Trail Dust - September 12
On this day in 1959 television’s western drama “Bonanza” premiered on NBC, lasting 14 seasons in spite of the death of one cast member and the defection of another.
Second only to CBS’s Gunsmoke in longevity with 430 episodes, the hour-long drama was set on the fictional 600,000-acre Ponderosa Ranch near Virginia City, Nevada owned by the Cartwright family. It differed from most westerns of the period, focusing on events in the main character’s lives instead of gunslinging action. In addition, many of the episodes were based on contemporary social issues including racism, anti-Semitism, substance abuse and domestic violence.
The five main characters, Lorne Greene as father Ben Cartwright, Parnell Roberts as the cerebral oldest son Adam, Dan Blocker as the middle son, Eric “Hoss” Cartwright, Michael Landon as the spitfire youngest son Little Joe and Ponderosa cook and major domo Hop Sing, Victor Sen Yung.
The back stories for the boys varied greatly. Adam was said to be a college-educated architect, hence the House Beautiful Ponderosa headquarters. Hoss, the son of the fictional Cartwright’s second wife, Inger, was given his nickname due partly to Blocker’s size and a childhood horse breaking mishap. Little Joe’s rather exotic dark looks and extravagant hair were attributed to a French Creole mother, Cartwright’s third wife, Rosa.
In real life, the actors were almost equally diverse. Lorne Greene, a Russian Jewish Canadian by birth, perfected the wiseman role as Ben Cartwright, later playing Commander Adama on Battleship Galactica. He polished his air of supreme credibility as a Canadian newscaster.
Georgia-born Roberts was a life-long civil rights activist, often hectoring the show’s writer’s over casting non ethnic actors in ethnic roles. He left the cast after the 1965 season to return to the stage, complaining the series lacked depth.
Blocker, a college football player born in Bowie, Texas, was by turns a Korean War veteran, high school teacher, rodeo performer and bouncer before turning to acting. As the lovable but rather slow witted son Hoss, Blacker was actually the only member of the cast with a graduate degree.
Landon, just 22 when he was cast in the Little Joe role, was born in Queens, New York to a Jewish mother and Irish father. Had things gone differently, Landon’s name may well have gone down in Olympic rather than television annals. He won a scholarship to the University of Southern California as a national high school javelin champion but his athletic career ended after a shoulder injury. Following Bonanza, he assumed Ben Cartwright’s father mantle as Papa Ingalls in the nine years of the Little House on the Prairie series.
While the Hop Sing character was featured only twice, his weekly happy-go-lucky presence added moments of levity to the more serious fare. Yung, born in 1915 in San Francisco of immigrant Chinese parents, began his acting career in Charlie Chan films.
Bonanza first occupied a Saturday time slot opposite the CBS legal juggernaut, Perry Mason, and faced near cancellation after just two seasons. Following a move to its treasured Sunday night spot 9 p.m. EST, the show shot into the top ten remaining there until 1971.
A schedule change to Tuesdays and Dan Blocker’s unexpected death in 1972, proved too much for the series, however. It was cancelled mid-year during the 1973 season.
The show’s iconic opening was first shot at Lake Hemet in California’s San Jacinto Mountains but, in a nod to authenticity was re-shot later near Lake Tahoe. The original Virginia City set was located on Paramount Studio’s back lot but in a money-saving measure, it was moved to the cheaper Warner Brothers lot in 1970.
The switch was handily explained away in the episode, “The Night Virginia City died,” based on the actual 1875 Virginia City, Nevada fire.
The show’s opening music by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans remains one of television’s most recognizable theme songs. Recorded numerous times as both an instrumental and with lyrics, the popular guitar version by Al Caiola reached 19 on the Billboard charts in 1961.
In addition, a theme park based on the Ponderosa also thrived from 1967 to the early 1990s. A former cattle ranch owned by Joyce and Bill Anderson, it closed only after the property was sold to software entrepreneur David Duffield.
Blocker died in 1972 of complications from gaul bladder surgery. Likewise, Greene succumbed after surgery. He died in 1987 in Los Angeles from pneumonia following an operation for ulcers. Both Roberts and Landon died from pancreatic cancer, Roberts in 2010 and Landon in 1991. Victor Sen Yung’s death in 1980 was originally ruled suspicious when the actor was found dead in his North Hollywood home from a natural gas leak. It was later ruled accidental. Yung had escaped death once before, being shot in the back in an attempted highjacking of Pacific Southwestern Flight 710 in 1972. While Yung survived, a second highjack victim died of his injuries.