It is indisputable that “Bonanza” remains one of the most iconic and memorable television shows in history. Even younger generations can recognize the name, despite not having been around to watch it when it first aired. The iconic series spanned 14 seasons and 431 episodes from 1959-to 1973, something only a small handful of American shows have accomplished.
For such a groundbreaking show, it’s possible it might have gone on even longer! However, it was abruptly canceled in 1973, much to the shock of many of its fans. If you’ve ever wondered why the show ended so unexpectedly, here’s the full story.
The Heart Of “Bonanza”
“Bonanza” first aired in September of 1959 on NBC, featuring the affluent Cartwright family as the stars of the show. The family was made up of four main characters, including a widowed father, Ben Cartwright (played by Lorne Greene), and his three sons. One of the interesting parts of the show is that each brother had a different mother, each deceased and with a different background.
The oldest son, Adam Cartwright (played by Pernell Roberts), was English. The middle son, Eric “Hoss” Cartwright (played by Dan Blocker), had a Swedish mother. And the baby of the bunch, Joseph, or “Little Joe” Cartwright (played by Michael Landon), was of French creole descent.
As with many stories of the time, “Bonanza” showcased the interesting dynamics of the family and the shenanigans they would get into. Though each of the characters had wildly different personalities, they were collectively a likable and relatable bunch who were fun to watch. The majority of “Bonanza” took place on the Cartwright family’s estate, a large thousand-acre ranch near Lake Tahoe known as Ponderosa Ranch.
Like many shows, “Bonanza” was filmed in multiple places, though. Outdoor scenes were shot on the ranch near Lake Tahoe, which was a common location for many Western shows. Sometimes, the cast would also travel to the Wildwood Regional Park in Thousand Oaks, Calif., for specific scenes as well. On the other hand, many of the indoor scenes were completed on sound stages in California, either at Burbank Studios or later at Warner Bros Studios.
A Successful Series
“Bonanza” was revolutionary in the way it chose to tell stories. Rather than stick to the usual kind of comedies or over-the-top antics of a Western, “Bonanza” tried addressing real social issues. At first, it wasn’t easy for the show to tell meaningful stories and address real issues. Sponsors and producers would get nervous because the threat of offending any of the audience watching was too scary.
However, Greene, who portrayed the father of the Cartwrights, wasn’t happy with how harsh and unfriendly the Cartwrights often were to outsiders. He found some of the dramatics to be too heavy-handed, and he came up with a proposition that he hoped would make a difference in the message they were sending. Greene suggested the Cartwright family kindly greet strangers instead of always pointing a gun at someone and interrogating them.
Largely due to Greene’s efforts, “Bonanza” is unique in being one of the few shows of its time to address a number of issues. Even topics such as racism, which were heavily avoided on television, were brought up in empathetic ways. Anti-Semitism, bigotry, interracial marriage, and discrimination were all discussed in different episodes.
In fact, some plots were so controversial that two Southern TV stations refused to air specific episodes. Not many shows were brave enough to be so progressive in their content, especially a Western-like “Bonanza.” Against all odds, though, people loved it. “Bonanza” had an audience that included all different kinds of people, across genders, ages, and races. Between the humanitarian nature of the show and the excellent cast of characters, it was a hard show not to love.
One of the other things that made “Bonanza” so special was the way in which it exemplified family values and the friendships between brothers. Many of the lessons and topics of the show could very well apply to our modern society.
The Star Of The Show
With every hit television show, there will inevitably be a star actor who truly shines throughout the series. For “Bonanza,” the cast was an essential part of what made the stories so appealing. Many agreed at the time that Michael Landon was one of those actors that made “Bonanza” what it was.
Landon played the hot-headed youngest brother, “Little Joe,” which turned out to be a massive breakout role. “Bonanza” gave Landon room to hone his abilities as a director and producer off-screen. Additionally, he went on to be cast in other classics such as “Little House on the Prairie” (1974) and “Highway to Heaven” (1984-1989).
It Wasn’t All Smooth Sailing On “Bonanza”
For all the many wonderful qualities that may make it so popular, though, no show is without its controversies. After all, Hollywood will always have its drama. The first major setback for “Bonanza” was when Pernell Roberts abruptly quit the show in 1965. Roberts played Adam, the oldest son responsible for building the ranch house.
