In my home in the late 1950s, when I was a kid, Saturday night was the family tv night. Yes, we all gathered around the television and watched the square box. My expectation, though, was to watch MY favorite show; Bonanza.
That show aired from 1959 to 1973, for 14 seasons and 431 episodes. But Saturday was problematic for me. Here’s why!!
In 1959, I was nine years old and pretty much considered myself a cowboy. I was one of five children. We had one TV with three channels on it. Mom & Dad pretty much controlled them. Mom’s favorite TV show was Perry Mason and it was on at the same time as Bonanza. I think Mason won out most of the time, at least until NBC switched Bonanza to Sunday nights.
Bonanza was a western, set during and after the Civil War. It began on Saturday 12 September 1959. At the start of its third season, fortunately for me, NBC switched it to Sundays. And It became the family’s favorite Sunday night show.
In 1959, the top four most popular television shows in the United States were Westerns. They became a TV staple and cultural phenomenon in the 1950s and 60s. Many are still rebroadcast today.
Those of you who watched Bonanza know that it was a show about four men defending their 600,000-acre ranch near Virginia City, NV.
The patriarch of the close-knit family was Ben Cartwright. He had three sons by three different wives all deceased before the first episode was aired. Each son had distinct physical and personality differences.
Adam Cartwright. He was played by Pernell Roberts. Adam was the first born, educated, serious, and considered the most responsible.
Eric Haas “Hoss” Cartwright. He was played by Dan Blocker. Hoss was the second born, a warm-hearted loveable giant, gregarious and oafish.
Joseph, “Little Joe” Cartwright. Little Joe was played by Michael Landon. He was the last born, was boldly romantic and impulsive.
Their cook, Hop Sing, played by Victor Sen Yung appeared in 102 episodes. Some may remember him as Charlie Chan’s #2 son, Jimmie.
Family history was important to the Cartwright clan. Ben Cartwright was a widower and father of three adult sons when the show began. The writers did create history explaining the sons’ mothers and revealed it to the viewers during various episodes.
His first wife, Elizabeth Stoddard played by Geraldine Brooks, was a New Englander and the mother of Adam. Ben Cartwright, at the time, was a sailor from New England going into partnership with Elizabeth’s father, a former sea captain. Elizabeth died hours after giving birth to Adam in 1830. For Ben it was the reason to leave New England and search for a new home.
Ben’s second wife was Inger Borgstrom, a Swedish immigrant, played by Inga Swenson. They gave birth to Ben’s 2nd son, Eric Haus. Eric Haus Cartwright was called Hoss because it meant 'big friendly man' and because it was her brother’s wish that they would call their first son 'Hoss.' Inger died in an Indian attack of the wagon train the family was taking westward.
Ben and his two sons continued travelling toward their Ponderosa. Along the way he met his third and final wife, Marie DeMarigny, in New Orleans. Adam and Hoss were about 12 and 6. She had Joseph Francis Cartwright, whom they called Little Joe, or Joe and was the only wife of Ben Cartwright to live on the Ponderosa. When Little Joe was 6, Marie died from an accident when she fell off a horse. She is buried on the ranch.
There is a 4th brother only seen in one episode. His name was Clay Stafford (played by Barry Coe). He was introduced in the 4th season. After killing a man in self-defense, local miners want to run Clay Stafford out of town. Little Jo sticks up for him. That when Clay reveals to Little Joe that they have the same mother, Marie making them half-brothers.
When Barry Coe was introduced, Pernell Roberts was making plans to leave Bonanza. Coe’s character was to take the place of the exiting Roberts. But apparently, some of the lead stars felt Coe’s good looks would detract from their own stardom. So, after only one-episode Clay Stafford would never return.
Toward the end of the Bonanza show Ben adopted Jamie Hunter (played by Mitch Vogel). Jamie Hunter was the son of a rainmaker who died due to health problems. In a 1971-episode Jamie officially takes on the surname, Cartwright. He became the fourth son.
Bonanza (1959-73). Only Gunsmoke ran longer as a Western series. Bonanza was the first western broadcast in color and was different than most Westerns of that time. Instead of featuring gunslingers roaming the prairie, the main characters were landowners bound to a ranch. They mostly settled disputes, not through shoot-outs, but by employing diplomacy and dialogue.
Bonanza was the first series that was week-to-week about a family and its troubles. The Cartwright family, with Ben Cartwright as the family patriarch, his three adult children, and no women, owned and operated a Lake Tahoe ranch. There they discussed issues like gun violence and bigotry. Someone said, “There was never an issue that the Cartwrights couldn’t talk to death”.
It was considered a period drama that attempted to confront contemporary social issues. Many shows tried, but failed because the sponsors didn't like it, and the networks were apprehensive about getting letters from viewers. In that era of television, it was a difficult feat to accomplish.
Some Bonanza Trivia:
Lorne Greene was only 13 years older than his on-screen sons, Pernell Roberts and Dan Blocker
In the show's early episodes, the Cartwrights were hostile to visitors. Lorne Greene pointed out that since Ponderosa was so large, the Cartwrights would be an important business interest in the community. People would visit for economic, political, and social reasons, and the Cartwrights would logically welcome them. The producers agreed and altered the characters accordingly.
Adam, the eldest son, became an architectural engineer after studying in Boston. The writers said that Adam Cartwright went off to sea in a ship to explore. Australia was mentioned a couple times.
There is a site that says the episode “Forever”, was originally supposed to have Hoss marry. Instead it was Little Joe, because Dan Blocker had died before that next season started.
The majority of male characters were clean shaven. Not only was this unlikely due to a lack of running water, it was also not the style for that era.
Yvonne DeCarlo appeared in the very first episode (September 12, 1959) as singer-actress Lotta Crabtree. You may remember her as Lily Munster.
During the first season opening credits, the Cartwrights can be seen galloping on horses on a dirt road that contains an unmistakable set of tire tracks from the truck carrying the camera in front of them.
Bonanza succeeded for 14 years and entertained us as well.