Thursday, September 12, 2019

The 60th Anniversary of Bonanza

What may be the most successful show of the Sixties was not a situation comedy, a variety show, a spy drama, or a medical drama. It was a Western. For many today it might be hard to imagine just how successful Bonanza truly was. Out of its 14 seasons, Bonanza spent three years as the number one show in the United States, ten seasons in the top ten most watched shows, and 12 seasons in the top twenty most watched shows. It would go on to a highly successful run as a syndicated rerun. To this day it is still being aired on such channels as Insp, MeTV, and TV Land. Bonanza debuted 60 years ago today, on September 12 1959, on NBC.

Bonanza was created by David Dortort, who at the time was already a television veteran. He had started out as a writer, working on such shows as Fireside Theatre, Public Defender, and Waterfront. In 1957 he became producer on the new Western The Restless Gun, which aired on Monday nights on NBC. Here it must be pointed out that Mr. Dortort did not create The Restless Gun. The Restless Gun was based on the radio show The Six Shooter, created by Frank Burt and starring James Stewart. The Restless Gun starred John Payne as Vint Bonner, a drifter and skilled gunfighter who preferred to resolve conflicts peaceably rather than with violence. The Restless Gun proved fairly successful. For its first season it ranked no. 8 out of all the shows on the air. In its second season it was not even in the top thirty, but it still did fairly well. Unfortunately, The Restless Gun was living on borrowed time. John Payne not only had the title of executive producer, but the actor owned 50% of the series. Eventually he entered into a dispute with Revue Studios over money, and ultimately John Payne decided not to return for a third season of The Restless Gun. With The Restless Gun having come to an end, David Dortort was now ready to move onto other things.

At the same time that John Payne and Revue Studios were having their disagreement, NBC was looking to produce its own shows. Rival network CBS had already had considerable success in producing its own television series, including such hits as Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, and Have Gun--Will Travel. At the time Westerns were phenomenally popular on American television, so it was quite natural that NBC would want to produce a Western. The Restless Gun had proven to be a success, so quite naturally the network turned to David Dortort to produce a new show.

The idea David Dortort had for a show grew out of his lifelong interest in history and the American West. Mr. Dortort had majored in history and English at City College in New York City. As a result he realised that the drifters and gunfighters who populated many of the Westerns on television at the time did not reflect historical reality. In his own words, "The true history of the west is about family, pioneers …" He then set upon creating a show that would reflect this historical reality, and drew upon several sources to do so. Among these sources were the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The father on the show would be King Arthur, while his sons would be the knights.

Another source of inspiration would be the Comstock and Virginia City in the late 1850s, something in which he had been interested for a long time. He had even taken his family on vacation to the Lake Tahoe area. Of course, Bonanza would not be the first time that David Dortort had dealt with the Comstock on television. In 1953 he had written the teleplay "Man of the Comstock" for the anthology series Fireside Theatre. The episode dealt with a young lawyer who attempts to bring justice to the area.

David Dortort's idea for a show eventually emerged as a TV series set on a sprawling ranch on which a father and his sons lived. As to the characters on the show, they largely emerged from the actors Mr. Dortort wanted to cast. The first of these was Dan Blocker, who had appeared in the Restless Gun episode "The Child." On the episode Mr. Blocker played a giant of a man called "El Bruto" who is accused of murder. David Dortort then shaped the character of Hoss Cartwright, the middle son in the family, on Dan Blocker. Hoss was a gentle giant with a gift for working with animals and a warm heart when it came to people.

The next actor to be cast was Michael Landon, who had appeared in the pilot for The Restless Gun and had been working in TV Westerns for some time (he also appeared in the first episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive in a role far removed from his one on Bonanza). He thought that Mr. Landon would be perfect for the role of Little Joe, the youngest of the Cartwrights. Little Joe was impetuous and hot-headed, as well as a bit of a romantic with an eye for the ladies.

With regards to Ben Cartwright, the patriarch of the Cartwright clan, David Dortort wanted the father to be a sharp contrast to many of the fathers then appearing in American sitcoms, who were often played as buffoons or simpletons. Mr. Dortort had seen Lorne Greene in the Wagon Train episode "The Vivian Carter Story," on which he played a lovestruck cowboy, but one possessed of a good deal of common sense. In playing Ben, Lorne Greene drew a great deal from his own father.

