Opening with a theme song reminiscent of a galloping horse, Bonanza thundered into homes in 1959 and went where no other TV show had gone before.
“You always saw stories about families on comedies, or on an anthology, but Bonanza was the first series that was week-to-week about a family and the troubles that it went through,” explains Stephen Battaglio, a senior editor for TV Guide magazine.
And while Bonanza went on to become the second-longest running Western in TV history after Gunsmoke, it came close to being canceled by NBC after its first year, saved only by the “novelty” that it was filmed in color. At that time, NBC’s parent company, RCA, was trying to increase consumer demand for color television sets. Bonanza became a pawn in a marketing ploy and moved to a plum Sunday-night time slot, where it eventually finished among the Top 5 shows for nine of its 14 years.
Bonanza was the story of the Cartwright family, headed by thrice-widowed Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene). The oldest of his three sons was Adam (Pernell Roberts), an architect who built the house they lived in on their ranch, the Ponderosa, near Virginia City, Nev. Next was the gentle giant Eric, better known as “Hoss” (Dan Blocker). Youngest was hotheaded “Little Joe” (Michael Landon).
“Another thing about Bonanza that is interesting is that it was a period drama, but it attempted to confront contemporary social issues. That was very difficult to do on television,” Battaglio says. “Most shows that tried to do it failed because the sponsors didn’t like it and the networks were nervous about getting letters. Bonanza, because it was set in the West at a different time, was able to do issue-oriented stories.” The show often featured episodes built around hot-button themes of the era, such as racism, prejudice and social injustice.
Pernell Roberts, now 81 and retired, is the lone surviving original cast member. He followed Bonanza with Trapper John, M.D., and last appeared on television in a 2001 episode of Diagnosis Murder. He lives in Southern California.
David Canary came aboard in 1967 as “Candy” Canaday, who became the Ponderosa’s ranch foreman. Canary went on to win five Emmy Awards for playing the dual roles of Adam and Stuart Chandler on All My Children, on which he has starred since 1984.
Greene, whose numerous acting credits following Bonanza included the series Griff, Battlestar Galactica and Code Red, died in 1987 at age 72 of complications from prostate cancer in Santa Monica, Calif. Blocker passed away suddenly of a pulmonary embolism at age 43, following gall bladder surgery in Los Angeles. His death was written into Bonanza‘s storyline, but ultimately resulted in the cancelation of the series when viewers tuned out in Hoss’ absence. Landon followed Bonanza with two other successful series, Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven. He had filmed a pilot for another TV series when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died in 1991 at the age of 54.
“I think what made Bonanza such a successful show was it was a family show, it was well done, and it had a sense of drama to it,” Canary says. “The characters were real.
“You had each of the family members fighting for the good of their family and the community. Michael, Dan, Pernell and Lorne were very fine actors, and you always knew who to root for-the Cartwrights.”