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Bonanza still strikes gold 50 years later

Bonanza was television's longest-running western after Gunsmoke. It was not an immediate hit, but when NBC moved the show from Saturdays to Sundays to avoid competition with Perry Mason, the ratings soared.

NBC-TV/The Kobal Collection
The map of the Ponderosa became almost as familiar as the faces of the Cartwrights.

NBC-TV/The Kobal Collection The map of the Ponderosa became almost as familiar as the faces of the Cartwrights.

On September 12, 1959, at 7:30 p.m., television viewers tuned in to NBC to watch another new western series, and even the most devoted connoisseur of cowboy stories had to wonder how this show would differ from the 27 other westerns then airing on the three major networks.

The first distinction was obvious: Bonanza burst onto the airwaves in color, the first western to be broadcast that way in what was still a predominantly black-and-white medium. As a map of Virginia City burned on-screen to the now-iconic "bum-badda-bum-bum-budda-budda-bum" theme song, America was introduced to the Cartwrights of the Ponderosa.

Fifty years and 430 episodes later, the exploits of Ben, Hoss, Adam, and Little Joe (and Hop Sing!) remain a television staple, with twice-daily viewings on TV Land enjoyed by the great-grandchildren of those original viewers.

The word bonanza can be defined as a spectacular windfall, and that's exactly what Bonanza fans can expect to celebrate the series' golden anniversary. First, after several haphazard public domain DVD releases, CBS/Paramount has finally stepped up with an official Season 1 set, divided into two volumes. Breyer Animal Creations and Bonanza Ventures have released a model of Little Joe's horse, Cochise, the first in a proposed series of Cartwright horses. And from September 10–14, more than 200 fans will gather with Bonanza cast and crew members at the Ponderosa Ranch House in Incline Village, Nevada, for the Bonanza 50th Anniversary Friendship Convention.

The Bonanza set in action, circa 1960

"Meeting many old friends and making new ones amongst the fans is the best part of any gathering," says Vicki Christian, one of the convention organizers. "Bonanza holds its fans and makes new ones because it is entertainment for and about a family. Bringing people together from all over the world in friendship should be something we all strive for."

Bonanza was television's longest-running western after Gunsmoke. It was not an immediate hit, but when NBC moved the show from Saturdays to Sundays to avoid competition with Perry Mason, the ratings soared. Bonanza became television's top-rated program in the 1964–1965 season, a title it would hold for the next three years.

The series was created by veteran television writer and producer David Dortort, who had several previous western credits to his name, including a stint on The Restless Gun (1957–1959), where he first hired an actor named Dan Blocker for a small role as a blacksmith.

"David remembered him and wrote Hoss with my dad in mind," says Dirk Blocker, Dan's son. While he will forever be associated with the simple character he played on Bonanza, Dan Blocker was a very smart man who left a career as a schoolteacher to pursue an acting career.

"An actor friend of his had already come to Hollywood and begged Dad to come with him, saying, 'They're hiring guys like you,' " Dirk recalls. "Whether it was Jim Arness or Clint Walker, all the western stars were big guys, and they needed big guys to beat up. You couldn't have them hitting a 5-foot-6-inch guy or they'd look like a bully. So, my dad would put on a mustache one week, a beard the next, say a couple of lines, and they'd knock him over a table or out a window, and he'd take the money and run."

Hoss, real name Eric Cartwright, was the heart and soul of Bonanza, and he was particularly beloved by the series' youngest viewers. But each of the stars had their own fan following. Ben (Lorne Greene) was a rock of stability, faith, and optimism, despite being three-times widowed; Adam (Pernell Roberts) was the dark, brooding man in black, Ben's oldest son. Handsome Joe (Michael Landon) was the youngest, the most hotheaded, and the Cartwright most often left heartbroken by a girlfriend's death or betrayal.

Michael Landon directing Dan Blocker and David Canary, 1972.

Indeed, the inability of a Cartwright to hold on to a girl for more than one episode was a running joke among fans. The series even had its own variation on the doomed red-shirted crewman scenario made famous by Star Trek; in several Bonanza episodes, a different female character will appear wearing the same blue dress, only to die or mysteriously disappear before the closing credits.

But it wasn't all love and loss on the Ponderosa. Viewers never knew what type of story they'd find from week to week, which helped the series avoid the formulaic stories of some TV westerns and certainly contributed to the series' remarkable longevity. There were stunt-filled action shows ("The Other Son"), comedy outings ("Hoss and the Leprechauns"), and stories that dealt with social change ("The Wish").

For all its versatility and popularity, however, Bonanza rarely earned any awards or industry acknowledgement. The show received just one Emmy nomination for Best Drama (in 1966, losing to The Fugitive) and one Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor (Lorne Greene in 1964, losing to Mickey Rooney) over the course of 14 seasons.

"It was frustrating to a certain degree," says Dirk Blocker on his father being typecast as Hoss and not earning the accolades that should come with playing such a beloved character. "But he was a realist. I heard him on many occasions talk about how he was grateful for the opportunities the show gave him. Other days, though, he'd say, 'Boy, I wish somebody could see me do Shakespeare,' 'cause he had more to offer."

If the industry didn't show Blocker enough love, the fans certainly did, to the point where Dirk recalls his father's reluctance to go out in public too often. "Michael Landon and Lorne Greene could put on a beard and sunglasses and go anywhere. But the minute Dad would walk in a room, at 6 foot 4 inches and 300 pounds, everybody knew who he was."

Little Joe and Hoss just horsin' around, circa 1967.

The acrimonious departure of Pernell Roberts during the series' sixth season was a setback, but Bonanza remained a top 20 hit and introduced new characters to fill the void, including David Canary as the ranch hand Candy and Mitch Vogel as orphaned teen Jamie Hunter.

