"Bonanza" was the world's most popular television program in 1962. It was about a thrice-widowed rancher, Ben Cartwright, who lived on a spread called The Ponderosa. He had a son by each of his ill-fated wives. "Bonanza" was shown in 20 countries, which at that time was an impressive number. To me, the setting of the Cartwright ranch — Nevada, which, as far as I'm concerned, is like living on the surface of the moon — made the family's wealth and status seem ridiculous. Almost any other Western state would have been more appealing. But that was something I kept to myself in August of that year.
That's when Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene, center, above) and two of his sons, Hoss (Dan Blocker, left) and Little Joe (Michael Landon) attended the Soap Box Derby in Akron. Chevrolet sponsored both "Bonanza" and the Soap Box Derby, so the actors were, in a way, employees of the automobile company. Like good employees they went to Ohio where they were received a warm and wild welcome. (Pernell Roberts, who played Adam, the eldest son, chose not to make the trip, a hint of things to come two years later when he left the series.)
When I met the "Bonanza" stars in a suite on the 12th floor of a downtown hotel, they didn’t have much to say. They were cordial, but in a meet-the-public mode, their brains and mouths on autopilot, their statements fluffed up for public consumption. My most vivid memory of the occasion had nothing to do with meeting them; it was when I drifted away from the crowd to a window and briefly stared down at the street. Suddenly I was queasy; shades of James Stewart in “Vertigo.”
Greene was the most gregarious of the "Bonanza" boys, saying the show would have been just as big a hit if he weren’t in the show, which, he added, was almost the case. Seems that a few months before the show was cast, Greene had an offer to go to New York City to work on the "Ominbus" TV series.
"However, I didn't like the part and decided not to do it. Four days later I got an offer to do a guest shot on 'Wagon Train.' "
Greene says it was his role on "Wagon Train" that attracted the attention of David Dortort, creator of "Bonanza."
"If I had taken that 'Omnibus' job Dortort probably would have spotted someone else for the father."
Greene also felt "Bonanza" would have been a hit as a contemporary drama about doctors, lawyers, policemen or businessmen. "First and foremost, ours is a show about family."
Greene had worked a lot before "Bonanza" and would do the same afterward until his death in 1987 at the age of 72. His best-known post-"Bonanza" series was "Battlestar Galactica" (1978-79) which morphed into "Galactica" in 1980. The actor had a knack for convincingly playing men older than he really was. My favorite Lorne Greene role was in the campy 1974 disaster movie, "Earthquake" when the 59-year-old Greene played the father of 52-year-old Ava Gardner, who was married to a character played by the then-51-year-old Charlton Heston.
Dan Blocker, who played huge son Eric “Hoss” Cartwright, was a Texas teacher who had done some acting at Sul Ross State Teachers College. His life changed after he decided to go to UCLA to earn his doctorate. While there he did some acting in his spare time. His size – six-feet-four-inches, 300 pounds – worked in his favor, getting him small, but noticeable roles in television shows. One of those rules, a recurring character named Tiny Budinger in “Cimarron City,” the old George Montgomery series, attracted the attention of Dortort, who offered Blocker the part of “Hoss.”
Blocker died unexpectedly of a pulmonary embolism after gall bladder surgery in May, 1972. He was only 43. "Bonanza" was still on the air. It began is 14th season that fall, but it concluded its run in mid-January, 1973. Many felt his death could and should have been avoided; some also speculated about the career he would have had after Bonanza. Given his size, it might have been difficult to find good roles, without repeating himself. He did have a featured role in the 1968 Frank Sinatra movie, "Lady in Cement" (1968), but it was an example of the hulking guy typecasting that he probably wanted to escape.
Landon, born Eugene Orowitz in Forest Hills, New York, grew up near Camden, New Jersey. He threw the javelin in high school and was good enough to receive an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California, but was injured in his freshman year.
“One of my friends was interested in acting,” said Landon, “and he talked me into doing a scene with him before some movie scouts.”
As seems to be the case with other stars who told a similar story, the friend never became a successful actor..
Landon's first movie, “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” didn’t help his career, but he got a boost from a supporting role in “God’s Little Acre.” After "Bonanza" Landon enjoyed even greater success with "Little House on the Prairie," and did very well after that with "Highway to Heaven."
Landon was married three times and fathered nine children. In early 1991 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and he did in July of that year. He was 54 years old.
Pernell Roberts, the man who wasn't there, was the best-known of the three actors chosen to play a Cartwright son. He had a wonderful role in the 1959 Randolph Scott Western, “Ride Lonesome.” He also was featured in several television Westerns in the months leading up to the premiere of “Bonanza” in the fall of ’59.
Roberts didn't exactly disappear after he left "Bonanza," but worked mostly in guest star roles in other actors' series, though he enjoyed moderate success in "Trapper John, M.D.," a spin-off of sorts of "M*A*S*H." That series, which co-starred Gregory Harrison, ran seven seasons. Interestingly, Roberts played the character much longer than did Wayne Rogers in the TV version of "M*A*S*H." ("Trapper's" full name was John Francis Xavier McIntyre.)
Roberts was married four times. Like Landon, he died from pancreatic cancer, but at the age of 81.