 lbs. This isn’t a huge surprise, as Dan was not a small guy by any means. He stood at 6’4” tall and was 300 lbs! Due to his intimidating size, he worked at a bar as a bouncer while he was in school.
From Survival To Success
“Bonanza” is one of the all-time greatest television shows. But did you know, when it first came on the air it did not do well, and was constantly struggling during season one. “Bonanza” was on the Saturday night time slot. It aired every Saturday, and had such bad ratings that it was almost canceled.
The thing that initially saved “Bonanza”, was that it was the first television show that was filmed and aired in color. NBC did not want to cancel the show, instead they compromised and moved it to Sunday nights. Once the show was moved to Sundays, the ratings skyrocketed.
David Canary as Candy Canaday
There was a gap in the show that needed to be filled when cast member Pernell Roberts left. It was at this time, that actor David Canary joined the cast, in the role of “candy” Canaday.
Prior to joining the cast of “Bonanza”, David was up for the role of Mr. Spock, in Star Trek. After Bonanza, he went on to have a starring role in All My Children. This really launched his career, and he received 5 Emmy Award wins, as well as 16 nominations! Unfortunately, David died in 2015, leaving behind quite a legacy.
Stock Footage Helped The Show's Budget
“Bonanza” was one of the most expensive television shows of its time. They had to find effective ways to cut corners and save money without compromising the quality of the show.
One little trick they did to save money, was the use of stock footage. This enabled the production team to save thousands of dollars on each episode by not filming extra shots. This little tidbit was quite effective. They were able to avoid extra shoots that would have gone over the show's budget. Another fun fact, the cast all wore the same clothing throughout the series. That way the stock footage would always match the real footage. Who knew?
A Very Expensive TV Show
Did you know that “Bonanza” was one of the most expensive shows on television? NBC had a budget of $100,000 to $150,000 per episode. This amount made Bonanza the most expensive TV show to produce each week. In order to justify this wild amount, “Bonanza” was also named one of the best-performing television shows.
Even though they had a sky-high budget, the network saved money per episode by using stock footage for extra scenes, as well as having the cast all wear the same clothing throughout the entire series. Yes, all four hundred plus episodes.
Adam Cartwright Could Have Been Played By Zorro
When you are an actor, sometimes you are faced with the difficult decision of having to decide between two roles. The role of Adam Cartwright was initially offered to actor Guy Williams. Guy turned down the offer and instead accepted the role of Zorro.
Even though he turned down the role of Adam Cartwright, he did appear on “Bonanza” in five episodes. He came on to play the role of Will Cartwright, who was Adam's cousin. The role was actually created to replace Pernell Roberts, in case he walked off set. They knew that he was volatile, so they had to be safe.
Hoss Was A Nickname
The character of Hoss Cartwright was actually just a nickname! The real character’s name was Eric Haas Cartwright. The other characters on “Bonanza”, including his family, called him by the nickname Hoss. It may have seemed like a strange nickname, but it is actually just a variation of his middle name, Hoss.
Eric “Hoss” Cartwright was played by the actor Dan Blocker. The character was gentle and kind, despite Blocker’s enormous stature. The nickname was also said to refer to Hoss being big, but friendly. The writers explain the nickname in an episode flashback, where the brothers give him a nickname to see what sticks.
Were The Cartwrights Cursed?
A long-running joke on the show “Bonanza” is about the Cartwright curse. Fans and cast members alike all knew about this unspoken curse. Anytime someone from the Cartwright family fell in love, the woman would end up dead or leaving. This quickly became known as the Cartwright curse.
Fans of the show really wanted to witness a marriage that lasted. But apparently, the show's creators wanted this famous father figure to raise his children alone. Maybe they were trying to prove his strength, and show he did not need a woman by his side.
Not Their Real Hair
Do you think you could spot real hair from fake hair? You may be surprised to learn that most of the actors on the show “Bonanza” wore toupees. Some of the actors that wore a toupee were Blocker, Roberts, and Green. Landon’s hair, on the other hand, was very real. Some men started to wear them as the series went on, since their hair started to thin. After all, the series ran over a decade!
Not only did some men wear toupees on the show, but some even had their heads painted to look like they had hair! See if you notice next time you watch the show!
Screen Time For All
“Bonanza” is one of the greatest shows of all time. Not only was it the very first show broadcast in color, but it also portrayed the male characters in a different light. The writers made sure to make all of the men very likable. Not dim-witted, like other male characters from shows during this time.
Not only that, the writers wanted to make sure that all four male characters in the show had equal screen time. They did not want one to shine over the others. The scripts were all inspected to make sure every episode was equal. This balance was one of the things that must have made the show so successful.
