Secrets from Behind the Scenes of Bonanza
While Gunsmoke may have beat them to the punch a few years earlier, there's no denying that Bonanza is the best Western TV series of all time. With 14 seasons and more than 400 episodes (and a few TV movies thrown in for good measure), fans just couldn't get enough of the Cartwrights and their trials and tribulations on their ranch, the Ponderosa.
Because of some shaky, poorly performing early seasons, no one was certain that Bonanza would make it at all, much less become an international hit. But the show beat all the odds and went on to become one of the biggest TV shows NBC would ever create.
You might be a seasoned expert when it comes to the Cartwrights, but how much do you know about everything that went on behind the scenes of the show? Today, we're taking a look at some of the biggest secrets, scandals, and mysteries that happened after the cameras stopped rolling.
Why did they kill off Hoss? Who got paid the most? And why couldn't Michael Landon seem to play nice with the rest of the cast and crew? We're answering all these questions and more—it's a literal Bonanza bonanza!
Let's get started!
Michael Landon wore platform shoes to appear taller.
Even though he was playing a character called "Little Joe," actor Michael Landon didn't like being the shortest person on the set of Bonanza. So, to make him appear taller in scenes, he wore platform shoes that made him a full four inches taller than he actually was.
And this wasn't the only time in his career that he pulled this trick! His height was clearly a sore spot for the iconic actor. When he starred on Little House on the Prairie, he was also known to wear platform boots that ensured he would be the tallest of all the Ingalls clan.
Reruns aired in the '70s under a different title.
Reruns are nothing new for TV shows. They're a great way to bring in new fans of the show, and the actors definitely have no complaints about those sweet, sweet royalty checks. However, in the '70s, Bonanza took an approach to reruns that was way outside the norm for TV shows.
First of all, the show began airing reruns in 1972, when the show was still airing new episodes as well. But what made these Bonanza reruns really unusual was the decision to air them under a different name—Ponderosa. While the new name was at least closely related to the show, the name change was something no one had ever seen before.
The show spawned two restaurant chains.
Bonanza's influence was so big that it eventually led to not one but two different restaurant chains. These steakhouse chains began popping up all over the United States, winning over both fans of the show and people who simply wanted a good steak. Bonanza was nothing if not a money maker!
Originally, both the Bonanza chain and the Ponderosa chain were competing companies, but they eventually merged into one chain. Actor Dan Blocker (who played Hoss on the show) actually became part owner of the chain after he agreed to appear in character for public events and TV commercials.
Actors did their own stunts in the early seasons.
Despite the fact that it became a TV classic over time, no one really had high hopes for the show when it first began airing. Because of this, the show wasn't exactly swimming in money during the early years. To help save some dough, many of the actors were required to do their own stunts instead of hiring stunt doubles.
While there were thankfully no major injuries from this approach, there was one particularly embarrassing behind-the-scenes moment for actor Lorne Greene. During one stunt, Greene jumped from a cliff into a body of water. Unfortunately for him, his toupee floated to the top of the water before he did!
Pernell Roberts left the show after issues with filming.
There's nothing unusual about unhappy lead actors leaving the show, and Bonanza had its fair share of unhappy actors! The biggest loss came after Pernell Roberts (who played Adam Cartwright) left the show due to creative differences (although he probably would have framed it as taking an important moral stand).
Among other things, Roberts didn't like that the show used black and white actors to play native Americans. Lorne Greene convinced him to stick it out a little while longer, but he eventually left after about 200 episodes. The show had his character leave for Europe and never return.
Michael Landon and Pernell Roberts hated each other.
While Pernell Roberts took issue with the way Bonanza was produced and filmed, that wasn't the only thing that eventually led him to leave the show for good. Co-star Michael Landon made no effort to conceal his disdain for Pernell, and it seems like the feeling was mutual for Roberts as well!
Landon had a bad habit of gossiping about his fellow cast members on talk shows, and you could almost guarantee that if he was talking about Roberts it was all bad stuff. At the same time, Roberts wasn't afraid to trash Landon's acting abilities to anyone in the media who would listen.
The show thrived in a time slot meant for failing shows.
