The show chronicles the weekly adventures of the Cartwright family, headed by the thrice-widowed patriarch Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene). He had three sons, each by a different wife: the eldest was the urbane architect Adam Cartwright (Pernell Roberts) who built the ranch house; the second was the warm and lovable giant Eric "Hoss" Cartwright (Dan Blocker); and the youngest was the hotheaded and impetuous Joseph or "Little Joe" (Michael Landon). Via exposition (S01:E01 – "Rose for Lotta") and flashback episodes, each wife was accorded a different ancestry: English (S02:E65 – "Elizabeth My Love"), Swedish (S03:E95 – "Inger My Love") and French Creole (S04:E120 – "Marie My Love") respectively. The family's cook was the Chinese immigrant Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yung). Greene, Roberts, Blocker, and Landon were billed equally. The opening credits would alternate the order among the four stars.
The family lived on a 600,000+ acre (937+ square-mile) ranch called the Ponderosa on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe in Nevada. The vast size of the Cartwrights' land was quietly revised to "half a million acres" on Lorne Greene's 1964 song, "Saga of the Ponderosa." The ranch name refers to the Ponderosa Pine, common in the West. The nearest town to the Ponderosa was Virginia City, where the Cartwrights would go to converse with Sheriff Roy Coffee (played by veteran actor Ray Teal), or his deputy Clem Foster (Bing Russell).
Bonanza was considered an atypical western for its time, as the core of the storylines dealt less about the range but more with Ben and his three dissimilar sons, how they cared for one another, their neighbors, and just causes. "You always saw stories about family on comedies or on an anthology, but Bonanza was the first series that was week-to-week about a family and the troubles it went through. Bonanza was a period drama that attempted to confront contemporary social issues. That was very difficult to do on television. Most shows that tried to do it failed because the sponsors didn't like it, and the networks were nervous about getting letters", explains Stephen Battaglio, a senior editor for TV Guide magazine.
Episodes ranged from high drama ("Bushwhacked", episode #392, 1971; "Shanklin", episode #409, 1972), to broad comedy ("Hoss and the Leprechauns", episode #146, 1964; "Mrs. Wharton and the Lesser Breeds", episode #318, 1969; "Caution, Bunny Crossing", episode #358, 1969), and addressed issues such as the environment ("Different Pines, Same Wind", episode #304, 1968), substance abuse ("The Hidden Enemy", episode #424, 1972), domestic violence ("First Love", episode #427, 1972), anti-war sentiment ("The Weary Willies", episode #364, 1970), and illegitimate births ("Love Child", episode #370, 1970; "Rock-A-Bye Hoss", episode #393, 1971). The series sought to illustrate the cruelty of bigotry against: Asians ("The Fear Merchants", episode #27, 1960; "The Lonely Man", episode #404, 1971), African-Americans ("Enter Thomas Bowers", episode #164, 1964; "The Wish", episode #326, 1968; "Child", episode #305, 1969), Native Americans ("The Underdog", episode #180, 1964; "Terror at 2:00", episode #384, 1970), Jews, ("Look to the Stars", episode #90, 1962); Mormons ("The Pursued", episodes #239-40, 1966), the disabled ("Tommy", episode #249, 1966) and "little people" ("It's A Small World", episode #347, 1968).
Originally, the Cartwrights tended to be depicted as put-off by outsiders. Lorne Greene objected to this, pointing out that as the area's largest timber and livestock producer, the family should be less clannish. The producers agreed with this observation and changed the Cartwrights to be more amiable.
Though not familiar stars in 1959, the cast quickly became favorites of the first television generation. The order of billing at the beginning of the broadcast appeared to be shuffled randomly each week, with no relation whatsoever to the current episode featured that week. The main cast of actors portraying Cartwrights is listed here in the order of their characters' ages, followed by an array of recurring supporting players:
Born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, to Russian-Jewish parents, Lorne Greene was chosen to play widowed patriarch Ben Cartwright. Early in the show's history, he recalls each of his late wives in flashback episodes. A standard practice with most westerns was to introduce some romance but avoid matrimony. Few media cowboys had on-screen wives. Any time one of the Cartwrights seriously courted a woman, she died from a malady, was abruptly slain, or left with someone else.
Greene appeared in all but twelve Bonanza episodes. Greene was 44 years old at the beginning of the series while Pernell Roberts and Dan Blocker, who portrayed two of his sons, were both 31, only thirteen years younger.