'Bonanza' Is A Slang Word
Here is a little-known fact about the title of the show “Bonanza”. The term Bonanza is actually a slang word that was used to describe mineral deposit by miners. Another meaning, is something happening that suddenly increases wealth or even a big amount of something that is desirable. Which meaning do you think the show “Bonanza” is referring to?
In this case, it may be both! The show's title refers to a big deposit of ore. They are always referencing the Comstock Lode.
A Plot To Sell Color TVs
“Bonanza” was not always the biggest hit. In fact, it was almost canceled after season 1. That is so hard to believe, as it went on to run for over four hundred episodes!
“Bonanza” was one of the first television shows to be filmed and aired in color. Its season 1 ratings were terrible, but NBC kept it on the air for one specific reason - to sell more color TVs! RCA was actually the parent company to NBC, and RCA was really pushing the sales of color TVs. Luckily, the show continued to gain massive popularity and ended up lasting for many more seasons!
Michael Landon's Obsession With 'Bonanza'
Michael Landon absolutely loved his job, and loved the show “Bonanza”. He was very loyal to the show, and was even seen in 402 of the 416 episodes.
Additionally, Michael Landon got his start in directing, as well as writing, while on the show. In fact, Michael Landon even wrote some of the cast’s favorite episodes. He directed some episodes as well. He was such a fan of the show, which made it really special for him to not only act in it, but have these other roles as director and writer as well.
Landon Wasn't Easy To Work With
While Landon was a big fan of the show, both as an actor and as a writer/director, this led to some trouble on set. It was said that during the last couple of seasons of filming, Michael Landon got increasingly harder to work with.
He did not want any new characters introduced into the cast of the show. He also had a specific vision for the show and the direction it was going in, so it was said that he would become difficult and delay the shoots for various reasons. He loved the show so much he wanted to take total control.
'M*A*S*H' Didn't Take Dan Blocker
Robert Altman had high hopes for Dan Blocker, as Dan was his top choice for the star of the film MASH. The producers of the film, however, did not have the same high opinion of Dan, and he ultimately did not get the role, despite Altmans requests.
MASH went on to be a massive success, even without Dan Blocker. But, can you imagine what it would have been like to see Dan in the film? Interestingly enough, Dan’s son, Dirk Blocker appeared on the TV series MASH as a wounded soldier. It seems MASH came full circle in this family.
Dan Blocker's Death Is TV History
In 1972, just a few weeks before they started filming the last season of “Bonanza”, tragedy struck. Dan Blocker passed away. It was all very unexpected, and because it was so close to when they were beginning to film the next season, they had to figure out what to do. Dan’s character was already written into all of the episodes.
The writers, including Michael Landon, had to re-write the episodes to incorporate his death. This sad event made history, as it was the very first time in the history of television that a character’s death was mentioned on air!
Guest Stars Were Better Paid Than The Show’s Regular Cast
When “Bonanza” first premiered, the producers were not sure how the show was going to do. They did not know if people would like the show since the main cast members were not very well known actors. Essentially, they were unknowns.
Because of this, the production team continued to bring big stars onto the show for guest starring roles. They were hoping this would get more people to watch the show. The producers, of course, paid the stars more than the leads, even though they were only small parts. By season 2, however, ratings were high and the lead actors of “Bonanza” had become stars themselves!
There Were Lyrics In The Theme Song
Did you know that the theme song for “Bonanza” actually had lyrics? Most people only know the instrumental version of the song, but it definitely had lyrics. The theme song was written by songwriters Jay Livingston and Ray Evans.
Video was found of the cast members singing the lyrics. In fact, Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, and Michael Landon sang the theme song lyrics which they were using for the pilot episode, but unfortunately, it did not air, and they went with the instrumental version. Everybody loved this song! The world-famous singer Johnny Cash also recorded a version of the theme song to Bonanza!
A Pioneer In Color TV
Along with “The Cisco Kid”, “Bonanza” was among the first Western television programs that was fully produced in color. Because it was one of the first to be produced in color, it was also one of the most expensive shows during this time.
After its first season, which was quite underwhelming, it was going to be canceled. However, they had spent so much money on this new color television show that they just had to keep going. Additionally, RCA wanted to really push the new color television, so they had to have the color shows stay on the air. And thankfully so. Could you imagine the world without “Bonanza”?