It might seem silly to those of us outside the industry, but TV networks spend a ridiculous amount of time and energy trying to find the perfect time slots for their TV shows. What time (and what day) a show airs can mean the difference between getting renewed or getting canceled.
When Bonanza was relegated to Sunday nights at nine, things weren't looking good for the show. That timeslot was traditionally reserved for poor-performing shows on their last leg. However, Bonanza thrived at this time and the ratings for the show skyrocketed. From 1964 to 1967 the show was number one in the ratings thanks to this change of date and time.
Michael Landon had lots of issues with the set crew.
Michael Landon was a fantastic actor (and writer) for Bonanza, but it seems like he wasn't the easiest guy to work with. In terms of behind-the-scenes drama, his long-running feud and insult fest with Pernell Roberts is probably the most infamous, but Roberts wasn't the only person Landon took issue with on set.
Apparently, he was also known to butt heads with all sorts of crew members behind the scenes. Whether it was a lighting guy or a sound guy, Landon always seemed to have some complaint about how the show was being produced down to every last detail. He was dedicated to perfection to an extremely annoying level!
In early seasons, guest stars got paid more than the main actors.
These days, the actors who played the Cartwrights on Bonanza are acting legends. But really, they only became legendary because of the show. Before Bonanza, most of the main cast had worked in Hollywood but were definitely not superstars yet. Because of this, there was some strange salary stuff going on in the early seasons.
In hopes of giving the show a fighting chance, producers brought in some heavy-hitting guest stars in the early season, like Adam West, Leonard Nimoy, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Since these big names were the ones bringing in the most viewers, the show reasoned that they should be paid more than the main cast, who were mostly no-name actors at the time.
The pilot had a cut scene where the Cartwrights sing the theme song.
When it comes to theme songs, not many are as famous or recognizable as the Bonanza theme. While fans may be able to whistle the tune note for note, not everyone knows that the theme song actually had lyrics as well! They're not great, so it's really no tragedy that people aren't as familiar with them.
However, in the pilot episode of the show, we almost got a scene with the Cartwright boys singing the entire thing! This was eventually cut from the episode before it aired, but if you really want to hear Ben, Hoss, Adam, and Little Joe belt out the theme to Bonanza, you can find it online today.
Producers kept character wardrobes small to save money.
Money always seemed to be a major issue for the show, so producers took every opportunity they could to keep the budget as low as possible. Even as the show got wildly popular and received more funding, the wardrobe department kept character costumes to an absolute minimum.
However, this wasn't just to save money on fabric and supplies—it also helped with filming. Since the characters were basically always wearing the same thing, the show could easily reuse footage for basic, common scenes, like when the characters travel from one location to another location. The producers of Bonanza were absolute experts at cutting corners and pinching pennies!
All the Cartwrights wore a wig or dyed their hair.
The Cartwrights always seemed to have impossibly perfect hair, especially for rootin' tootin', rough-riding ranchers. However, all those luscious locks were all thanks to TV magic. All of the main characters actually wore a wig or dyed their hair at some point or another during the show's decade-plus run.
Lorne Green, Pernell Roberts, and Dan Blocker all wore wigs for at least part of their time on the show. While Michael Landon had a full head of hair and required no wig, he was famous (on Bonanza and beyond) for dyeing his hair after going gray in his 20s.
The opening credits map points towards magnetic north, not true north.
The opening credits of Bonanza aren't just famous because of the iconic theme song. Fans of the show also probably remember the map of Nevada with all the show's major locations that appears at the end of the opening and catches fire. However, some people noticed that the compass on the map looks a little wonky.
Even though the compass might not look like it's pointing north, it technically is. However, for unknown reasons, the producers decided that the compass should point towards magnetic north, not true north. Because magnetic north isn't precisely at the top of the globe, it looked like the compass was pointing in the wrong direction.
Chevrolet was a long-time sponsor of the show.
Corporate sponsors are nothing unusual in the TV world, especially back in the day when Bonanza originall aired. However, the show couldn't have picked a stranger or less appropriate sponsor if they tried. Despite the show being a western set in the late 1800s, Chevrolet was a long-time sponsor of the show.
Even though Chevrolet vehicles were not yet a thing in the 1800s, the company sponsored the show for most of its run beginning with season 3, and actors from the show even appeared in Chevy commercials from time to time. It's definitely one of the most bizarre cross-promotions in TV history!
