Today, you’re not likely to see many Westerns on television. But from the 1940s through the early ’70s, the Stetson-sportin’, gun-slingin’, drawl-talkin’ gentlemen of old is exactly what audiences wanted to see.
When “The Lone Ranger” premiered in 1949, starring Clayton Moore (Lone Ranger) and Jay Silverheels (Tonto), it helped to kick off a small-screen wild west revolution. It paved the way for many long-running western series like “Gunsmoke” (1955-1975), “Wagon Train” (1957-1965), “The Rifleman” (1958-1963), “Rawhide” (1959-1966) and “The Virginian” (1962-1971). But for me, the best thing to come out of this western revolution was a little classic called “Bonanza”.
Bonanza premiered on September 12, 1959, a full decade after the Masked Man and his Native American sidekick began dishing out their refreshing vigilante justice in the Wild West.
Remember, this is a time when people wanted family-friendly programming. Not something that was dumbed down, but something that was enjoyable and entertaining for adults and children alike; something that adhered to the then-upheld moral values that were recognized as necessary and beneficial. And shows like Leave it to Beaver, Daniel Boone, and yes, Bonanza, fit that bill to a tee.
Bonanza was set in Nevada, circa 1860. The show followed the adventures of the Cartwright family: Wealthy widower Ben (Lorne Greene) and his three adult sons — Adam (Pernell Roberts, Trapper John: MD), Eric, more affectionately known as “Hoss” (Dan Blocker), and Little Joe (Michael Landon, Little House on the Prairie). Along with their live-in chef, Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yung), the Cartwrights’ life on the range was as you might expect it. Wilderness, trees, plenty of horses, and a lot of bad guys running around bound and determined to make trouble for their fellow countryfolk.
Ben Cartwright’s 600,000+ acre Ponderosa Ranch was located on the eastern bank of Lake Tahoe, within riding distance from both Carson and Virginia City, Nevada.
A frontier-styled western setting was the perfect backdrop for adventures that were both interesting and engaging, with simple stories that even younger children could understand. In a time where you could count on Good always triumphing over Evil, Ben and his sons made excellent role models.
Like a number of series from this time period, social and moral issues were highlighted and dealt with; they were addressed on-screen with the emphasis always on The Golden Rule: Treating your neighbour the way you would want to be treated — no matter the colour of his skin, his social standing, or his religion.
Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi classic “Star Trek” is often credited as the show that pioneered public cultural/social commentary, but that’s simply untrue. While Star Trek deserves credit for pushing boundaries, shows like Bonanza, Daniel Boone (which often dealt with the sensitive issue of slavery as well as addressing the rights and freedoms of African Americans) and Rod Serling’s morality masterpiece The Twilight Zone were taking a strong stand on important issues nearly a decade before the Enterprise embarked on its 5-year mission into outer space.
I think that’s one of the reasons that the show was such a success, and stayed on the air so much longer than anything you’d find on TV today. (In a day and age where a single season of 10 episodes is considered acceptable, Bonanza’s 14 season, 431 episode run sounds absolutely impossible.) I recently heard it said that values are changing and so we need to adapt and change with them. But I say that’s pure and utter hogwash and I’ll have none of it. Core morals and values never change. All that ever changes is people’s willingness to uphold and abide by them. Just because a particular group of people decide that a moral is no longer relevant to them, doesn’t mean it suddenly ceases to have value and can be cast aside. This is why I make a point to include shows like Bonanza and Daniel Boone in my regular TV-watching schedule. Because with the ever-increasing sex, violence and anarchy that viewers are constantly deluged with, I always want to be reminded that no matter what anyone says, truth and justice are still worth fighting for.
Of those 431 episodes, Pernell Roberts (Adam) appeared in only 200 of them. Dissatisfied with the lack of diversity his role as Ben’s oldest son allowed, Roberts left the show in 1965 after its sixth season. Bonanza continued as a three-main-man production for two more seasons until 1967 when David Canary was hired to play new ranch foreman, Candy Canaday, becoming the new series regular and as far as I’m concerned, an acceptable replacement for my favourite character, Adam.
Candy brought a new dynamic to the cast, but at its core, Bonanza always had the same heart. I never got tired of watching the boys riding around, ranching, building, and saving the day. I loved the sets that were laden with pine trees, and the log cabins that reminded me so much of the Lincoln Logs I played with constantly. Bonanza was such a warm and homey show, kept fresh and relevant by the incredible talents of Lorne, Dan and Michael.
I can’t imagine how devastating it must have been for the cast, crew and fans at home when Dan Blocker passed away in May 1972 at the young age of 43. His final episode was “One Ace Too Many” (S13E26). I’m so glad the producers didn’t just recast Hoss. That wouldn’t have been fair to Blocker or the many fans of Hoss Cartwright. While the series never explained how Hoss died, there are mentions of the character’s passing peppered throughout the final season. And the season 14 episode “Forever” was clearly meant to be a subtle send off for Blocker. The episode deals with the loss of Little Joe’s wife and unborn child. While the death of Hoss isn’t specifically mentioned, the story is very much meant to represent the real-life tragedy, and it’s painfully obvious that the cast’s emotions and tears are very real.
Unfortunately, the show just couldn’t survive without the gentleness and contagious compassion that Blocker had contributed as big, lovable Hoss. The series was abruptly cancelled in November 1972, leaving Bonanza’s final season with an episode count of only 16 instead of the customary 26-34.
Greene, Roberts, Landon, Blocker and even Canaday are all dead now, but Bonanza retains its lasting appeal. A show for all ages, the triumph of Good over Evil never gets stale. Lorne Greene said of Bonanza’s success: “[It’s] Basically five things. First, the show has good writing. Second, it has good characters, the kind with whom viewers readily identify. Third, it offers the big outdoors, good for colour. Fourth, it is set in America’s most romantic period; Western expansion is close to the hearts of people. And, finally, the history of dramaturgy shows strong appeal of father-son relationships. This angle probably [also] made ‘Hamlet’ a success.”
There’s no question, good characters are so important when it comes to creating a show that will withstand the test of time. And there’s no denying the chemistry among the cast, especially (but sadly) after Roberts left. There was never any question that Little Joe and Hoss loved Ben, and I think this quote from Michael Landon shows why the actors’ chemistry on Bonanza was so believable. “I never stopped seeing Lorne as my dad. Lorne was a solid pillar for both me and Dan Blocker. I’d known him for more than half my life, and he’d been my father for fourteen years on Bonanza. You just don’t quit being a son or a father. I’ll always consider him my Pa.”
Their love and admiration for each other was so believable because it was real. And if that isn’t the basis of every good story, regardless of genre, then I don’t know what is. See you back at the Ponderosa, boys.
Dan Blocker (1928-1972)
Lorne Greene (1915-1987)
Michael Landon (1936-1991)
Bonanza ~ 1959-1973