A Long And Successful Run
“Bonanza” ran for an amazing 14 seasons. They filmed over 400 episodes. There was only one other Western television show that would run longer than “Bonanza”. That show was “Gunsmoke”. “Gunsmoke” was on television for a whopping 20 seasons. Gunsmoke comes in second on the list for longest running scripted TV shows. At 20 seasons, it is tied with “Law and Order”, and only surpassed by “The Simpsons”.
Both of these shows are still popular today. They were not just passing fads. Both of these timeless television programs continue to run in syndication all over the world, even today.
The Cartwrights Welcomed Visitors
Throughout season one, the writers portrayed the Cartwright family as hostile to visitors. During Lorne Greene’s character development, he came to a realization that the Cartwright family was very important to the community. The business they had meant that they had to be more personable. Because of this, they could not be hostile to people that came on their land.
He realized that people were going to visit their land, conduct business, and become a place where people would convene. Because of this realization, the writer altered the characters. They made them more approachable and hospitable to the people of the town.
Did you know that the car company Chevrolet sponsored almost all of the 431 episodes of “Bonanza”? So much of the income from the show was due to the fact that it had this partnership with Chevrolet. This partnership really kept the TV show in production, and kept it running, despite its expensive nature.
Additionally, the cast members starred in Chevrolet commercials. This was also part of the sponsorship deal. The stars had to promote a wide array of Chevrolet vehicles. While this seems crazy, you see this all the time today, when you are watching a show and then during the commercials the same cast members from the show are starring in a commercial or something semi related to what you were watching. Crazy, right?
The 'Star Trek' Connection
Along with “Bonanza”, there were numerous other famous television shows all in production during this time. One of them of course, was the TV series, “Star Trek”. This series ran in 1966. Numerous actors from the original television show “Star Trek” also went on to make appearances on “Bonanza”. “Bonanza” ran for 14 seasons, so there was plenty of opportunity and time for actors to get guest-starring roles.
Some notable crossover actors between “Star Trek” and “Bonanza” were the actors James Doohan, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and Majel Barrett. Can you believe they were all on “Bonanza”?
Landon's Writing Wasn't Well-Received At First
It was pretty common knowledge that Landon loved “Bonanza”. He wanted to have more stake in the show, he wanted to do more than just act in it. He wanted to write for it, too. The producer, David Dortort, did not want him to. Landon attempted a couple of times to write a script, but failed. He did not give up, and finally, he gave the producers a script that they thought would be good to produce.
This amazing opportunity and perseverance landed Landon an amazing job. He went on to be one of the regular writers for “Bonanza”. Additionally, he would occasionally produce an episode as well. His writing did not end here, as he would also later write multiple episodes for the show Little House on the Prairie.
A Western With Depth
There is definitely a reason why “Bonanza” was so famous. After all, there are over four hundred episodes. Clearly, they were doing something right. As it turns out, Bonanza was the very first dramatic Western that was not all about killing bad guys and hunting. This show had depth.
“Bonanza” prided itself on focusing on real life social issues. It focused on relatable problems, such as racism, prejudice, and even social justice. It was really cutting-edge, and very different for its time. Perhaps, this is why it ended up doing so well, and continues to be successful today.
The Credits Were Constantly Rotated
Like we had mentioned before, the production team really wanted to make sure that all of the main actors in the show were equal. They really monitored the script, making sure everyone was equal and no one stood out.
Because the production team was so focused on equality, you will notice if you look at the opening credits of a couple of different episodes, you will see that in each episode, the actors are ordered differently. They did not want one actor to get top billing, so they continued to rotate so that everyone got top billing at some point.
'Bonanza' In Theaters
Not only was “Bonanza” a top rated television show, it also had a release in theaters. However, fans in the US were not able to see this, as it was only released in Mexico.
The production team combined two episodes, “Ride the Wind” one and two. They put these two episodes together and brought them to theatres under the new name, “Jinetes del Viento.” This was the one and only time they brought the TV show Bonanza to theatres. There isn’t much information about box office sales, but we are guessing they did not do too well, otherwise we may have seen this happening more often!
Saturday Night Nearly Got The Show Canceled
“Bonanza” was hugely successful and ran for over 400 episodes, but did you know it was almost canceled after it had its first disappointing season? “Bonanza” was put in the Saturday night time slot on NBC, and because of the poor time slot, it did not do well. In fact, due to the ratings, “Bonanza” was even supposed to get canceled!
“Bonanza” was given one more chance. They moved it from Saturday night to Sunday night at 9pm, which was a prime slot. By 1965, the ratings had soared. “Bonanza” hit the number one spot all over the nation. Pretty impressive for a show that was going to be canceled after just one season.