A lot of Star Trek cast members guest-starred on the show.
TV shows are always looking for ways to draw in new viewers that might not necessarily be their exact target demographic, and Bonanza was no exception. One of the most tried-and-true methods is getting actors from one show to guest star on another. For this, the show, strangely enough, went with the classic Star Trek series.
A whole slew of sci-fi icons from the classic show popped in at Ponderosa from time to time, although unfortunately not as their Star Trek characters! The guest list included names like William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, and George Takei.
The switch to color TV saved the show.
Bonanza originally aired just as TVs were making the move from black and white to full color. And the timing couldn't have been more perfect for the show—it very well could have been canceled early without this new technological innovation. While they weren't the first show aired in color, they did lay claim to another important first.
Bonanza was the first show on TV to air episodes that were completely in color from start to finish. Network executives were in the process of shutting down the show, but since color TV was still such a novelty, they decided to hold off, and the rest is history!
Michael Landon wasn’t the first choice for Little Joe.
The Cartwrights just wouldn't be the same without Michael Landon playing the youngest brother, Little Joe. However, the casting director was not particularly impressed by Landon's audition. Instead, he had Robert Blake or Robert Fuller in mind for the part. Thankfully for Landon, luck intervened.
Or rather, the casting director's wife intervened. When she saw Landon's headshot, something about the young actor made her interested in him. Even though casting was leaning in the other direction for the role, she managed to convince him to give Landon a shot as Little Joe, and it's a great thing she won that argument!
The show’s head writer didn’t know how to write Westerns.
These days, Bonanza is regarded as one of the best Western series of all time. So, you'd probably think that the show's head writer was an old pro at spinning tales about the old West. However, nothing could be further from the truth. When writer Anthony Lawrence was brought on, he had no experience writing Westerns.
However, his inexperience with the genre is just a testament to what a talented writer he was. His first attempt at writing in this style became a defining series of the genre! Producers told him to focus more on creating authentic relationships between characters than Western tropes, and this was definitely the best advice they could have given him.
31 episodes accidentally entered the public domain.
These days, TV networks are protective of their copyrights to a ridiculous degree. All of them have teams of lawyers ready to sue people into oblivion for minor or accidental violations, but that wasn't always the case in Hollywood. In fact, several classic shows accidentally entered the public domain, including Bonanza.
For whatever reason, the show was pretty lax about renewing its copyrights to the point that the first 31 episodes entered the public domain, which means people were free to use them as they wished. Because of this, you can still find unofficial compilations of these early episodes floating around.
Bonanza became an international success.
Bonanza wasn't just an American phenomenon—it managed to become a major hit around the globe. It might seem odd that a show set in the 1800s about ranchers on the American frontier would have worldwide appeal, but all sorts of societies and cultures can't get enough of the Cartwrights.
Since it first aired, the show has been translated into seven languages and continues to air in more than 49 countries. In fact, the season seven two-part episode, "Ride the Wind", was turned into a feature-length movie that was shown in multiple countries.
Producers decided not to recast his role after Pernell Roberts left.
It's always a pain for TV shows when actors decide to leave. Sometimes the character is recast and viewers are expected to just roll with it, but other times, they just write the character out of the show or kill them off. This was exactly the dilemma that Bonanza faced after Pernell Roberts left the show.
While they toyed with the idea of replacing him, producers ultimately decided to write him out and introduce a new character to replace him. And thus, cousin Will Cartwright (played by Guy Williams) was created. However, Will was written out of the show after only five episodes for reasons that still remain a mystery.
Bonanza inspired Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Bonanza has a surprising number of connections to the Star Trek franchise. Several actors from the original series guest-starred on Bonanza, but the relationship between the two doesn't end there. Years later, this classic western would go on to inspire another Star Trek classic: Deep Space Nine.
This actually isn't that surprising, as several writers from Bonanza went on to write for Deep Space Nine. At this new gig, the writers focused heavily on the relationships between characters and the recurring moral dilemmas the crew faced—which is exactly the approach writers took while working on Bonanza.
The show killed off Dan Blocker’s character after he died in real life.