In 2007, a TV Guide survey listed Ben Cartwright as television's #2 favorite dad.
Born in Waycross, Georgia, Pernell Roberts played eldest son Adam, an architectural engineer with a university education. Adam built the impressive ranch house. Roberts disdained the assembly-line mindset of serial television (a rigid 34 episode season), and fought with series writers regarding Adam's lack of independence, noting that his 30-plus year old character was dependent on his "Pa's" approval. Despite the show's success, Roberts departed the series after the 1964–65 season (202 episodes) and returned to stage productions.
Attempts to replace Adam with Little Joe's maternal half-brother Clay (Barry Coe) and Cartwright cousin Will (Guy "Zorro" Williams), were unsuccessful. Creator David Dortort introduced a storyline that would keep the character of Adam in the mix, but with a lighter schedule. During season five Adam falls for a widow with a young daughter, while making Will Cartwright a central figure. Roberts decided to stay an additional season, so the scripts were quickly revised by having Adam's fiancee and her daughter depart the series prematurely with Guy Williams' Will, with whom she'd fallen in love. It was Landon, not Roberts, who objected to the infusion of any new Cartwrights. After Roberts did leave the following year, it was eventually mentioned that Adam had gone "to sea", and in the later movies he had emigrated to Australia. In mid 1972, the series producers considered inviting Roberts back in the wake of Dan Blocker's death: "One suggestion was to return Pernell Roberts, who had played another Cartwright son when Bonanza first premiered on NBC fourteen years ago. We only considered that briefly, [producer Richard] Collins says... Some people felt it was a logical step—the oldest son returning at a time of family need—but most of us didn't think it would work.'"
Dan Blocker was 6-foot-4, 320-pounds when chosen to play the gentle middle son Eric, better known as Hoss. The nickname was used as a nod to the character's ample girth, an endearing term for "big and friendly", used by his Swedish mother (and Uncle Gunnar). In the Bonanza flashback, his mother Inger names him Eric after her father. To satisfy young Adam, Inger and Ben agree to try the nickname Hoss and "see which one sticks." Inger says of "Hoss", "In the mountain country, that is the name for a big, friendly man." According to a biography, the show's crew found Blocker to be the "least actor-ish as well as the most likeable" cast member. According to producer David Dortort: "Over the years he gave me the least amount of trouble."
In May 1972, Blocker died suddenly from a post-operative pulmonary embolism following surgery to remove his gall bladder. The producers felt nobody else could continue the role. It was the first time a TV show's producers chose to kill off a young major male character (though it was done twice previously with young female leads—in 1956 on Make Room For Daddy, and again in 1963 with The Real McCoys). Not until the TV movie Bonanza: The Next Generation was it explained that Hoss had drowned attempting to save a woman's life.
Although "big and lovable", Blocker was also tough. Several years after his death, Michael Landon was on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" and related the following anecdote. It seems that during the shooting of one episode, Blocker's horse stumbled and fell, throwing Blocker and breaking his collarbone. Blocker got up and the bone was actually protruding from his skin. The crew wanted to call an ambulance but Blocker refused and stuck the bone back in place himself and resumed filming. At the end of the day he was convinced to go to the hospital where they set the broken bone and gave him strict instructions, no riding for six weeks. According to Landon, evidently Blocker's horse forgot what it was like to carry the big man during his convalescence because the first time that Blocker swung up into the saddle on his return, the horse collapsed under his weight and the cast and crew collapsed in fits of laughter.
The role of "Little Joe" was given to Michael Landon, who had earlier played the title role in I Was a Teenage Werewolf. He portrayed the youngest Cartwright son, whose mother (Felicia in the pilot, and later changed to Marie) was of French Creole descent. Landon began to develop his skills in writing and directing Bonanza episodes, starting with "The Gamble." Most of the episodes Landon wrote and directed were dramas, including the two-hour, "Forever" (1972), which was recognized by TV Guide as being one of television's best specials (November 1993). Landon's development was a bit stormy according to David Dortort, who felt that the actor grew more difficult during the last five seasons the show ran. Landon appeared in all but fourteen Bonanza episodes for its run, a total of 416 episodes.