The one role for which David Dortort did not already have an actor in mind was that of the oldest son Adam, for whom he wanted a leading man type. Guy Williams was considered for the role, but he was still signed with Disney to do Zorro. Mr. Dortort had heard about Pernell Roberts, who had already appeared several times on Broadway and in such films as The Sheepman (1958) and Ride Lonesome (1959). Pernell Roberts was then cast in the role of Adam, the oldest, intellectual, and serious son.

For a show of its time Bonanza had an extraordinarily big budget, about $100,000 to $150,000 per episode. It was for that reason that NBC balked at David Dortort's casting. Quite simply, the network wanted big name actors for Bonanza, and at that time none of the show's lead actors was particularly well known. The reason network wanted big name actors was not simply to draw in an audience, but also in order to better attract sponsors to the show. David Dortort refused to back down with regards to the cast and eventually NBC acquiesced to his casting.

It would not be the last battle David Dortort would have to fight in getting Bonanza on the air. Quite simply, David Dortort wanted Bonanza to be shot in colour. He believed that the shots of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding regions would help sell colour television sets. Given NBC was owned by RCA, the company that had developed colour television in the United States and manufactured colour television sets, it might come as some surprise that the network balked at shooting in colour. Quite simply, filming in colour cost 25% more than filming in black and white. Ultimately, David Dortort had to agree to put up some of his own money to film in colour before NBC would agree to do so. Bonanza would then be the first hour long Western television series to be shot in colour.

For the television show's now iconic theme song, Alan Livingston, then NBC's Vice President in charge of Television Network Programming, asked his older brother Jay Livingston and his writing partner Ray Evans to compose it. David Dortort did not particularly like the theme song's lyrics, and as a result the show used an instrumental version of the theme. Similarly, the show's composer, David Rose, did not utilise the theme within the episodes themselves.The final scene in the pilot, "A Rose for Lotta," had the Cartwrights singing the theme, but it was decided it was too campy and it was not used.

Bonanza debuted on September 12 1959 to mixed to negative reviews. Typical was the review in Variety, which said that Bonanza "proves to be little more than a patchwork of stock oater ideas without a fresh twist to distinguish it." Scheduled on Saturday night against Perry Mason on CBS, Bonanza did not perform particularly well in the ratings either. For the 1959-1960 season it ranked no. 45 out of all the shows on the air. Ultimately what saved Bonanza was the fact that it was shot in colour and NBC's parent company RCA was in the business of manufacturing colour television sets.

Of course, aside from stiff competition in the form of Perry Mason, much of the reason that Bonanza may have performed poorly in the ratings is that it was not yet the show as viewers today know it. In the early episodes of Bonanza the Cartwrights were often hostile to strangers they found on the Ponderosa. It was Lorne Greene who convinced David Dortort that as Ben owned a large ranch he would be an important businessman in the region and would be friendlier to visitors. David Dortort agreed with Mr. Greene's reasoning, and the Cartwrights became much more approachable.

While Bonanza had mediocre ratings in its first season, its fortunes changed in its second season. According to Allen Rich in the article "Western Views Told by Dortort," in the October 31 1960 issue of the Valley Times, Bonanza drew the heaviest fan mail of any series on television, approximately 30,000 letters and cards a month. Ultimately it would rank no. 17 out of all of the shows on the air for the season, just behind its competitor on CBS, Perry Mason.

Lorne Greene in a promo film for Chevrolet
Bonanza also found a major sponsor in the form of Chevrolet. For years Chevrolet had sponsored The Dinah Shore Chevy Show. When the company dropped sponsorship of that show, they suggested to NBC that the network move Bonanza to the old time slot of The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, Sunday night at 9:00 Eastern/8:00 Central. In its new timeslot Bonanza flourished. It leaped to no. 2 in the Nielsens for the season. With its sixth season Bonanza became the no. 1 show on American television. It would remain in that position until its ninth season, when it dropped to no. 4. During its run Bonanza spent ten years in the top five shows. The only season in which it did not rank in the top twenty were its first and final season (it was no. 45 in its first season).

