The hit television series Bonanza ran on NBC for fourteen seasons from 1959 to 1973, making it the second longest-running western-themed T.V. series on American network television, right behind CBS’s Gunsmoke.
The show centered on the Cartwright family and is set in 1860s Virginia City, Nevada. The show has become iconic in American popular culture and is known for having one of the most recognizable theme songs of the 20th century. In fact, the theme song was so popular that it became a hit song! Here are some other things that you probably never knew about the hit television series.
What’s in a Name?
What does the word “bonanza” mean, anyway? The term was often used by miners when they discovered a large deposit of ore. It is commonly associated with the 1859 Comstock Lode discovery, which sent people rushing to the Virginia Range in Nevada once it was announced that silver was discovered in the hills.
You can think of the word as the mining equivalent of “timber,” the word people associate with lumberjacks who yell it out when they cut down trees.
The Ranch Was Near the Comstock Lode Discovery
The usage of the slang term ‘bonanza’ for a jackpot is a direct nod to the mining town that the show takes place in. The fictional ranch on which the Cartwrights live, Ponderosa Ranch, is said to be located near the site of the Comstock Lode discovery.
Six major bonanzas took place here. The Ophir bonanza produced an incredible 70,000 tons of silver. Gold was also found in the region in 1850. During the rush, it was where everyone wanted to be.
The Casting Was Historically Accurate
The creators of Bonanza decided not to go down this route of portraying women this way. While there were plenty of women in the lives of the Cartwright men (Ben was married several times!) the women were not the focal point of the series.
It’s also historically accurate because men usually outnumbered women in the wild west. It wasn’t until later that women went westward to take advantage of opportunities they didn’t have in the east.
No Women? No Problem!
One of the most notable things about the show is that it focused on a family unit with no mother and no female children. All of the main twelve cast members in the 431 episodes filmed were men.
While that might seem a bit misogynistic by today’s standards, it was actually just the opposite. At the time Bonanza aired, television portrayals of wives were less than ideal and typically featured the women as controlling and shrewish.
Of Course, There Were Some Women
Of course, there had to be some women on the show. If there weren’t any women in the west, there’s no way Ben would have managed to have three sons. Each of his sons was from a different mother and each one who met with a different sad end.
Because each of Ben’s sons had a different mother, it makes sense that the Cartwright brothers all looked so different from each other.
The Cartwright Curse
Women on the show tended to have an untimely demise, leading fans of the show to dub it “the Cartwright Curse.” The boys of the family also had bad luck with women; their love interests tended to die of disease, be killed, or run off with another man.
The show remained focused on the ranch and the relationships between the brothers.It was considered an atypical western TV show for its time.
King Arthur in the Wild West
Something that you may not have noticed if you watched Bonanza as a kid is how closely the television series parallels the legendary stories about King Arthur and his knights of the round table. The father of the family, Ben Cartwright, is based off of King Arthur himself, while his sons Adam, Hoss, and Little John are meant to portray his knights.
The Cartwright family also had their own version of Camelot in the form of the Ponderosa Ranch. The show was known for presenting moral dilemmas, with the Cartwright clan always seeking justice—much like King Arthur and his knights.
The Ponderosa Ranch
The show became so popular that it was turned into a short-lived theme park. A couple called Bill and Joyce Anderson owned a ranch which kept receiving visitors asking for directions to the Ponderosa Ranch. in 1965, they formed a plan with NBC executives to build a replica of the Bonanza set on the ranch.
The theme part was open to the public a couple of years later. The show was even filmed there for a while, but the cost of transportation became too high so after fifteen episodes were filmed they went back to filming on the original set.
Wild Wild West
What many people do not realize about Bonanza is that it really was filmed in the actual wild west, at least in the beginning. The show was originally shot at Lake Hemet, and after moved to Lake Tahoe. While the sets certainly gave some authenticity to the show, filming in the middle of nowhere for extended periods has many challenges.
As the show gained popularity and its budget increased, the set was eventually moved to the back lot of Paramount Studios, and later Warner Studios. With the brief exception of the episodes shot at the Ponderosa Ranch theme park, the remainder of the series was shot on a studio lot.
The First of Its Kind
Another notable aspect of the show is that it was the first to be filmed in color. Bonanza aired on NBC, a company owned by the Radio Corporation of American, a leading electronics company from 1919 to 1986.