Michael Landon And His Lifts
Not only did the male cast members of “Bonanza” wear toupees, they also wore other appearance altering items, like lifts, which are shoe inserts that make you appear taller, Five foot nine may seem like a pretty average tall height, but it was not tall enough for Michael Landon.
Landon had to wear lifts on the set of the show so he would look taller next to the rest of the cast members. The lifts he wore were said to add about a couple of inches to his height. His co-stars were taller, which really made his small stature stand out. Blocker stood six foot four and was 300lbs, so he had to gain a little height, for sure!
What Happened To All The Women?
Michael Landon was quite the jokester. He was constantly cracking jokes about the unspoken Cartwright curse. He thought that it was hilarious that all of the women who came on the show would disappear. They would either die or mysteriously disappear.
It was well known by fans that the Cartwright curse was in full effect anytime a female character appeared on the show. They would introduce a wife or love interest to one of the male characters. Eventually, they would disappear without warning, no female character ever survived more than a couple of episodes on Bonanza.
The Show's Global Success
“Bonanza” was the first TV show to achieve global fame. We all know “Bonanza” was a massive success in the United States. It is undeniable, the 400-plus episodes are a sheer indicator of that. But did you know, “Bonanza” also was on the air in many other countries? Any place that had an available time slot for a show, aired Bonanza. Additionally, “Bonanza” was even shown in the movie theaters in Mexico!
This was really advanced for its time, not even Netflix can come close to touching the reach that “Bonanza” had. Its nationwide success is unmatched.
The Show Turned Landon Into A Star
Not only was “Bonanza” a hit TV show, but it also launched the careers of its stars. Since “Bonanza” was the first television show to be filmed and aired in color, the production team did not want to use name actors, they wanted to create a new generation of color TV stars.
Michael Landon’s career was skyrocketed because of his success on “Bonanza”. Not only as an actor, but as a writer and producer as well. Landon also remains the only actor to appear in not one, but three television shows running consecutively. Over the course of five years, Landon was starring in Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven.
The Three Spin-off Movies
Since the TV show “Bonanza” was such a massive hit, airing for over 10 years and having over 400 episodes, of course the production team had to figure out more ways to monetize this success.
The show continued to get high ratings even once it began reruns. They started having reruns even when new episodes were still being released. They then started adding TV specials. They continued to add these specials years after Bonanza stopped airing! They had three television specials. In 1988, they aired ‘The Next Generation’. In 1993, they aired ‘Bonanza: The Return’ and finally, the last reunion movie aired in 1995, titled ‘Bonanza: Under Attack’.
The Theme Song Was A Hit
The theme song for “Bonanza” was just as big of a hit as the show itself. The theme song was written by famous Hollywood writers Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. The song was so popular that it made the top 20 on the charts, in 1961. Many people did not realize that the theme song had lyrics, however, versions surfaced including the lead cast members singing the theme song!
If the theme songs success was any indication of the shows success, one would assume only the best shows get noticed for their theme songs, as well! Musicians constantly covered the song and released it on their albums.
Show Reruns Were Titled 'Ponderosa'
“Bonanza” started out in the Saturday evening time slot. This time slot did not do well for them, and their ratings tanked. Eventually, they got moved to Sunday night, at 9 p.m., which proved to be a great time slot for the show. It was there that they skyrocketed to the top of the charts.
By the year 1972, “Bonanza” was still airing in that Sunday night time slot. Production decided it was time to start airing reruns. They began putting the reruns on TV, but in a different time slot. They were airing them on Tuesday nights at 7:30 pm. They also did not air the reruns under the name Bonanza, they were titled Ponderosa. When the ratings began to fall, the new episodes moved to the Tuesday time slot.
They Didn't Want Famous Actors
“Bonanza” was the first television show to be filmed and broadcast in color! The producers of “Bonanza” had an inkling that this new medium of entertainment was going to produce a new group of TV stars.
Because of this, the production team avoided casting TV stars from black and white television. They wanted to create a new generation. They ended up casting virtually unknown actors for the lead roles, and sprinkling the cast with well known names coming in as guest stars and one- off roles. This seemed to be a good decision on their part, because the stars of “Bonanza” ended up skyrocketing to fame.
There Were Many Musicians On 'Bonanza'
The theme song for “Bonanza” has become one of the most popular theme songs in the world. It has also become one of the most recognizable. Many singers produced covers of the theme song, even Greene sang the theme song.
Greene also produced a solo single, “Ringo”. This single became a massive hit in both the US and Canada. He was not the only musician in the show, however. All of the Cartwright family had sung on the Christmas album that the cast released in 1964, entitled “Christmas at the Ponderosa”. They all had well-known musical talent!