Beginning in 1962, a foundation was being laid to include another "son", as Pernell Roberts was displeased with his character. In the episode "First Born" (1962), viewers learn of Little Joe's older, maternal half-brother Clay Stafford. The character departed in that same episode, but left an opportunity for a return if needed. This character's paternity is open to debate. In the 1963 flashback episode "Marie, My Love", his father was Jean De'Marigny. Then in 1964, Lorne Greene released the song "Saga of the Ponderosa", wherein Marie's previous husband was "Big Joe" Collins, who dies saving Ben's life. After Ben consoles Marie, the two bond and marry. They choose to honor "Big Joe" by calling their son "Little Joe". So, whether to Stafford, De'Marigny or Collins, Marie Cartwright was previously married. In the last of the three Bonanza TV movies, it is revealed that "Little Joe" had died in the Spanish–American War – a member of the "Rough Riders".
Veteran character actor Ray Teal essayed the role of Sheriff Roy Coffee on 98 episodes from 1960 to 1972. He appeared in more than 250 movies and some 90 television programs during his 37-year career. His longest-running role was as Sheriff Roy Coffee. He had also played a sheriff in the Billy Wilder film Ace in the Hole (1951). Teal co-starred in numerous TV westerns throughout his career: he appeared five times on Cheyenne, twice on The Lone Ranger, on the The Alaskans, a short-lived series starring Roger Moore, three times in different roles on another long-running western series, Wagon Train, on NBC's Tales of Wells Fargo with Dale Robertson, on the ABC western series Broken Arrow, five times on the ABC western comedy Maverick starring James Garner and Jack Kelly, on the CBS western series The Texan with Rory Calhoun, the NBC western series The Californians, twice on Colt .45 with Wayde Preston, once on Wanted: Dead or Alive with Steve McQueen and as "Sheriff Clay" for a single 1960 episode of the NBC western series Riverboat with Darren McGavin, and four times on a western series about the rodeo entitled The Wide Country.
Teal was a bit-part player in western films for several years before landing a substantial role in Northwest Passage (1940) starring Spencer Tracy. Another of his roles was as Little John in The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946). Notable film roles include playing one of the judges in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) with Spencer Tracy, and an indulgent bar owner to Marlon Brando's motorcycle gang in The Wild One (1953), which was the second of three times that Teal appeared with Brando, having done so already as a drunk in Brando's debut in The Men (1950) and later in Brando's only directorial effort, One-Eyed Jacks (1961), as a bartender.
Sheriff Coffee was occasionally the focus of a plot as in the episode "No Less a Man" (broadcast March 15, 1964). A gang of thieves has been terrorizing towns around Virginia City and the town council wants to replace Coffee, whom they consider over-the-hill, with a younger sheriff before the gang hits town, not realizing that they'd been spared earlier because the gang's leader was wary of Coffee's longevity and only acquiesced to rob the Virginia City bank after extreme pressure from other gang members. Coffee ends up showing the town that youth and a fast gun don't replace experience.
After graduating from the University of Cincinnati, David Canary was offered a left-end position with the Denver Broncos, but pursued acting and singing. In 1967, he joined the cast as "Candy" Canaday, a plucky Army brat turned cowboy, who became the Cartwrights' confidant, ranch foreman, and timber vessel captain. Dortort was impressed by Canary's talent, but the character vanished in September 1970, after Canary had a contract dispute. He returned two seasons later after co-star Dan Blocker's death, reportedly having been approached by Landon. Canary played the character on a total of 91 episodes. Canary joined the cast in Season 9.
Chinese American actor Victor Sen Yung played the Cartwrights' happy-go-lucky cook, whose blood pressure rose when the family came late for dinner. Cast here as the faithful domestic, the comedy relief character had little to do beyond chores. He once used martial arts to assail a towering family foe. Though often referenced, Hop Sing only appeared in an average of eight to nine shows each season. As a semi-regular cast member, Sen Yung was only paid per episode. After 14 years, he was widely known, but making far less than his Ponderosa peers. The Hop Sing character was central in only two episodes: "Mark Of Guilt" (#316) and "The Lonely Man" (#404).
After Canary's departure in mid-1970, and aware of the show's aging demographic, the writers sought a fresh outlet for Ben's fatherly advice. Fourteen-year-old Mitch Vogel was introduced as Jamie Hunter in "A Matter of Faith" (season 12, episode 363). Vogel played the red-haired orphan of a roving rainmaker, whom Ben takes in and adopts later in a 1971 episode, called "A Home For Jamie."
During the final season, in 1972–1973, Tim Matheson portrayed Griff King, a parolee who tries to reform his life as a worker at the Ponderosa Ranch under Ben Cartwright's tutelage.