But in 1972, when Dan Blocker died unexpectedly, it was a loss the series could not overcome. With ratings already declining and the golden age of the TV western long passed, Bonanza was canceled halfway through its final season. By then the show was already in syndication, and it has since rarely left the air in the proceeding four decades.

As with many classic TV shows there were reunions and revivals, but attempts to return to the Ponderosa were repeatedly snake-bitten. Lorne Greene died just before production began on Bonanza: The Next Generation (1988), which soured Michael Landon on reprising his role. However, Michael Landon Jr. was introduced as Joe's son, Benjamin, who also rode a pinto.

By 1993, when Bonanza: The Return was filmed, three of the four original series' stars had died and Pernell Roberts still wanted nothing to do with the show. Landon Jr. returned, this time joined by Dirk Blocker, who was cast as a reporter and not, as would have seemed obvious, the son of Hoss.

"I would say that's Hollywood; of course I'm not going to play my father's son," Dirk recalls. "[Producer] David Dortort said he wanted to go with youth, and I was too old. I was about 40 when the remakes started, and it was never seriously considered." One more TV movie, Bonanza: Under Attack, debuted in 1995. In 2001, the youth movement continued when the PAX Network debuted a prequel series, The Ponderosa. Daniel Hugh Kelly played Ben Cartwright, father to teenagers Adam, Hoss, and Joe.

In 1996, after a film adaptation of the western series Maverick became a box office hit, there was talk at Universal Studios of bringing Bonanza to the big screen as well. Though the project never materialized, the ongoing interest in adapting television shows into movies suggests that the next time you see the Cartwrights it will be at your neighborhood cinema.

"One of the people involved with the 1996 film called me and said, 'We know it will be a hit,'" Dirk Blocker remembers. "He said all they would have to do in the trailer is have the Virginia City map explode into flames on screen and play the theme song, and the fans would line up. I think he's right."

Bonanza: classic episodes, seasons 1–14

Throughout its long run, Bonanza attained a remarkably consistent level of quality. Here's just one classic episode to watch for from each of the series' 14 seasons.

Season 1: "The Henry Comstock Story"
(November 7, 1959)
Written by series creator David Dortort, this flashback episode features a memorable performance from Jack Carson as prospector Henry Comstock, one of the founders of Virginia City.

Season 2: "The Gift"
(April 1, 1961)
Martin Landau and Jim Davis guest star in this adventure in which Joe is attacked by Comancheros while returning from Arizona with a special birthday present for his father — a regal white stallion.

Season 3: "The Crucible"
(April 8, 1962)
Before he left, Pernell Roberts was featured in what is arguably the series' best episode. Robbed and left for dead in the desert, Adam is apparently rescued by prospector Peter Kane, played by Lee Marvin. Adam's relief turns to terror when Kane is revealed as a madman, who seeks to prove through torture that a morally upright man can be driven to murder. Their twisted battle of wills is riveting.

Season 4: "Any Friend of Walter's"
(March 24, 1963)
Hoss, en route to see his main squeeze Bessie Sue, is forced to take shelter in a rundown shack that is home to Obie, a mangy prospector (Arthur Hunnicutt), and his even mangier dog, Walter. Obie insists that his pooch is one of the smartest dogs in the West, but when three bandits attack, Walter proves he ain't no Lassie.

Season 5: "Calamity over the Comstock"
(November 3, 1963)
Bonanza's fifth season may be its best, with several strong outings to choose from, including the hilarious "Hoss and the Leprechauns" and "The Legacy," in which the Cartwright sons set out to avenge the supposed murder of their father. But I never get tired of "Calamity over the Comstock," in which the Cartwrights meet Western legends Doc Holliday and Calamity Jane, beguilingly played by Stefanie Powers.

Ossie Davis

Season 6: "Old Sheba"
(November 22, 1964)
There's an elephant on the Ponderosa, and no one is quite sure how to get rid of him. This is one of the better comic outings to feature Lorne Greene.

Season 7: "The Other Son"
(October 3, 1965)
Ben hires an explosives expert to help transport nitroglycerin across a mountain range to the site of a mine disaster. One of the series' most suspenseful episodes.

Season 8: "A Christmas Story"
(December 25, 1966)
Hoss plays Santa Claus and guest star Wayne Newton sings "Silent Night" in this holiday classic.

Season 9: "Showdown at Tahoe"
(November 19, 1967)
It's the "showdown" in the title that makes this episode special. Ben and Candy square off against an outlaw gang on a paddle-wheel steamboat.

Season 10: "The Wish"
(March 9, 1969)
Michael Landon wrote and directed this episode, in which Hoss helps an African-American family (headed by guest star Ossie Davis) fix their farm and deal with racist threats from a neighboring town.

Victor Sen Yung as Hop Sing

Season 11: "Caution: Easter Bunny Crossing"
(March 29, 1970)
It may be too silly for some, but the sight of Hoss dressed as a giant bunny — and throwing Easter eggs at a gang of stagecoach robbers — is tough to resist.

Season 12: "Kingdom of Fear"
(April 4, 1971)
The Cartwrights are abducted and forced to work on a chain gang by a sadistic judge. Shot in the week following Robert Kennedy's assassination, this Michael Landon-penned episode was deemed too brutal for broadcast and didn't air until three years later.

Season 13: "The Lonely Man"
(January 2, 1972)
The series' best Hop Sing episode finds the Cartwrights' loyal cook in love. Sadly, his romances don't fare better than those of his employers.

Season 14: "Forever"
(September 12, 1972)
A heartbreaking story written and directed by Michael Landon that serves as an unofficial tribute to Dan Blocker, who died prior to the season's start. When Ben and Joe grieve for the latest in a long line of Joe's ill-fated love interests, their tears were really in memory of their departed costar and friend.


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