Secret Facts From Behind the Scenes of Bonanza
From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, Bonanza was the epitome of the American western on television. With over 400 episodes to its name, the hour-long drama followed the adventures of Ben Cartwright and his boys as they try their darndest to defend their ranch and the surrounding community in the heyday of Nevada's Wild West frontier. Despite ending over 45 years ago, behind-the-scenes secrets about this classic western series continue to be revealed.
A 'Bonanza' of Accolades
With 14 seasons over as many years, NBC's Bonanza ranks as the second-longest-running western series on a U.S. network television, second only to CBS's Gunsmoke, which aired over 600 episodes between 1955 and 1975. Even after all these years, it remains in the top 10 longest-running live-action American shows ever.
Little Joe's Little Helper
Bonanza's main cast is comprised of Ben Cartwright, played by Lorne Greene, and his three adult sons: Adam, Eric (nicknamed Hoss) and Joseph (also known as Little Joe). Each boy had a different mother, and each mother had a very different heritage — English, Swedish and French Creole, in that order.
A Second Run (Under a Different Name)
Many popular shows have a second life as reruns, either on their home network or another on. It's true of Seinfeld, it's true of Law & Order, and it's even true of older shows like Bonanza.
Speaking of which, "Ponderosa" wasn’t just the name of the Cartwrights’ ranch and a rebrand of the show; it was also the name for a combination buffet and steakhouse inspired by the show.
Ben's Bonanza Blunder
At the start of Bonanza's epic run, the main four actors were essentially nobodies. That meant they often had to do their own stunts during the more action-packed episodes instead of relying on more expensive stunt doubles.
Pernell Roberts' Bad Timing
It's not uncommon for a series' main actor to want to leave the show after a certain point. Sometimes contracts run out and better opportunities become available, while other times, disagreements between talent and management make the show itself seem less appealing.
Bonanza Family Drama
Michael Landon, the actor behind Little Joe Cartwright, liked to go on talk shows and tell stories about the other cast members. He made no secret of his animosity toward Pernell Williams in particular, and the feeling was very much mutual.
Placing a show within a network's crowded weekly schedule can be one of the most difficult parts of getting a television program off the ground. The programmers have to take into consideration the genre and tone of the show and try to put it with similar programs if they want to find the perfect audience.
Landon vs. Everybody Else
Michael Landon was not the most amicable co-star on the set of Bonanza. In addition to being a gossip and constantly feuding with Roberts, Landon also seemed to go out of his way to give the rest of the crew trouble.
Entry Level Salaries
At the start of production, NBC and the cast and crew were unsure of whether or not Bonanza would ever make it off the ground. With CBS's Gunsmoke already four years strong at that point, the best they could do was hope guest stars would bring in viewers.
A Very Different Theme Song
The Bonanza theme song was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, and it’s undoubtedly one of the most iconic aspects of the show. Bonanza loyalists can name after just a few notes.
Just Plain Bad Luck
It's common for lead characters on television shows to end up in a relationship at some point. A good "will they, won't they" plotline can bring in viewers by the boatload, as Rachel and Ross in Friends certainly proved. Bonanza wasn't interested in pursuing that angle, however.
Changing the Visitor's Policy
Early on in any given show's run, it's not out of the ordinary for the writers and the producers to iron out the kinks as the first seasons progress. From character traits to important backstories, it takes a bit for the show’s direction to become apparent.
The Wardrobe Department (or Lack Thereof)
You’d expect a show’s production budget to increase as it becomes more successful, not shrink. Nonetheless, that’s exactly what happened on Bonanza. From the third season onward, they got more stingy with their wardrobe budget.
The Cartwright Family's Secret
While Lorne Greene's floating hairpiece remains one of the funniest behind-the-scenes stories from the set of Bonanza, the truth is that almost every single man to grace the screen struggled with some sort of hair problem or another. From wigs to dye jobs, no man was safe.
Bonanza's iconic opening title sequence ends with an image of a map of Nevada catching fire and burning up. The show's key locations were there — Ponderosa Ranch, the lake, Virginia City and so forth — but the map originally lacked compass directions.
Pernell Roberts Takes a Stand
As demonstrated by the recent launch of Disney+ and the content warnings it attached to many movies and programs from the mid-20th century, television of yesteryear often wasn’t concerned with accurately portraying people who weren’t white Americans.
A Nonsensical Sponsor
Even shows that take place in the mid-1860s need to have ad sponsors. That's just how television works. Sponsors help fund the show, and the show helps drive up their sales. Bonanza was no exception
60s Series Should Stick Together
While the current TV era is undeniably booming, the 1960s were just as significant for the medium of television. New genres were constantly being pioneered, and in an effort to connect old audiences to new shows, crossovers were common.
Groundbreaking Production Techniques
Bonanza came into being at an opportune time for television: right when shows were transitioning from black and white to color. While Bonanza wasn't the very first show to be filmed entirely in color, it ended up being the first television program to air completely colorized episodes from start to finish.
Looking for Little Joe
Before Michael Landon was finalized as Little Joe Cartwright, producer David Dortort was in search of a different actor to play the part. He had seen Landon audition, but something didn't feel right to him. He decided to see some other actors before making a final decision.
The Show's Unique Writing Style
Anthony Lawrence was in a unique position when he was brought on as a writer for Bonanza: He had no idea how to write authentic western scripts. Luckily, producer David Dortort had an unorthodox solution.
Copyright is a big deal in the world of television. It ensures the people who made a show get a cut of not just new episodes, but every rerun as well. While copyright is strictly protected today, that wasn’t always the case in the early days of television.
Success Around the World
While Bonanza is a very American show given that it takes place during and after the Civil War in the American frontier, NBC's hit western was a success in seven languages and 49 countries around the world, including everywhere From Brazil and France to Saudi Arabia and Japan.
Replacing Pernell Roberts
When Percell Roberts left the show in the mid-1960s, the most urgent issue facing producers was filling the central character's absence. Do they recast the character and hope audiences suspend disbelief, or do they decide to introduce a new character and hope they're liked?
The Influence of 'Bonanza' Decades Later
Twenty years after Bonanza went off the air, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiered. At first glance, the two couldn't have been more different — one took place in the Wild West in the 1860s, while the other was set centuries later in a science fiction future.
Writing in a Real-Life Tragedy
When an actor passes away, television writers must make a decision: do they address the issue head-on, or do they adapt the show to cover for that character’s absence?
Lorne Greene's Rebranding
Before Lorne Greene was the amiable Ben Cartwright, he had the far more serious task of being principal newsreader for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). It was his job to share some of the most traumatic events of World War II with his native country.
Fom paying stars less than guests to reusing wardrobes and footage, Bonanza certainly found ways to lower production costs. However, this wasn’t out of simple cheapness. Surprisingly, Bonanza was an exceptionally expensive show to make.
Other Iterations of the Show
In the many decades since Bonanza came to an end, the show has continued to inspire devotion from fans. Because of this loyalty, viewers were given several opportunities to return to Virginia City.