Apparently, Roberts had a lot of negative opinions about the way his character was often portrayed. He felt that Adam was too dependent on his family and stated that the show had an “assembly-line mindset” that he couldn’t stand. At one point, he even called “Bonanza” “junk TV” and accused NBC of “perpetuating banality.”
Even though the show had already become wildly successful, Roberts left the show anyway after 202 episodes and never returned. Producers on the show tried to replace him with different characters, but none of them were well-received. Eventually, they decided to simply carry on with the three remaining stars: Greene, Blocker, and Landon. This, however, would also not last forever — except for this time, the situation would be far more tragic.
A Difficult Tragedy
In May of 1972, another one of the actors would leave the show, but this time, the circumstances were much sadder. Following a gallbladder surgery, Dan Blocker, who played “Hoss,” unexpectedly passed away. After so many years, producers felt they were unable to replace Blocker’s “big and lovable” presence on the show. Instead of re-casting the role, they made the difficult decision to kill off the character on the show.
That didn’t make working without Blocker any easier, though. After 13 years of working together and becoming a family on set and off, many of the actors and even the crew felt like it was wrong to continue the show without Blocker. In fact, a few people even predicted that the show couldn’t survive the loss.
Greene, never one to hide how he felt about the show, was one of the most vocal about what it was like after Blocker’s death. He told TV Guide at one point, “I didn’t see how the show could continue. I said to my wife, ‘That’s it. It’s finished.’ I know Michael Landon felt the same way.”
About this, Greene was correct. At some point, Landon expressed how difficult it was returning to set. At this point, Landon was not only one of the only remaining stars of the show but had also begun directing and producing for it as well.
“It was so bad,” he expressed when thinking about returning to the show. “Everybody was just trying to force good humor, because here we were, back in the same place again. Fortunately, we stayed out of the dining room that day. We’ve had so many laughs in that dining room over the last 13 years … and that’s where Dan and Lorne and I did most of our horsing around.”
“Bonanza” Comes To An End
Despite everyone’s best attempts to make “Bonanza” seem complete without Blocker in the show, the absence of Hoss Cartwright was too much. The audience was disappointed with the way in which their beloved character was written out of the show, and ratings began to reflect that. According to Outsider, Landon said, “I’m sure that some people would rather have a whole hour memorial to Dan, but we just couldn’t do that. We tried to do what we thought he would have wanted us to do.”
Even though it wasn’t what audiences wanted, the 14th season of “Bonanza” was incredibly sad. The looming darkness of the tragedy grew without Blocker for the 15 episodes that made up season 14. Turns out, though, that those 15 episodes would be “Bonanza’s” last.
It may seem obvious by now that “Bonanza” must have been canceled because it couldn’t go on without Blocker. Most of the cast felt that way, and few of them likely felt like they couldn’t carry on anyway.
Blocker’s death is typically cited as the reason many think the show came to an end. Without Hoss, the show simply fell too far in ratings and couldn’t recover from the loss. Some speculate that the success of newer and shinier shows such as Maude and having to trade its time slot also affected the show.
Regardless of what it was that caused “Bonanza” to lose its appeal, it was ultimately the drop in ratings that led the National Broadcasting Co. to cancel the show midyear. Unfortunately, the cancellation came too soon, resulting in a lot of regret for the cast about the way the show ended.
“If we had known this was coming,” Greene has said, “we would have gone out with a bang and not a whimper.” It’s a shame to think that such a legendary show ended on such a bad note. After building a wonderful legacy, one would think that it would have a phenomenal finale as well.
In its memory, though, there have been some feeble attempts to honor the show’s former glory. “Bonanza” was eventually approved for a three-part series of movies that would feature the Cartwright’s children. These included Bonanza: “The Next Generation” (1988), “Bonanza: The Return” (1993), and “Bonanza: Under Attack” (1995). Unfortunately, none of the movies performed particularly well.
There was also a short-lived prequel series called “Ponderosa” released in 2001 that was meant to explore the Cartwright’s first moments on the ranch. The show only lasted a single season and 20 episodes, though.
Despite the manner in which “Bonanza” ended, it remains one of the most successful and beloved television shows in American history. It is still one of the longest-running Westerns to date and is even now referenced commonly in modern pop culture.