In 1972, actor Dan Blocker (who played Hoss on the show) tragically died of a pulmonary embolism from complications with gallbladder surgery. This meant that Blocker wouldn't be around to film the next season of Bonanza, which would go on to be the show's last. At the time, producers were stuck with the dilemma about what to do with Hoss.
Ultimately, they decided that his character on the show should be killed off, which made him the first male main character of a TV show to be killed off in history. The show just wasn't the same without Hoss, and it's believed that Blocker's death was one of the main reasons the show went off the air.
Lorne Greene was a Canadian newscaster before Bonanza.
The role of Ben Cartwright was such a powerful role that you almost forget that Lorne Green was an actor and not a real 1800s rancher. While Ben Cartwright is now considered the defining role of his legacy, he had quite a different career before he settled down at Ponderosa.
Before he hit it big in Hollywood, Lorne Greene was actually a newscaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He worked in this role during World War II, where he was frequently the announcer tasked with reading off the names of soldiers killed in action, which led to his macabre nickname "The Voice of Doom".
Despite trying to save money, the show was still very expensive to make.
The show did everything in its power to save a buck during production. From small wardrobes to actors doing their own stunts, you would think that Bonanza's books were always in the black. However, that wasn't the case! In fact, it was one of the most expensive shows on TV at the time.
Each of the show's 430 episodes had a budget somewhere in the range of $150,000. That means that, over the course of its 14-season run, the show racked up a bill of more than $50 million. What makes this number particularly shocking is that, in modern money, the show cost more than $500 million to make.
There have been several Bonanza sequels and spin-offs.
When a long-running show does well on television, you can almost bet that there are numerous producers behind the scenes scheming and brainstorming all sorts of spin-offs and sequels in an attempt to wring even more money out of the franchise, and Bonanza was no exception to this rule.
There have been several expansions to the Bonanzaverse over the years, including several made-for-tv movies. Interestingly enough, Michael Landon's son, Michael Landon Jr., portrayed Little Joe's son in these films. Most recently, a prequel to the original series named Ponderosa aired in 2001. However, this series only made it for 20 episodes.
Lorne Greene had lots of teenage fans.
While the show wasn't specifically geared towards teens, Lorne Greene had an unusual number of teenage fans thanks to portraying Ben Cartwright. However, these weren't fan girls fawning over Cartwright. Instead, many of the character's fans were teenage boys who wished that Greene was their father in real life.
At the time Bonanza aired, most dads on TV were portrayed as clueless, bumbling, and incompetent. Greene's portrayal of Cartwright as a dependable and respectable father was a first in TV history, and young men looking for a strong male role model obviously were drawn to such a portrayal.
Dan Blocker was the largest baby ever born in his Texas county.
Dan Blocker is fondly remembered for his iconic role as Hoss Cartwright. However, he was technically famous from the moment he was born. He's always been a big guy, even as an infant, and, in fact, when he was born at a whopping 14 pounds, he was the largest baby ever born in Bowie County, Texas at the time.
That might not be the most glamorous claim to fame, but it's still worth noting! If you're a Hoss superfan, you can actually visit a museum dedicated to Dan Blocker in O'Donnell, Texas where you can view the adult-sized clothes he had to wear as a child.
There was a Ponderosa theme park until 2004.
Because the show is set in Nevada, some fans would make pilgrimages to Lake Tahoe in an attempt to find the Ponderosa. However, they always left disappointed...until 1967 that is! Seeing an opportunity, developers created a Bonanza theme park near the lake, complete with a replica of the iconic ranch home.
It was so expertly built that the show even filmed some scenes at the theme park! Unfortunately, any current Bonanza fans that want to visit the park are out of luck—it closed down in 2004, and there are no plans to reopen or create a new theme park.
Michael Landon has the record for most episode appearances.
Bonanza ran for more than a decade and had a total of 430 episodes when its legendary run came to an end. And for most of those, Michael Landon made an appearance. He holds the record for most episode appearances at a whopping 416, which means that there are only 14 where he didn't appear.
Landon was clearly dedicated to his role and to the show in general, as he ended up writing and directing quite a few episodes of Bonanza as well. Even though he may have butted heads with plenty of people behind the scenes, he was also the glue keeping the whole operation together.