Initially, Bonanza aired on Saturday evenings opposite Perry Mason. Bonanza's ratings were dismal and the show was soon targeted for cancellation. NBC kept it because Bonanza was one of the first series to be filmed and broadcast in color, including scenes of picturesque Lake Tahoe, Nevada. NBC's corporate parent, Radio Corporation of America (RCA), used the show to spur sales of RCA-manufactured color television sets (RCA was also the primary sponsor of the series during its first two seasons).
NBC moved Bonanza to Sundays at 9:00 pm Eastern with new sponsor Chevrolet (replacing The Dinah Shore Chevy Show). The new time slot caused Bonanza to soar in the ratings, and it eventually reached number one by 1964, an honor it would keep until 1967 when it was seriously challenged by the socially daring variety show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS. By 1970, Bonanza was the first series to appear in the Top Five list for nine consecutive seasons (a record that would stand for many years) and thus established itself as the most consistent strong-performing hit television series of the 1960s. Bonanza remained high on the Nielsen ratings until 1971, when it finally fell out of the Top Ten.
During the summer of 1972, NBC broadcast reruns of episodes of the show from the 1967–1970 era on Tuesday evenings at 7:30 p.m. under the title Ponderosa while also rerunning more recent episodes on Sunday evenings in the show's normal time slot as Bonanza. In the fall of 1972, off-network episodes were released in broadcast syndication to local stations by NBC under the Ponderosa name. After the series was canceled, the syndicated reruns reverted to the Bonanza name.1964: Logie Award for Best Overseas Show
1965: Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievements in Entertainment - Color Consultant, Edward P. Ancona Jr. (color consultant)
1966: Primetime Emmy Award for Individual Achievements in Film Editing - Marvin Coil (editor), Everett Douglas (editor), Ellsworth Hoagland (editor)
1966: Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Dramatic Series - David Dortort (producer)
1966: Primetime Emmy Award for Individual Achievements in Music - Composition David Rose
1969: Bambi, TV Series International - Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, Michael Landon and Pernell Roberts
1970: Bronze Wrangler Award, Fictional Television Drama - For episode "The Wish".
1971: Primetime Emmy Award Outstanding Achievement in Music Composition - For a Series or a Single Program of a Series (First Year of Music's Use Only) David Rose (composer) For episode "The Love Child".
2003: TV Land Award for Best in the West
2011: OFTA TV Hall of Fame Television Programs
1961: Writers Guild of America, USA - Episodic, Longer Than 30 Minutes in Length - Donald S. Sanford For Bonanza: The Last Hunt (1959).
1962: Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography for Television - Walter Castle (cinematographer) and Haskell B. Boggs (cinematographer)
1963: Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction and Scenic Design - Hal Pereira (art director) and A. Earl Hedrick (scenic designer)
1964: Golden Globes Award for Best TV Show - Nominated
1964: Golden Globes Award for Best TV Star Male: Lorne Greene - Nominated
1964: Eddie Awards for Best Edited Television Program - Marvin Coil For episode "Hoss and the Leprechaun".
1965: Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievements in Entertainment - Cinematographer - Haskell B. Boggs (cinematographer) and William P. Whitley (cinematographer)
1966: Primetime Emmy Award for Individual Achievements in Cinematography - Cinematography - Haskell B. Boggs (cinematographer) and William P. Whitley (cinematographer)
1966: Primetime Emmy Award for Individual Achievements in Cinematography - Special - Edward P. Ancona Jr. (color coordinator)
1966: Troféu Imprensa, Brazil - Best Series (Melhor Série)
1967: Primetime Emmy Award for Individual Achievements in Cinematography - Cinematography Haskell B. Boggs (cinematographer) and William P. Whitley (cinematographer)
1970: Eddie Awards for Best Edited Television Program - Danny B. Landres For episode "Dead Wrong".
1971: Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography for Entertainment Programming - For a Series or a Single Program of a Series - Ted Voigtlander For episode "The Love Child".
2006: TV Land Award for Favorite Made-for-TV Maid - Victor Sen Yung
From the fourth season on, the Cartwrights and nearly every other recurring character on the show wore the same clothing in almost every episode. The reason for this is twofold: it made duplication of wardrobe easier for stunt doubles (Hal Burton, Bob Miles, Bill Clark, Lyle Heisler, Ray Mazy) and it cut the cost of refilming action shots (such as riding clips in-between scenes), as previously shot stock footage could be reused. Below is a survey of costumes employed:Ben Cartwright: Sandy shirt, tawny leather vest, gray pants, cream-colored hat, occasional green scarf.
