BONANZA

U.S. Western

Bonanza, the first Western televised in color, premiered on a Saturday night in the fall of 1959. After Gunsmoke, Bonanza was the longest-running and most successful Western in U.S. television, airing for fourteen seasons. The series related the story of Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) and his three sons, Adam (Pernell Roberts), Hoss (Dan Blocker) and Little Joe (Michael Landon), prosperous ranchers in the vicinity of Virginia City, Nevada, in the mid 1800s, during the Civil War years and the discovery of the Comstock Silver Lode. The show was designed to appeal to a broad audience, crossing age and gender groups. The action characteristics catered to a more traditional audience for Westerns, while dramatic issues and family values expanded the show's popularity to a more general audience. The careful photography presented beautiful scenery and interiors resembled movies more than other contemporary television shows.

The Cartwrights were not a traditional nuclear family. The patriarch was a three-time widower, with a son from each wife. In the first few seasons, personality differences between the sons motivated most of the plot conflicts. Two years after its debut, Bonanza moved to Sunday night and its popularity soared. By this time, the three sons had worked out most of their differences and the show was about the dealings of a well-integrated all male family as well as their problems with mining and ranch interests. Other characters would wander into the community causing conflict, leading the members of the family individually or communally as a group to restore the order. The oldest son, Adam, was the most serious of the three brothers, the potential patriarch. Middle son, Hoss was the Buffoon type, big and friendly, naive yet explosive. Little Joe was the impulsive and romantic type in the family.

Bonanza differs from other Westerns in its relative use violence and "shoot-outs". Conflicts were resolved through dialogue between the main characters and guest stars. Generally, this one-hour show tackled topical issues (i.e.: racial discrimination, voting, religion). Famous guest stars such as Yvonne De Carlo, Ida Lupino, Barry Sullivan, Ricardo Cortez and Jack Carson added to the show's popularity. Bonanza was also the first show to introduce the ranch, in this case the thousand-acre Ponderosa, as an important element in the narrative, the fifth character, as producers referred to it. Brauer and Brauer (1975) argue that this emphasis on the "piece of land" was symbolic of a shift in emphasizing mobility, the lone wanderer, with his gun and horse to a focus on the settle landowner. These changes also led to a restructuring of the leading characters' role in the community.

The cook at Ponderosa was Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yung), a Chinese immigrant. He was presented in the traditional subservient role reserved for minorities in the period the show was produced. He spoke with a heavy accent, wore generic Asian clothes and long, braided hair, and he always delivered words of wisdom. In several episodes the family engaged in various conflicts with outsiders to protect Hop Sing against discrimination. In doing so, the show foregrounded the racial discrimination in the historical period as well as the ongoing racial conflicts in the 1960s.

Between 12 September 1959 and 16 January 1973 a total of 440 episodes were produced. Those years witnessed several cast changes. Pernell Roberts left the series at the end of 1964-65 season calling it "Junk TV" and complaining about the glorified portrayal or wealthy ranchers. His character was eliminated from the series. Dan Blocker died before the beginning of the 1972-73 season. After his death the show's ratings started to fall, and it was canceled in 1973. A change from the traditional slot on Sunday to Tuesday evening, after 11 years in the air might also have caused the demise of the show. Even before the show was canceled it was already being rerun under the name Ponderosa by NBC on Tuesday evenings. Bonanza was exported throughout out the world, and it has been in syndication for several years in the United States.

 



Bonanza

In the mid 1980s there was an attempt to revive the series with a made-for-television Movie entitled Bonanza: The Next Generation. None of the original cast of the series appeared in the show. Greene's death forced the producer to cast another actor. John Ireland, playing Ben Cartwright's brother, became the patriarch of Ponderosa. He could not control the ranch and it was almost taken over by miners and oil speculators. It is only when the sons of Little Joe and Hoss returned that the ranch experienced a new Bonanza.

-Antonio LaPastina

CAST

Ben Cartwright........................................ Lorne Greene Little Joe Cartwright.............................. Michael Landon Eric "Hoss" Cartwright (l959-l972)............... Dan Blocker Adam Cartwright (1959-l965).................. Pernell Roberts Hop Sing ............................................Victor Sen Yung Sheriff Roy Caffee (1960-1972)........................ Ray Teal Candy (l967-1970, l972-l973)..................... David Canary Dusty Rhoades (1970-1972)......................... Lou Frizzel Jamie Hunter (1970-1973).......................... Mitch Vogel Griff King (l972-l973).............................. Tim Matheson Deputy Clem (l961-l973)............................ Bing Russell

PRODUCERS

Richard Collins, David Dortort, Robert Blees

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 440 Episodes

NBC
September 1959-September l961.......Saturday 7:30-8:30
September l961-September 1972...... Sunday 9:00-10:00 May 1972-August l972.......................Tuesday 7:30-8:30 September 1972-January 1973...........Tuesday 8:00-9:00

FURTHER READING

Brauer, R. and Brauer, D. The Horse, the Gun and the Piece Of Property: Changing Images of the TV Western. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1975.

Jackson, R. Classic TV Westerns. New York: Citadel, 1994.

Kirkley, D. A Descriptive Study of the Network Television Western During The Seasons 1955-56--1962-63. New York: Arno, 1979.

MacDonald, J. Fred. Who Shot the Sheriff: The Rise and Fall of the TV Western. New York: Praeger, 1987.

 

See also Greene, Lorne; Westerns