While Bonanza was a successful show, it was also subject to cost cutting measures like any other show. By the third season the characters wore the same costumes (with a few exceptions) for the rest of the series run. The reason for this decision was twofold. First, it made it easier to duplicate the costumes for stunt doubles. Second, it made it easier to use stock footage when necessary. 

Quite naturally the success of Bonanza guaranteed licensed merchandising. There would be lunch boxes, puzzles, Big Little Books, record albums, comic books, and a board game. Several Bonanza novels have been published, the first in 1960 and the latest in 2009. Bonanza would even be one of the earliest TV shows to have action figures based on its characters. In 1966 American Character issued a set of Bonanza action figures. The collection included action figures of Ben, Hoss, and Little Joe. Pernell Roberts having just left the show, American Character simply added a moustache to his figure and made it a generic outlaw. Every character (including the outlaw) had his own horse and American Character also issued a 4 in 1 wagon for use with the action figures.

Among the many spin-offs from Bonanza was also a theme park called Ponderosa Ranch. It opened in 1968 and operated until 2004. Parts of the show's last five seasons would even be filmed there. The park featured replicas of both the Ponderosa house and the barn. Still later a replica of Virginia City was added. 

While Bonanza was a very successful show, not all of the cast was happy with it. Accustomed to work on the stage, Mr. Roberts was not used to having to play one character repeatedly and without costume changes. He also did not think of Bonanza as being of a high quality, even going so far as to refer to the show as "junk television." He criticised the show's lack of minority characters as well.

By the fourth season of Bonanza, tensions between David Dortort and Pernell Roberts were running high. It was then planned to add Barry Coe to the cast, so that Pernell Roberts could appear less on the show. In the fourth season episode "The First Born" Barry Coe was introduced as Clay Stafford, Little Joe's older half brother (they shared Joe's mother Marie in common). Ultimately the cast objected to the addition of another Cartwright and as a result Barry Coe did not join the cast.

The fifth season would see another replacement for Pernell Roberts should he decide to leave the show. Guy Williams played Will Cartwright, the son of Ben's brother John, as well as Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe's cousin. He would be introduced in the episode "Return to Honour" and would appear in three more episodes during the season. It was at the same time that Adam met widow Laura Drayton (Kathie Browne). The plan, should Pernell Roberts decide to leave the show, was for Adam to marry Laura and simply move away. As it turned out, in the end Pernell Roberts elected to do another season of Bonanza and as it was Will who married Laura and moved away.

Of course, the Cartwrights were not the only continuing characters on Bonanza. A semi-regular character, appearing in 107 episodes of the show, was Hop Sing, played by veteran character actor Victor Sen Yung. Hop Sing was the Cartwrights' Chinese cook, who was treated practically as one of the family. While in many ways Bonanza was a progressive show for its time, to a large degree Hop Sing was an ethnic stereotype. Sadly, this was not an isolated case on the show, as over the years most Chinese characters on the series were treated as stereotypes to some degree or another. While other minorities were often treated as three dimensional characters, Bonanza did leave a bit to be desired with regards to its treatment of East Asians. Here it must be pointed out that this was largely typical of television in the Sixties. Television shows from The Rifleman to The Monkees featured East Asian stereotypes. Mr. Sulu on Star Trek was one of the few East Asian characters on television in the Sixties who was not a stereotype.

Another semi-regular on the show was Ray Teal as Sheriff Roy Coffee. Ray Teal joined the show in its second season and would remain until its 13th season, appearing in 90 episodes. Bing Russell, who had already twice guest starred on Bonanza in different roles, joined the show in its fourth season as Deputy Clem Foster. He would go on to appear on the show for the rest of its run. Curiously, Roy and Clem would appear in only three episodes together. After having guest starred once in a different role, Lou Frizzel joined Bonanza in its eleventh season as ranch foreman Dusty Rhoades. He would appear on and off until the show's 13th season.

As well as the addition of various supporting characters over the years, there would also be changes in the regular cast beyond Pernell Roberts's departure. It was in the ninth season of Bonanza that David Canary joined the cast as ranch foreman "Candy" Canaday. He left the show in 1970 due to a contract dispute, but returned for its 14th and final season. Ultimately Candy appeared in 90 episodes.