Adam Cartwright: Black shirt, black or midnight blue pants, black hat. Elegant city wear. Cream-colored trail coat.
Hoss Cartwright: White shirt, brown suede vest, brown pants, large beige flat-brimmed, ten-gallon hat.
Little Joe Cartwright: Beige, light gray shirt, kelly-green jacket, tan pants, beige hat. Black leather gloves from 10th season on. In season 14, he and Greene occasionally wore different shirts and slacks, as the footage of them and the late Dan Blocker together could no longer be reused.
Candy Canaday: Crimson shirt, black pants, black leather vest, black hat, grey/ pale purple scarf.
In 1968, Blocker began wearing a toupee on the series, as he was approaching age 40 and losing hair. He joined the ranks of his fellow co-stars Roberts and Greene, both of whom had begun the series with hairpieces (Greene wore his modest frontal piece in private life too, whereas Roberts preferred not wearing his, even to rehearsals/blocking). Landon was the only original cast member who was wig-free throughout the series, as even Sen Yung wore an attached queue (Michael Landon, "The Tonight Show", NBC-TV, March 10, 1983).
Bonanza features a memorable theme song by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans that was orchestrated by David Rose and arranged by Billy May for the television series. Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.
The Bonanza theme song famously opens with a blazing Ponderosa map and saddlebound Cartwrights. The melodic intro, emulating galloping horses, is one of the most recognized television scores. Variations of the theme were used for 12 seasons on the series. Although there were two official sets of lyrics (some country-western singers, avoiding royalties, substituted the copyright renditions with their own words), the series simply used an instrumental theme. Three of the cast members bellowed-out the original lyrics, unaccompanied, at the close of the pilot (Pernell Roberts, the sole professional singer of the quartet, abstained and untethered the horse reins). Before the pilot aired (on September 12, 1959), the song sequence, deemed too campy, was edited out of the scene and instead the Cartwrights headed back to the ranch whooping and howling. In a 1964 song, the Livingston-Evans lyrics were revised by Lorne Greene with a more familial emphasis, "on this land we put our brand, Cartwright is the name, fortune smiled the day we filed the Ponderosa claim" ("Bonanza", Bear Family Box set, Disc #2). In 1968, a slightly revamped horn and percussion-heavy arrangement of the original score introduced the series- which was used until 1970. A new theme song, called "The Big Bonanza" was written in 1970 by episode scorer David Rose, and was used from 1970–1972. Action-shot pictorials of the cast replaced the galloping trio. Finally, a faster rendition of the original music returned for the 14th and final season, along with action shots of the cast.
The theme song has been recorded by numerous artists in a diverse variety of styles. The first recorded and released version was an instrumental by Marty Gold, on his 1960 album Swingin' West. This was followed by the February 1960 single by Buddy Morrow and his Orchestra, which included vocals. Morrow's version also appeared on his 1960 album Double Impact which featured several other then-recent television themes. In December 1960, another vocal version was issued only in the United Kingdom by Johnny Gregory (bandleader) and his Orchestra and Chorus released on the Fontana label. All aforementioned vocal versions, including the television pilot, used lyrics written by Livingston and Evans contained in the first published sheet music for the song, though not all the lyrics were sung. A Bonanza soundtrack album released in late 1961 included a version by David Rose; Rose also had a 1960 single and included the theme on his 1961 album Exodus in a different mix. The biggest hit version is a guitar instrumental by Al Caiola, which reached number 19 on Billboard in 1961. Other versions were released by Billy Vaughn, Valjean, Lorne Greene, and Nelson Riddle.
Country singer Johnny Cash was first to record a full length vocal version of the theme song. He and Johnny Western discarded the original Livingston and Evans lyrics, and wrote new ones, though the revised lyrics still make direct reference to the Cartwrights and the Ponderosa. The song first saw release by September 1962 as a single. Sometime after June 1963, it was released as a track on his sixteenth album: Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash. This version was later covered by Faron Young for his 1963 album Aims at the West. Singer Ralf Paulsen recorded a German-language version of the song in 1963, released in mid-June 1963 on Capitol Records in the United States. His German version (lyrics attributed to "Nicolas") was sung in the same style and mood in which Cash had recorded it, and was fairly close in translation.
