Becomes an American Television Classic

An American classic of the television Western genre, Bonanza ranked among the most highly rated shows of all time and transformed the genre by centering primarily on familial issues rather than frontier lawlessness or conflict with Native Americans.

Summary of Event

The showpiece of the prime-time schedule of the National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company;Westerns (NBC), Bonanza, American television’s first family-oriented Western series, ran for fourteen years. The series premiered on September 12, 1959, opposite Perry Mason, a tough contender, and did not become a smash hit until the fall of 1961, when it moved to Sunday night at 9:00 p.m. as a replacement for The Dinah Shore Chevy Show. A long-lived success, Bonanza survived viewer ennui and serious plot and casting problems following the departure of Pernell Roberts in 1965 and the unexpected death of Dan Blocker in 1972 until its final original episode aired January 16, 1973. Bonanza (television program)
Westerns (television)
[kw]Bonanza Becomes an American Television Classic (Sept. 12, 1959-Jan. 16, 1973)
[kw]American Television Classic, Bonanza Becomes an (Sept. 12, 1959-Jan. 16, 1973)
[kw]Television Classic, Bonanza Becomes an American (Sept. 12, 1959-Jan. 16, 1973)
Bonanza (television program)
Westerns (television)
[g]North America;Sept. 12, 1959-Jan. 16, 1973: Bonanza Becomes an American Television Classic[06170]
[g]United States;Sept. 12, 1959-Jan. 16, 1973: Bonanza Becomes an American Television Classic[06170]
[c]Radio and television;Sept. 12, 1959-Jan. 16, 1973: Bonanza Becomes an American Television Classic[06170]
[c]Popular culture;Sept. 12, 1959-Jan. 16, 1973: Bonanza Becomes an American Television Classic[06170]
Greene, Lorne
Landon, Michael
Blocker, Dan
Roberts, Pernell

The series formula, simple and unassuming in its appeal, lured fans with the familiarity of a cohesive television family. The show opened with a rousing Western theme composed by veteran songwriters Jay Livingston Livingston, Jay and Ray Evans Evans, Ray . The title screen displayed a parchment map of the setting. As a flame burned away the center, the characters, in period costume and mounted on horseback, appeared in its place.

The show, which some critics denigrated as a Western melodrama, starred four notable talents. Lorne Greene was Ben Cartwright, a kindly, authoritative widower and owner of the thousand-acre Ponderosa Ranch who set the moral tone for his family and read the Bible to set an example for his sons, each of whom was born to a different wife. Pernell Roberts was the eldest son Adam, the somber, smooth-talking thinker of the family who chose words over fists when tempers flared. Dan Blocker was the middle son, Hoss, the clowning muscleman and foil for his stern father. Michael Landon was Little Joe, the winsome, mischievous youngest son who was the most likely to get into trouble, requiring intervention by the other three family members.

Secondary characters proved equally popular with fans. Victor Sen Yung Yung, Victor Sen appeared in the appealing role of Hop Sing, the family cook and housekeeper who often intervened as comic relief and choric commentator during serious emotional situations. Other supporting regulars who beefed up the program’s later years included David Canary Canary, David as Candy, an itinerant ranch worker who hired on at the Ponderosa; Mitch Vogel Vogel, Mitch as Jamie Hunter, a homeless, emotionally ill-at-ease teenage son of a deceased rainmaker; Lou Frizzell Frizzell, Lou as Dusty Rhoades, a middle-aged character and friend of Ben; and Tim Matheson Matheson, Tim as Griff King. In addition to these supporting roles, the producer stressed quality acting by importing a series of guest stars for cameo roles.

Set in the mid-1860’s on the Cartwrights’ sizable ranch on the outer edge of Virginia City Virginia City, Nevada , Nevada, Bonanza reflected the boomtown atmosphere that permeated the mining complex east of San Francisco. Following Henry T. P. Comstock’s 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode, a gold-threaded vein of silver, the fabulously rich strike lured a stream of miners, netting more than $300 million in precious metals before its demise around 1882. The mushrooming city, named for Comstock’s associate, James “Old Virginny” Fennimore, suffered a series of fluctuations of fortune and notoriety, culminating in 1873 in the discovery of the Big Bonanza, America’s richest strike. The city at its height reached a population of thirty thousand, a blend of privileged, moneyed landowners, imported laborers, mining consultants, financiers, support personnel, easy women, and drifters.

Capitalizing on the variety of plots and characters clustering around Virginia City’s historic past, Bonanza, only peripherally associated with the silver and gold industry, was anchored in a timber and cattle-ranching economy. As a natural outgrowth of their entrepreneurial responsibilities, Ben Cartwright and his three sons, inexplicably unencumbered by ranch work, presided over the comings and goings of strangers, invited guests, Indians, animals, hired hands, outlaws, and city dwellers. Much of the story line involved protection of the family’s vast land holdings and water rights as well as measured responses to threats, both to the characters themselves and to innocent bystanders, particularly pretty, vulnerable women.