Another addition would be Mitch Vogel as Jamie Hunter (later Cartwright). The character of Jamie was added in the 10th season in an effort to attract younger viewers. Jamie was the orphan of a rainmaker who was taken in by the Cartwrights and later adopted by Ben. Jamie would continue to appear until the series' end.

Of course, the biggest cast change in the history of Bonanza occurred when Dan Blocker died from a post-operative pulmonary embolism following gall bladder surgery. Occurring not long before filming on the 14th season was about to begin, Dan Blocker's death left the producers in a difficult situation. Because Hoss was possibly the most popular character on the show and Dan Blocker was so identified with the character, there was no way that the part could be recast. Several scripts then had to be rewritten for the coming season. In the first episode of the season it was explained that Hoss had died.

It would be due to Dan Blocker's death that another character would be added to the cast. Tim Matheson played Griff King, a parolee who was placed in Ben's charge and worked on the Ponderosa.

Over the years there would be changes to Bonanza beyond the cast. Originally the scenes in Virginia City were shot on the Virginia City Western Street on the Paramount backlot. It had previously been used in Western movies, the first of which was Whispering Smith (1947).  As the years went by, however, the price for renting the lot continued to climb. In 1970 it was then decided to move production to Warner Bros. in Burbank. The first episode of the twelfth season explained the change in Virginia City's appearance. In "The Night Virginia City Died," Virginia City fell victim to a rash of arsons that burned most of the city. To a degree the episode had some basis in history. The Great Fire of 1875 destroyed much of the city.

There would be another change also made for the show's 12th season. Because the title sequence shot in 1965 (following Pernell Roberts's departure) was long out of date and because of changes to the cast, a new title sequence had to be shot. While previous title sequences had featured the Cartwrights riding in the Lake Tahoe area, the new title sequence featured the cast in action shots. Another change was that Bonanza now had a new theme song. David Rose had written "The Ponderosa" cue in 1959 for use in various episodes. In 1970 he expanded and re-orchestrated the cue and turned it into the new theme song for the show, "The Big Bonanza." "The Big Bonanza" was not particularly well received by fans and was ultimately used for only the twelfth and thirteenth seasons. Dan Blocker's death required a new title sequence for the fourteenth season and as a result a new version of the classic "Bonanza" theme was recorded with a faster tempo.

While Bonanza had remained phenomenally successful throughout the Sixties, its ratings would drop at the beginning of the Seventies. In the 1971-1972 Bonanza aired opposite two movie anthologies, The CBS Sunday Night Movies and The ABC Sunday Night Movie. Its ratings suffered as a result and it dropped from no. 9 in the 1970-1971 season to no. 20 in the 1971-1972 season. It was the first time in a decade that Bonanza did not rank in the top ten. With concerns for the ratings of Bonanza and newer shows wanting the timeslot, NBC decided to move the series. Beginning in 1967 NBC had been airing reruns of Bonanza under the title Ponderosa as a summer replacement on Tuesday nights. The reruns did well in the ratings and as a result it was decided to move Bonanza to 8:00 PM Eastern/7:00 PM Central on Tuesday.

As it turned out, it would be the show's final season. Bonanza had a promising start to the season, ranking in the top 15 for the month of September. Unfortunately, ratings for the show began to plummet rapidly. By October it had fallen out of the top 25. By November it had dropped to no. 52. It was then on November 3 that NBC cancelled Bonanza after 14 seasons on the air. Although many theories at the time were offered for Bonanza's precipitous drop in the ratings that led to its cancellation, ever since the dominant theory for the show's cancellation was, quite simply, the death of Dan Blocker. Bonanza was able not only to survive, but to thrive following the departure of Pernell Roberts. It could not survive without Dan Blocker.