When Bonanza aired, black and white television sets were in most households. Bonanza was filmed in color in order to boost the sales of color television sets. The show tanked in its original time slot, but the network decided to air it in a different slot rather than cancel the series. The show ended up becoming a hit, and the sale of color television sets went up.
Victor Sen Yung
Bonanza was truly a groundbreaking show for its time. It touched on themes such as domestic violence that were not often discussed on family shows. Also notable was the fact that it featured a Chinese-American actor. Victor Sen Yung portrayed the Cartwright family’s cook, Hop Sing.
In a time when many Asian characters and other minority characters were portrayed by white actors in bad makeup (such as Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Bonanza chose to give the role to Sen Yung. There were, in fact, many Chinese people in the west during the 1860s, giving the show more historical authenticity.
Pernell Elven Roberts portrayed the eldest Cartwright son, Adam Cartwright, from 1959-1965. He was a lifelong activist and pressured NBC not to hire white actors to portray minority characters. When Victor Sen Yung, the Chinese-American man who portrayed the cook Hop Sing on Bonanza, passed away, Roberts delivered the eulogy and covered the funeral costs.
Pernell Roberts’ activism doesn’t end there, though. He also participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 in support of the Civil Rights Movement. When he passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2010, actor Gregory Harrison said “Pernell was a wonderful man…Fortunately, he lives on in the memories of his fans, and in the hearts of the lucky people, like you and me, that he touched personally. I’ll be forever grateful to him.”
Dan Blocker Was Turned Down For M*A*S*H*
Originally, actor Dan Blocker was one of Robert Altman’s top picks for the lead role in the movie M*A*S*H*. Unfortunately for both Blocker and Altman, this suggestion was shot down by the producers.
While the film went on to still be a success, many still wonder how it would have played out with Blocker on the screen. Many still feel that the film would have done equally as well if not better considering the popularity he had gained from his work on Bonanza.
Pernell Roberts portrayed the most educated brother on the show. Adam Cartwright had a degree in architectural engineering. Pernell, who had a theatrical background, recorded a folk album before starring in Bonanza, and many of his songs were featured on the show.
He was highly critical of the show, disapproving of its lack of minority characters. He also did not feel that his character gave him enough room to grow as an actor, saying, “I haven’t grown at all since the series began…I have an impotent role. Wherever I turn there’s the father image.” Roberts’ dissatisfaction with the show he called “junk television” led to his departure after six years.
Dan Blocker Broke His Collarbone While Filming
The character of Hoss was portrayed as being rather simple-minded and gullible. Born to a Swedish mother who died, the character’s real name was Eric, but was nicknamed Hoss. Both the character and actor who played him, Dan Blocker, were notable tough guys.
While filming an episode, Dan was thrown from his horse, breaking his collarbone. Rather than stopping filming and getting medical help, he popped the collarbone back in himself and continued filming. After the incident, he took a six-week break from the show. When he returned to the set, his horse was no longer accustomed to Dan’s hefty weight and collapsed on the ground. Fortunately, the horse was okay and the incident caused a lot of laughter on set.
While Hoss was not very bright and often served as comic relief on the show, the actor who played him was quite bright. He served in the Korean War and received the Purple Heart. He was also well-educated, earning a Master’s Degree before becoming a famous actor.
He was a star football player in college and went to graduate school studying dramatic arts, appearing in a Broadway show before being drafted into the military. After he returned from Korea, Dan Blocker became an English and drama teacher in New Mexico before moving to California to pursue a career in acting.
The Baby of the Family
Michael Landon was one of the most famous people to star on the show, and Bonanza made his career. His character, Little Joe, was the youngest of the Cartwright brothers, and was a 22-year-old troublemaker.
Michael Landon received the most fan mail out of all the cast members. It doesn’t hurt that Landon was quite good looking, and he became the hearthrob of the show. He later branched out into writing and directing, directing an episode of the series, Forever, which was named by TV Guide as one of the most memorable episodes in television history. Landon remained on the show for all fourteen seasons.
Michael Landon was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz. His mother was an Irish-Catholic comedian and dancer, and his father was a Jewish actor named Eli Maurice Orowitz. Possibly because he was nervous about potential anti-Semitism, the then-Eugene Orowitz decided to change his name. He originally intended to change his name to Michael Lane, but it was already taken, so he settled on Michael Landon.
Landon had a difficult childhood. His mother attempted suicide when Landon was a young boy. His traumatic childhood led Landon to write the script for the film The Lonliest Runner, based on his experiences.