The controlled, empathetic patriarch, Ben Cartwright—affectionately known as “Pa”—was played by Lorne Greene. His intuitive fathering on the show offset his three motherless sons’ lack of wisdom, experience, and patience. Styling his performance after Daniel, his own father, a Jewish cobbler and boot maker who immigrated to Canada from Russia, Greene, a native of Ottawa, achieved a quiet dignity by emulating his father’s masterful presence.

Greene abandoned his university study of chemical engineering in favor of French, German, and drama. After he completed postgraduate study at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater and the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, his commanding baritone was molded by years as an award-winning radio newscaster and pitchman for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. So riveting was his delivery of wartime commentary and sales pitches for war bonds that he earned the nickname “The Voice of Canada.”

Following brief service in the Canadian army, Greene opened the Academy of Radio Arts, where he taught more than four hundred students the basics of broadcasting and helped establish the Jupiter Theatre. He moved to New York in 1953 to appear on Studio One productions. Later roles cast him as Captain Ahab in a radio broadcast of Moby Dick, in various Broadway roles, and in leading and supporting roles in Stratford Shakespeare Festival productions. He left Shakespeare for parts in a series of films, including Peyton Place (1957), Autumn Leaves (1956), The Gift of Love (1958), and The Trap (1959). Even though Peyton Place had popular and financial success, none of his cinema efforts brought much return for his considerable acting talent.

At this point in Greene’s career, television, an even better financial bet than theater or film, proved more promising. He received contracts for quality productions, including The Elgin TV Hour, Producers’ Showcase, Omnibus, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, You Are There, and Playhouse 90. Although he lacked experience with horseback riding and Westerns, after a single appearance on Wagon Train he was cast as the lead on Bonanza. The producer, impressed with Greene’s burly good looks, self-confidence, masculine vocal delivery, and decisive stage presence, tailored the character of Ben to fit the star’s age and demeanor.

As the youngest son and impish, curly-haired enticement to teenage female viewers, Michael Landon, portraying the family hothead who often chose to settle disputes with fists rather than diplomacy, played the foil for his older brother Adam, who was cool, level-headed, and contemplative. Landon had abandoned college, which failed to satisfy his theatrical needs, and developed his versatile talent in television drama, including Studio One, Playhouse 90, General Electric Theater, and Schlitz Playhouse of Stars. Although he lacked maturity at Bonanza’s inception, he grew into the part of Little Joe, building a sizable audience following. In 1964, he won a Silver Spurs Award as most popular actor in a television Western.

The other two sons presented the greatest contrast in the Cartwright quartet. They were not as blessed by success and satisfaction as Landon. Pernell Roberts, stymied as Adam, the oldest and most academic of the three sons and probable heir to the Ponderosa, wearied of his role and quit the series in disgust in 1965. He had worked a variety of odd jobs and served with the Marines before initiating his dramatic career. An award-winning professional who began in summer stock, he acted on Washington’s Arena Stage and in Off-Broadway roles before joining the Bonanza cast.

In the role of the middle son, Dan Blocker, the ingenuous, gap-toothed mountain strongman, provided an important diplomatic balance against the taciturnity of Ben, the cerebral self-assurance of Adam, and the naïve, roguish impetuosity of Little Joe. Blocker’s most poignant performances called for tender, doomed love scenes that revealed the depth of his sensitivity. His death left a serious gap in the Cartwright household and caused an immediate dip in ratings.


Produced from a soundstage in Hollywood, Bonanza, the first television Western to be filmed in color, was conceived for two purposes: to foster America’s father-son relationships and as a ploy to sell color sets manufactured by Radio Corporation of America (RCA), NBC’s parent company. The series took hold slowly and received heavy criticism for its lush sentimentality, which reviewers compared to that of soap operas. Later public response, indicating a stronger viewer identification with the characters, bolstered sponsor confidence. Bankrolled by Chevrolet and produced by former scriptwriter David Dortort Dortort, David , the series, touted as a revival of family values and a classic of the television Western genre, featured a blend of comedy and realism along with social themes such as race prejudice, greed, alienation among families, and political corruption. Critics gave the program high marks for its story lines, many of which featured reconciliation and acceptance as major themes.

A demographic triumph of Bonanza was the nationwide pattern of regular viewers who followed the program week to week. Viewed by tens of millions of American fans in addition to audiences in dozens of other countries, Bonanza peaked from 1964 to 1967, when it ranked first in popularity for three successive years. It finished second only to Gunsmoke as the public’s favorite television Western of all time. Even Queen Elizabeth II confided to the show’s cast that she and her three children were faithful Bonanza viewers. Bonanza thus became one of television’s first long-lived series and set a pattern of regular viewing habits.