Carlos Malcolm & His Afro-Jamaican Rhythms released a ska version of the song as "Bonanza Ska" on Trojan Records in 1964. This version was later covered by Bad Manners (1989) and the Hurtin' Buckaroos (1997). Michael Richards, as Stanley Spadowski, sang a bit of the theme song while being held hostage by Channel 8's news goons in UHF (he did not know the words to the song he was originally supposed to sing, "Helter Skelter"). Michael Feinstein was the last to record the song in 2002 on his Songs of Evans and Livingston tribute CD. The Little House on the Prairie theme (also by Rose), was heard first in a 1971 episode of Bonanza. The overture for The High Chaparral composed by Harry Sukman can be heard briefly at the start of the 1966 episode "Four Sisters from Boston". On January 29, 2011, Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives performed the song on episode 56 of The Marty Stuart Show. The band often includes the song in their live shows.
The opening scene for the first season was shot at Lake Hemet, a reservoir in the San Jacinto Mountains, Riverside County, California, and later moved to Lake Tahoe. During the first season extra horses were rented from the Idyllwild Stables in Idyllwild, also in the San Jacinto Mountains. The first Virginia City set was used on the show until 1970 and was located on a backlot at Paramount and featured in episodes of Have Gun – Will Travel, Mannix, and The Brady Bunch. In the 1970 premiere episode of the 12th season entitled "The Night Virginia City Died", Deputy Clem Foster's pyromaniac fiancée levels the town in a series of fires (reflecting a real 1875 fire that destroyed three-quarters of Virginia City). This allowed for a switch to the less expensive Warner studios from September 1970 through January 1973. The script was initially written for the departing David Canary's Candy, but was rewritten for actors Ray Teal (Sheriff Roy Coffee) and Bing Russell (Deputy Clem Foster), who rarely appeared together on the show.
The program's Nevada set, the Ponderosa Ranch house, was recreated in Incline Village, Nevada, in 1967, and remained a tourist attraction until its sale thirty-seven years later in September 2004.
Bonanza is uniquely known for having addressed racism, not typically covered on American television during the time period, from a compassionate, humanitarian point-of-view.
Bigotry, and specifically anti-semitism, was the subject of the episode "Look to the Stars" (Season 3, Episode 26; original air date March 18, 1962). A bigoted school teacher (oblivious to his prejudice) routinely expels minority students. When he expels the brilliant Jewish student Albert Michelson, a scientific genius whose experiments on the streets of Virginia City often cause commotion, Ben Cartwright steps in and confronts Norton on his bigotry. Ashamed, the school teacher vows to reform. A coda to the episode reveals that Michaelson went on to win the Nobel Prize for Physics.
In the episode "Enter Thomas Bowers" (Season 5, Episode 30; original air date April 26, 1964), the Cartwright family helps the opera singer Bowers, an African American freedman, after he encounters prejudice while in Virginia City to perform. Bowers winds up arrested as a fugitive slave. At the beginning of the episode, Adam is shown to be outraged at the Supreme Court's Dred Scott v. Sandford decision (placing the time as 1857), which he discusses with his father. According to David Dortort, sponsor General Motors was anxious about the episode. As producer, Dortort ensured that the episode re-aired during the summer rerun seasons, though two TV stations in the South refused to air it.
In the "The Wish" episode, directed by Michael Landon, Hoss protects an African American former slave's family when confronted with racism after the American Civil War. In "The Fear Merchants" episode, discrimination against Chinese immigrants who attempt to assimilate in American society is addressed. In the episode The Lonely Man is presented the problem of interracial marriage between a Chinese man (Hop Sing) and a white woman (Missy).