Little House on the Prairie
After Bonanza went off the air, Michael Landon became involved with another famous hit show set in the 19th century. He played the starring role of Charles Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie and then realized he preferred running the show, which he did. He served as the writer, producer, and director, of the hit television series for nine years, while also playing the role of Charles Ingalls.
After Little House on the Prairie, Landon directed, produce, and wrote for the television series Highway to Heaven, and also starred in the show. TV Guide voted Landon one of the 50 Sexiest Stars of All Time.
The Bonanza Uniform
Because of the high production costs of the series, the producers often had to look for ways to cut corners. In order to save money, they used as much stock footage as possible, which saved the production team thousands of dollars per episode.
They also had everyone wear the same clothes after the fourth season! This helped save money on wardrobe and made it easier when they needed to bring in stunt doubles.
They Kept Costs Down With The Simple Wardrobe
Ben Cartwright always wore a sandy shirt, leather vest, grey pants, and a cream colored hat. Adam wore a black shirt, pants, hat, and a cream coat. Hoss appeared in a white shirt, brown vest and pants, and a ten-gallon hat.
Little Joe wore a beige shirt, green jacket, tan pants, and a beige hat. The show was one of the priciest of its time, and these changes helped to keep the cost down.
The show was so popular that Bonanza merchandise really took off. Season collections of the show can still be purchased on DVD, but that’s not all!
Model character sets, clothing, albums, and comic books were produced. There are also Bonanza themed dishes, featuring the characters on lunch boxes, plates, tin cups, thermoses, and decanters. There are even fourteen novels which are based off of the series, as well as a magazine that featured interviews with the cast and background information on the show.
Fake Hair, Don’t Care
One of the more amusing things about the series is the amount of fake hair that was used on the show. Lorne Green, who played father Ben Cartwright on the show, was middle-aged at the beginning of the series and used a toupee. Pernell Roberts also had a receding hairline and made use of a toupee.
Evan Blocker who was 40 at the start of the show and not much younger than his TV dad also used a toupee in order to appear younger and fit in with the rest of his cast. Michael Landon was the only main character who had enough hair that he didn’t have to resort to using a toupee.
A Timeless Hit
Despite getting off to a slow start, Bonanza ended up becoming one of the greatest breakout hits of the 1960s. By 1970, it was the first show to have ever appeared in the top five television shows for nine seasons straights. The show’s rankings fell a bit in 1971, when it fell from the top ten.
The show’s enduring popularity is a testament to the writers and producers, not to mention the actors of the show. Many people born well after the show went off the air are still able to hum the Bonanza theme song. The show earned the honor of being the “most consistent strong-performing hit television series of the 1960s.”
They Deviated From The “Idiot” Father Role
During the time of the show, it was typical in television for many of the father’s to be portrayed as rather dim-witted, overall useless, and usually controlled by their wives. When creating the show, producer David Dortort wanted to stray away from this trope.
He decided to portray Ben as a father that could be admired and looked up to by his family. This is one of the reasons the show changed from 30 minutes to an hour in order to better develop the character.
The Show Sparked A Restaurant Chain
The restaurant chain, Ponderosa/Bonanza was inspired by the television series and was even started by cast member Dan Blocker. He figured it would be a bright idea to attach Bonanza onto his upcoming restaurant business so people would be more likely to visit.
Blocker founded the first Bonanza Steakhouse in Kokomo, Indiana in 1965. Over time, the chain grew ad even started popping up in parts of Alaska. Today, the steakhouses are owned by Metromedia Restaurant Group.
Equal Screen Time
To be fair and to keep all of the actors happy, the four boys in the Bonanza household all hard around the same screen time. It was important to production that no one of the boys would be considered as the “main” guy.
Each episode was carefully written and mapped out to make sure that each of the boys were a star in their own right during each show. It all worked out in the end because there was no drama about the issue offset and each character received the attention that they deserved.
Guest Appearances Were Paid Extra In The First Season
In the first season of the show, production was still hesitant that the show would take off because the main actors weren’t as well known as some others in the industry. O, to try and up viewership and give the show some notoriety, they hired numerous A-list actors to come on the show for guest appearances.
Funny enough, these famous actors were actually paid more than the actual actors in the show. Yet, by season two, the series had been proven to be a success, and the key actors had become famous themselves.
