In 431 episodes spanning from 1959 to 1973, the Cartwrights of the Nevada Territory's Ponderosa became a fixture of American life. Let's take a look at some facts that you might not know about Bonanza.
1. The historic Virginia City was the center of the famed 1859 silver strike known as the Comstock Lode. It promptly became the very image of the Old West boom town, with fortunes won and lost, exploited Chinese laborers, glamorous and impoverished prostitutes, and violent struggles with Native Americans.
Samuel Clemens worked as a reporter in Virginia City for two years and there selected his pen name of Mark Twain. In was this varied, colorful era and place that producer David Dortort decided would be ideal for the show.
2. When Bonanza premiered in 1959, the airwaves were saturated with sitcoms that depicted fathers as idiots managed by their wives. Dortort insisted that the show be an hour long instead of a half hour in order to ensure that he had time to depict Ben Cartwright as a father figure worthy of respect. It worked, and Lorne Greene received thousands of fan letters from teenage boys who wished that he was their father.
3. Dortort envisioned Bonanza as an Old West presentation of the legend of King Arthur. Ben Cartwright was King Arthur and his sons were his knights.
4.Did you notice that the characters wear the same outfits almost every episode? This was done to make it easier to work in stock footage when necessary -- not that the show was cheap. At $100,000-150,000 per episode, it was among the most expensive shows on TV during its run.
5. Lorne Greene’s father, Daniel Greene, made orthopedic shoes and boots for a living. He named his son after his first customer, a man named Lorne MacKenzie. When Lorne Greene delivered the 1971 commencement address at his alma mater, Queen’s University in Ontario, he gave the graduates advice appropriate for his heritage. Greene said “get yourself a really comfortable bed or a really good pair of shoes, because you’re going to be in one or the other for the rest of your life.”
6. Greene started out as a radio announcer. He was the chief broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and during the Battle of Britain, he was known as "the voice of doom." To time his speaking better, Greene invented a stopwatch that ran backwards.
7. Most of the show's actors created musical albums, and all four Cartwrights sang in a 1964 album called "Christmas at the Ponderosa." Greene was especially successful in this field, and his single "Ringo" was a huge hit in the US and Canada. But I suspect that you'd prefer to hear Greene sing the theme song to Bonanza, which is embedded above.
8. Pernell Roberts absolutely despised the show and tried to get out of his contract at the outset. It took him six years of steady resistance before NBC gave in. Roberts considered the scripts too low brow, demeaning to women, and indecently glorifying wealth in age of poverty. Roberts’ politics were strongly progressive by the standards of the time, and he pushed producers to have Adam Cartwright marry a Native American woman played by a black actress.
9. Guy Williams, who played John Robinson on Lost in Space, was the first choice to play Adam Cartwright. But Williams took up Zorro instead. Williams was, however, brought on for five episodes as cousin Will Cartwright. The producers invented this character to be a ready replacement for Pernell Roberts if he ever walked off the show.
10. Dan Blocker (Hoss Cartwright) weighed 14 pounds at birth, then the largest baby ever born in Bowie County, Texas. By the time that he was in the first grade, Blocker weighed 105 pounds. While in college, he was recruited to play a role in a production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” that required tremendous physical strength. Blocker agreed in order to impress a girl who was in the drama department. He fell in love with the theater and eventually earned a master’s degree in drama.
11. There’s a museum devoted to Dan Blocker in his tiny hometown of O’Donnell, Texas. I visited it about a decade ago. Note: “O’Donnell” is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable; residents will point this out if you get it wrong. The dusty old museum is filled with memorabilia of O’Donnell’s favorite son, including the adult-sized clothes that Blocker wore at the age of eleven.
12. The character Hoss Cartwright was actually named Eric Haas Cartwright. The nickname “Hoss” comes from his middle name.
13. Robert Altman wanted to give Dan Blocker a lead role in the 1970 movie MASH, but the movie's producers denied their permission.
14. Michael Landon (Joe Cartwright) was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz. He picked his stage name out of a phone book. Early in his career, Landon’s protruding ears were a problem and he taped them back. Later, he had cosmetic surgery to fix the problem.
15. Victor Sen Yung, who played the Cartwrights' cook Hop Sing, was actually an accomplished Cantonese-style chef, although he never cooked for the set. He didn't earn much money from the series, so Yung sold cookbooks and appeared on cooking shows to earn money after the series ended.
16. Land developers Bill and Joyce Anderson discovered that tourists visited the eastern side of Lake Tahoe in search of the Ponderosa, only to be disappointed. They saw a chance to make money, and so developed a large theme park at Incline Village, Nevada. It opened in 1967 and included a complete recreation of the ranch house. Portions of the show were filmed there, and it continued to attract fans until its closure in 2004. Visitors could even get a full service Bonanza-themed wedding at the Ponderosa!
17. The Ponderosa/Bonanza Steakhouses are, as you can suspect, inspired by the television show. The Bonanza Steakhouses were started by Dan Blocker and the Ponderosa Steakhouses were started by businessmen in Canada. Both are now owned by the same company.
Leiby, Bruce R. and Linda F. A Reference Guide to Television's Bonanza: Episodes, Personal and Broadcast History. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001. Print.
Shapiro, Melany. Bonanza: The Unofficial Story of the Ponderosa. Las Vegas: Pioneer Books, 1993. Print.
Images: NBC, Byron Browne, The Traveling Wheelchair