“…With the friendliest, fightingist, lovingist band,
That ever set foot in the promised land,
And we’re happier than them all.
That’s why we call it
In terms of long-running Western TV shows, Bonanza‘s fourteen-year run is second only to Gunsmoke. But in terms of adored characters, it might be second to none—because the upstanding Cartwright family was burned into our TV and pop culture consciousness just like that Old West map was burned in the show’s opening credits.
In the late 1950’s, sitcoms and formula Westerns filled the TV airwaves, flickering in black and white. Producer David Dortort wanted something a bit different. He wanted an Old West setting that was akin to Camelot—the best of times in the best of all lands—and he wanted the inhabitants of that world to match its inherent nobility. He wanted a show about strong, morally impressive men, instead of the bumbling man-boys he felt had invaded popular TV shows. His patriarch king would set a good example for his clan, positive values would be reinforced, and in the end, of course, good would always triumph over evil. Dortort wanted unknown actors, and most of all, he wanted it all to play out in color. On all of these counts, he got what he wanted.
Lorne Green, formerly a Canadian radio personality, played Ben Cartwright, a widower three times and a father of three. And because each of his boys had a different mother, according to the show’s creators, each also had a very different personality. Pernell Roberts’ Adam was the book-learned and eldest Cartwright son; Dan Blocker’s Hoss was the gullible gentle giant and the comedic butt of all kinds of jokes; and Michael Landon played the handsome Little Joe, given to affairs of the heart when he wasn’t making his portly brother the center of his gags.
The Cartwrights made their home at the Ponderosa Ranch, near Virginia City in the mountains of Nevada. There were endless cattle drives, plentiful timber and mining work, and except for a select few helping hands, the Cartwright boys seemed to handle their ranching empire all by themselves. With Ponderosa as home base, the show was one of the first “landed” Westerns—adventures came to its characters, instead of roaming characters happening upon adventures in their travels.
Though natural resources were aplenty, one thing that Ponderosa was famously short on was members of the fairer persuasion, and fans knew that most any woman who got involved with a Cartwright was destined to either leave the ranch environs or, unfortunately, die. And that’s just the way female viewers liked it: each daydreaming fan could imagine herself as the lucky lady who would last long enough to make a permanent home for herself out at the ranch—putting dainty curtains up around the house and taking her pick from the dreamy brothers Cartwright.
When the show first aired on Saturday nights in 1959, it didn’t blaze any trails. It got beat up, ratings wise, by timeslot competitor Perry Mason and remained on the air only because as a color show replete with striking Lake Tahoe landscapes and rich set and costume palettes, it was still a novelty. Plus, RCA (NBC’s parent company) was keen on selling color TV sets.
Two years later, NBC moved Bonanza to Sunday nights at 9:00—the time slot the Cartwrights called home for most of the rest of their days on the tube. It was in Top-10 ratings lists all the time, and from 1964-67, it was the most watched show in the country. The actors became stars, and Bonanza merchandise pounced onto the toy store shelves.
It wasn’t just cattle drives and comedic flapjack contests either—the show dealt with issues that weren’t common TV themes yet, like prejudice, drug and alcohol abuse, mercy killing and spousal abuse. And because the writers mixed this kind of serious-mindedness into their frontier hijinx, it was a show that was known to make viewers laugh and cry. Renaissance Hollywood man Michael Landon cut his writing and directing teeth during the later Bonanza years, and would bring that laugh/cry formula to his future TV endeavors, Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven.
At the end of the sixth season, Pernell Roberts left the show to pursue loftier acting jobs, eventually landing the lead in Trapper John M.D. Sheriff Roy Coffee began to see more screen time in Adam Cartwright’s wake, and in the ninth season, ranch foreman Candy came aboard. To chase Hoss out of the kitchen, Hop Sing the cook arrived at the ranch, and to nail down a new generation of the younger demographic (for whom Little Joe wasn’t quite little enough anymore), the Cartwrights adopted a teenage orphan, Jamie. After all, good old Ben still had a lot of good advice to dispense—and his two remaining sons were probably a bit too old to sit still for it.
In the final two years, the show’s stalwart ratings finally began to slip, and tragically, in the middle of the fourteenth season, Dan Blocker passed away. After a moot timeslot shift to Tuesday nights, Bonanza‘s last episode aired in 1973. Since then, its reruns have appeared on stations all over the world. Three subsequent TV movies were made based on the series, too—Bonanza: The Next Generation (1988), Bonanza: The Return (1993), andBonanza: Under Attack (1995). Landon and Roberts enjoyed their aforementioned TV success, Lorne Greene went on to star in Battlestar Galactica and Code Red, and David Canary (Candy) became a daytime soap opera mainstay.
Virility, morality, comedy and Old West mythology were never combined as effectively, or as durably, as they were at the Ponderosa Ranch. We refer to the show’s characters still, we daydream of being either our favorite Cartwright boy or the only Ponderosa gal occasionally, and we can never see an old map without wanting to grab a matchbook for a little fiery TV homage of our own.
|9/12/59 – 1/16/73 NBC|
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