They Wrote Dan Blocker’s Death Into The Show
Unfortunately, Dan Blocker passed away while filming for the show was underway. He passed away at the age of 43 from a pulmonary embolism after gallbladder surgery. His death was unexpected so the writers on Bonanza had to think fast.
To solve the problem, they decided that they would write in that his character, Hoss Cartwright, had died in an accident. This was the first time in television history that a show had to deal with and even mention the death of one of its characters in the show’s universe.
There Are Lyrics To The Renowned Theme Song
While the theme song grew to become a massive hit, most people only know the tune by its instrumental version. Unknown to most, the theme song actually had lyrics to it. Created by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, there is old footage of the two actually singing the lyrics that they intended to be part of the song.
While Lorne Green, Michael Landon, and Dan Blocker initially sang the lyrics for the pilot episode, it never actually aired. In later years, Johnny Cash would create his own lyrics for the song.
It Was Almost Canceled
Bonanza did not have an easy time finding an audience when it originally aired. The network put it on Saturday nights, and ratings were miserable. The outlook was so bad that NBC reportedly had it schedule to be canceled when it was given one last chance.
The network moved the show to Sunday nights, where it started to thrive. By the middle of the 1960s, it was the highest rated show on television! Thanks to its second chance at life, Bonzanza ended up running for 14 seasons instead of one.
It Was Released In Theatrically In Mexico
While Bonanza was only ever seen on televisions in the United States, a few episodes were shown theatrically in another country; Mexico. The two parter Ride the Wind was combined into one and shown on the big screen.
The title of the episodes were changed for their theatrical release to Jinetes del Viento. Despite the success of the Mexican theatrical showing, no other episodes of Bonanza were given the same treatment. Not in Mexico or any other country.
Michael Landon Became A Huge Star
As you already know, after Bonanza ended, Michael Landon went on to star in Little House on the Praire. Amazingly, when that show finished its own iconic run, Landon moved onto another smash hit series; Highway to Heaven.
Highway to Heaven ran for five seasons and cemented Landon’s status as one the biggest stars to ever be on the small screen. Because of the longevity of all three shows, he is also the only actor to star in three consecutive five season series!
A-List Actors Were Avoided
When Bonanza was being developed, the producers didn’t believe that television shows could land big stars or launch careers. Because of this, they refused to hire any big name actors for roles in the series.
For the actors who were cast, this ended up being great news. Michael Landon benefitted the most, but other stars went onto to have just as long careers. And after the show turned its actors into stars, the producers never had to worry about who could work in television again.
Chevrolet Kept The Show Rolling
Bonanza was a huge hit, but it’s unlikely the show would have lasted for 14 seasons if it wasn’t sponsored by Chevrolet. The car company had a long standing partnership with the show, and sponsored a majority of its 431 episodes.
During the run of the series, that meant the stars were obligated to appear in Chevrolet commercials and appear at events. Considering all the money the show pulled in, we’re sure no one minded putting in a little overtime to keep the wagon moving.
The Star Trek Connection
Star Trek only ran for three seasons on NBC when it initially aired. Oddly enough, all the actors from the futuristic show found their way into the past on Bonanza. Most notably, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and George Takei all appeared on the western.
By the 1980s, Star Trek moved into theaters, bringing the original cast back together for six movies. Today, Star Trek is just as relevant as ever, with movies being released, and multiple television shows being produced.
Landon Became A Writer On The Show
As Bonanza grew into the highest rated show on television, Michael Landon became interested in taking a bigger role in the production. Early in the series run, he tried to write scripts for new episodes. At the time, producer David Dotort rejected his ideas.
Landon refused to give up, and eventually wrote a script that Dotort was happy with. The episode was made, and was so good that Landon was given full time writing duties. When he moved onto Little House on the Prairie, he continued writing and acting duties, as well.
The Opening Credits Changed By The Week
If you’re a massive Bonanza fan, you might notice something odd about the opening sequence to the show each week that it was aired. For each different show, the actor’s named were rotated so that none of the actors ever had the top billing of the show consistently.
This was once again a way of the producers trying to emphasize that all four characters were totally equal and that no one actor outshone any of the others.
It Handled Real Issues
Bonanza wasn’t typical western interested in killing bad guys and starting bar fights. Instead, writers wanted to make a show that tackled real issues, both in the present and in the past. Because of this, it is considered the first “dramatic” TV western.
As controversial as it seemed, audiences showed that talking about social justice, prejudice, and racism was must-see television. Another notable television hit to parallel stories with modern issues was The Twilight Zone.