Bonanza, basically a pacifist Western, had a tremendous impact on television production. Less involved with assault, robbery, murder, rustling, prejudice against Indians, and the flagrant bloodshed associated with stereotypical Westerns, Bonanza stressed the Cartwrights’ relationships with a rapidly expanding territory, where law by necessity was augmented by reason. This emphasis helped shift later broadcast efforts to a more humanistic plane, particularly those programs set in the American West.

Because of its quality production and emotional appeal, the series outlived and outearned some two dozen carnage-ridden series such as Wagon Train, Broken Arrow, Tombstone Territory, Have Gun Will Travel, Rawhide, and Sugarfoot. In its final years, Bonanza returned in reruns and as a revamped series entitled Ponderosa. The series also brought personal and commercial success to its cast; rerun rights were sold in 1970 for a handsome but undisclosed sum.

His initial salary of $20,000 per episode, at thirty-four episodes per year, quickly turned Lorne Greene, the highest-paid cast member, into a millionaire. As an added enhancement, he received poignant, flattering fan mail from young men wishing for fathers like Ben Cartwright and developed a strong identity with the role, which bore a significant likeness to his own personality. He extended his tie with the series by serving as backstage mentor and financial adviser to Michael Landon and Dan Blocker, achieving comfortable profits for each of them. So taken was Greene with his role that he supervised the construction of a duplicate Ponderosa on his own property. To keep in touch with his fans, he made frequent personal appearances, often at rodeos, state fairs, Salvation Army benefits, and Boy Scout assemblies.

Pernell Roberts, whose departure was colored by an undercurrent of discontent, derided the show’s sentimentality and lack of challenge. After he was depicted as departing to the East to study, the other costars appeared at more frequent intervals, and new characters were written into later scripts to cover his absence. He heeded idealistic urges that eased emotional stress by going back to theater, but he returned to television and achieved fame in Trapper John, M.D., Trapper John, M.D. (television program) a television series that aired from 1979 to 1986 and cast him in the role of a modern doctor based loosely on a character from the M*A*S*H series.

Michael Landon, who submerged himself in his role as Little Joe, used the part as a learning experience. After ten years’ service as the youngest Cartwright, he ranged outward to direct twelve Bonanza episodes and write scripts for thirty more. The shift in point of view brought him into conflict with producer Dortort, who was forced to intercede in bitter squabbles with writers and directors who resented Landon’s interference. The experience, however, became the seed for his future directing and writing. Bonanza (television program)
Westerns (television)

Further Reading

  • Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. 8th rev. ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003. A thorough overview of television shows and series, including major and minor characters, casts, broadcast histories, theme songs, and formats.
  • Brown, Les. Les Brown’s Encyclopedia of Television. New York: New York Zoetrope, 1982. A spotty overview of programs, series, and isolated topics. Dotted with candid shots, the text gives snippets of information, including dates, critical response, stars, format, changes in casting, sponsor, network, and production information.
  • Leiby, Bruce R., and Linda F. Leiby. A Reference Guide to Television’s “Bonanza”: Episodes, Personnel, and Broadcast History. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. Comprehensive reference work on the show: includes a guide to each of more than four hundred episodes, biographies of both the actors and the characters they played, bibliography, discography, videography, and index.
  • MacDonald, J. Fred. Who Shot the Sheriff? The Rise and Fall of the Television Western. New York: Praeger, 1987. Analyzes the development of Western characters and themes on television, viewing them as mirrors of American values, beliefs, and ideals. Offers the opinion that Westerns lost their popularity because they no longer expressed contemporary ideology.
  • Poppy, John. “Bonanza.” Look 28 (December 1, 1964): 80-91. Written at the height of Bonanza’s popularity. The text, interspersed with photos, delves into crucial questions about television’s shortcomings, particularly its banality. Poppy emphasizes the contrast in perspectives, particularly those of Lorne Greene and Pernell Roberts.
  • Wallman, Jeffrey. The Western: Parables of the American Dream. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1999. Ideological critique of the Western genre in film, television, and literature. Bibliographic references and index.
  • West, Richard. Television Westerns: Major and Minor Series, 1946-1978. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1987. Describes all Western series appearing on television between 1946 and 1978. Includes biographical data on principal actors, with some photographs. Informative introduction. Appendixes contain information on casting, Emmy Awards, ratings, title changes, and air times. Thorough index.
  • Young, Pamela. “Death of a TV Patriarch.” Maclean’s 100 (September 21, 1987): 42-43. An obituary of Lorne Greene that describes his early years and the success of Bonanza. Contains a portrait shot and a closeup of the four series stars on horseback.

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