Bonanza has had a highly profitable merchandising history. Currently, Bonanza Ventures, Inc. grants merchandising and licensing rights worldwide. The original series has spawned: several successful novelty western/folk albums from 1962–1965; three dozen Dell and Gold Key comic books from 1962 through 1970; Jim Beam Whiskey Ponderosa Ranch decanters 1964–1966; a series of "Big-Little" books from 1966–1969; Revel Bonanza model character sets from 1966–1968; a chain of Bonanza and Ponderosa steakhouses from 1963–present; the Lake Tahoe-based "Ponderosa" theme park from 1967–2004; a line of American Character action figures in 1966–1967; Aladdin lunch buckets and thermos bottles in 1966–1968; View Master slide sets in 1964, 1971; Ponderosa tin cups from 1967–2004; a series of Hamilton collector plates in 1989–1990; and most recently, Breyer Fiftieth Anniversary Ponderosa Stable sets, with horses and Cartwright figures in 2009–2011. Fourteen Bonanza novels have been published: Bonanza: A Novel by Noel Loomis (1960); Bonanza: One Man With Courage by Thomas Thompson (1966); Bonanza: Killer Lion by Steve Frazee (1966); Bonanza: Treachery Trail by Harry Whittington (1968); Winter Grass by Dean Owen (1968); Ponderosa Kill by Dean Owen (1968); The Pioneer Spirit by Stephen Calder (1988); The Ponderosa Empire by Stephen Calder (1991); Bonanza: The High Steel Hazard by Stephen Calder (1993); Journey of the Horse by Stephen Calder (1993); The Money Hole by Stephen Calder (1993); The Trail to Timberline by Stephen Calder (1994); Bonanza: Felling of the Sons by Monette L. Bebow-Reinhard (2005), and Bonanza: Mystic Fire by Monette L. Bebow-Reinhard (2009). There is also a collection of Bonanza stories: The Best of Bonanza World: A Book of Favorite Stories, published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2012). Bonanza Gold (2003–2009), a quarterly magazine, featured detailed information about the show, including interviews with guest actors and other production personnel, articles about historical events and people depicted in the series, fan club information, and fan fiction. Seasons 1-8 (as of 06/2015) are available on DVD, as well as several non-successive public-domain episodes (sans original theme music). The prequel series, The Ponderosa, as well as the three sequel movies (see below), are all available on DVD09
In the fall of 1972, NBC moved Bonanza to Tuesday nights – where reruns from the 1967–1970 period had aired the previous summer under the title Ponderosa – opposite the All In The Family spinoff show, Maude, a virtual death sentence for the show. The scheduling change, as well as Dan Blocker's death several months earlier, resulted in plunging ratings for the show. David Canary returned to his former role of Candy (to offset Hoss' absence), and a new character named Griff King (played by Tim Matheson) was added to lure younger viewers. Griff, in prison for nearly killing his abusive stepfather, was paroled into Ben's custody and got a job as a ranch hand. Several episodes were built around his character, one that Matheson never had a chance to fully develop before the show's abrupt cancellation in November 1972 (with last episode airing January 16, 1973). Many fans felt that the Hoss character was essential, as he was a nurturing, empathetic soul who rounded out the all-male cast.
For 14 years, the Cartwrights were the premier western family on American television and have been immensely popular on cable networks such as TV Land, INSP, Family Channel, and the Hallmark Channel. The series currently airs on Me-TV, TV Land, INSP, and Encore Westerns. TV Land only airs Bonanza from the first season to the 1969-1970 season. INSP first aired only selected first and second-season episodes of Bonanza and began to air the Bonanza Lost Episodes packages which contains episodes that originally aired from 1965-1973. Family Channel and the Hallmark Channel were two other channels that have also only aired the Bonanza Lost Episodes package. In October 2015, Me-TV additionally began airing the Bonanza Lost Episodes package. As of December 2016, Me-TV returned to airing the original episodes package.