While Bonanza ended its run on January 16 1973, it was still arguably the most successful show of the Sixties and the most successful Western outside of Gunsmoke. To a large degree its success is not hard to explain. At the time that Bonanza debuted, most Western television shows centred on drifters or gunfighters, with but a few exceptions (The Rifleman was set on a homestead, while Laramie was set at a stage stop). Bonanza was set on a large ranch and centred on the family who operated that ranch. Further differentiating Bonanza from other Westerns of the time was that it featured relatively little in the way of gunfights or other forms of violence. Entire episodes of Bonanza unfolded with not even one gun drawn and conflicts were often resolved peaceably. Critics have described Bonanza as a "Western soap opera" and even a period piece that just happens to be set in 1860s Nevada. Regardless, it was clear that Bonanza was different from any other Western when it debuted in 1859.

Of course, there was another way in which Bonanza differed from other Westerns or even other dramas on television at the time. Quite simply years before "relevance" became fashionable on American television in the late Sixties, Bonanza addressed various social issues. Racism, anti-Semitism, religious intolerance, drug use, and others were addressed on the show. Much of the reason Bonanza could address various social issues was the same as the reason that Star Trek could. Set in a different time period (the Old West in the case of Bonanza), the show was able to approach issues that a show set in contemporary times could not even touch.

Yet another reason for Bonanza's success was that the format of a family operating a large ranch gave the show a flexibility that many other Westerns lacked. Bonanza did have episodes that played out like traditional Westerns, complete with gunfights and outlaws. At the same time, however, the majority of its episodes differed a great deal from those seen on other Westerns. Some episodes played out much as melodramas or soap operas. Others might be mysteries. Some of the best episodes of Bonanza were purely comedies. Over its 14 years on the air, there were episodes that were horror, legal dramas, medical dramas, and romances. Bonanza even dabbled in what would later be called "steampunk" (most notably in "The Infernal Machine"). Much of the success of Bonanza may have been due to the fact that it had something for everyone.

Above all else, much of the success of Bonanza was due to its characters and its cast. The best remembered shows, from I Love Lucy to Gunsmoke to Star Trek, all have one thing in common: memorable characters. When Bonanza debuted, it offered viewers four characters with distinct personalities. If Ben, Hoss, Little Joe, and Adam are remembered, it is because they were both well-written and well-acted.

That is not to say that Bonanza did not have its share of flaws. As mentioned above, Chinese characters were often treated as stereotypes. While they were less frequent, other episodes featured Native American and Mexican stereotypes. It should also be pointed out that over the years Bonanza also developed more than its share of formulas, stock plots which would provide fodder for a number of episodes. There are multiple episodes in which one of the Cartwrights would fall in love with a woman and even come close to marrying her, only to have her meet some horrible fate in the end. This stock plot was used so often that even Michael Landon joked about the Cartwrights having to be careful that their horses didn't trip over all the graves of all the women who had died on the show. Another stock plot that was used a bit too often on Bonanza was one in which one of the Cartwrights would be falsely accused of murder. Hoss alone was falsely accused of a crime no less than four times in the run of the series. Taken individually these episodes can be quite enjoyable, but after seeing several of these sorts of episodes one can't help but have a sinking feeling of deja vu.

As mentioned earlier, once it had left the air Bonanza  would continue to have a good deal of success as a syndicated rerun. This would lead to sequel, TV movies. Bonanza: The Next Generation aired in 1988. Although it was produced by David Dortort and was written by Paul Savage, it featured none of the original characters. It was meant as a pilot for a new series. It was followed in 1993 by Bonanza: The Return. A final sequel TV movie, Bonanza: Under Attack, aired in 1995. In 2001 a prequel series debuted on the network Pax-TV. Ponderosa portrayed the early years of the Cartwrights on the ranch, when Adam and Hoss were both teenagers and Little Joe still a young boy. Although made with David Dortort's approval, the show was created by Beth Sullivan, who had also created Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman. Ponderosa contradicted the continuity of Bonanza at times, particularly with regards to the fate of Little Joe's mother Marie. On the original series she is said to have died due to a fall from a horse. On Ponderosa she is murdered by a miner. Ponderosa only lasted two seasons before it was cancelled.

Sixty years after its debut Bonanza remains one of the best known American television series of all time. Between its ratings, its long run, and its success as a syndicated rerun, there can be little doubt that it was the most successful show of the Sixties. What is more, six decades after its premiere, Bonanza is still being rerun on various television channels and is available on DVD and streaming. It seems likely that people will still be watching it sixty years from now.

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