Bonanza was revived for three made-for-television movies featuring the Cartwrights' children: Bonanza: The Next Generation (1988), Bonanza: The Return (1993), and Bonanza: Under Attack (1995). Michael Landon Jr., played Little Joe's son Benji while Gillian Greene, Lorne Greene's daughter, played a love interest. In the second movie, airing on NBC, a one-hour retrospective was done to introduce the drama. It was hosted by both Michael Landon Jr., and Dirk Blocker, who looks and sounds almost exactly like his father Dan Blocker. According to the magazine TV Guide, producer Dortort told Blocker he was too old to play the Hoss scion, but gave him the role of an unrelated newspaper reporter. Clips of his appearance were heavily used in advertisements promoting the "second generation" theme, perhaps misleading audiences to believe that Blocker was playing Hoss' heir. Hoss' son Josh was born out of wedlock, as it is explained that Hoss drowned without knowing his fiancėe was pregnant. Such a storyline might have been problematic in the original series. (The Big Valley, however, had a major character in Heath, who was presented as illegitimate. The Gunsmoke movies of the early 1990s employed a similar theme when Marshal Matt Dillon learned he had sired Michael Learned's daughter in a short-lived romance. The initial story was first introduced in 1973, when depiction of fornication courted protests, so CBS insisted their hero Matt have the encounter when he had amnesia.)For more, see:
Ponderosa (TV series)
In 2001, there was an attempt to revive the Bonanza concept with a prequel, Ponderosa – not to be confused with the 1972 summer reruns under the same title – with a pilot directed by Simon Wincer and filmed in Australia. Covering the time when the Cartwrights first arrived at the Ponderosa, when Adam was a teenager and Joe a little boy, the series lasted 20 episodes and featured less gunfire and brawling than the original. Bonanza creator David Dortort approved PAX TV (now Ion TV)'s decision to hire Beth Sullivan, which some believe gave the series more depth as well as a softer edge. The Hop Sing character is depicted not only as a cook but also a family counselor and herbal healer. The series takes place in Nevada Territory in 1849, which is actually an anachronism. Though Ponderosa takes place in what is today the state of Nevada, Nevada Territory did not actually exist in 1849. That area (along with the portions ceded to Nevada later on) was still part of Utah Territory at that point. Nevada Territory did not split off until 1861, meaning that until at least the 5th season (the episode "Enter Thomas Bowers" establishes that year as 1857), Bonanza technically should have been set in Utah Territory as well.
The last 14 episodes of Season One and the first 17 episodes of Season Two have fallen into the public domain. These 31 episodes have been released by many different companies in different configurations, usually with substandard picture and sound quality, and by legal necessity with the copyright-protected Evans-Livingston theme song replaced with generic western music.
In 1973, NBC sold the rights to the series, along with the rest of its pre-1973 library, to National Telefilm Associates, which changed its name to Republic Pictures in 1986. Republic would become part of the Spelling Entertainment organization in 1994 through Worldvision Enterprises. Select episodes ("The Best of Bonanza") were officially released in North America in 2003 on DVD through then-Republic video licensee Artisan Entertainment (which was later purchased by Lionsgate Home Entertainment). Republic (through CBS Television Distribution, which holds the television side of Republic's holdings) still retains the syndication distribution rights to the series. CBS Home Entertainment (under Paramount Home Media Distribution) is the official home video rights distributor at present.
CBS Home Entertainment (distributed by Paramount) has released the first eight seasons on DVD in Region 1. All seasons have been released in two-volume sets.
In Region 2, AL!VE AG released the first seven seasons on DVD in Germany between 2008–2010. These releases are now out of print as AL!VE has lost the rights. In 2011, StudioCanal acquired the rights to the series and have begun re-releasing it on DVD, and all seasons have now been released.
Episodes of the series have also been officially released on DVD in France and the United Kingdom.
Bonanza "the official first season" was released in Scandinavia during 2010. The first season is released in 4 volumes. The first two volumes were released on October 20, 2010, and the last two volumes on April 27, 2011. No further releases in Scandinavia are planned.The film Twin Town alludes to, or even parodies Bonanza. Some of the central characters are members of a Cartwright family, and live in a home called Ponderosa.
In American Desperado, co-authored by Jon Roberts (né John Riccobono) and award-winning journalist/author Evan Wright, Roberts shares in Chapter 3 that he missed his "Sea Hunt and Bonanza, [his] favorite TV shows", when his mother sent him to Palermo to live with his father, Nat Riccobono. (Roberts confides in the book that Riccobono – a mobster and illegal alien - had been deported to Sicily following the Apalachin Meeting.) After returning to the United States ("after a few weeks"), Roberts found that, "Watching Bonanza on TV was one thing I had in common with normal kids. [...] But when I listened to how other people talked about Bonanza, I was amazed. [...] My way of seeing it was different. To me the Cartwrights had the might and power, and they used it to take over all that land on their Ponderosa ranch. [...] From the way I saw it, the Cartwrights were the same as my father and uncles in the Mafia. They understood force." Roberts further discloses that, upon his return to the United States: "Because of all the stories in the news about my family, Riccobono was a bad name. My mother told me I had to change my last name. I changed my name to John Pernell Roberts, after Pernell Roberts, who played the oldest son on Bonanza. I liked him best because he wore black. His hat, his vest, his gun belt were all black. He was the top enforcer for the family. He was the kind of guy I wanted to be. I wanted to steal my own Ponderosa when I grew up." Roberts repeats this explanation for his name change in other media, as well, such as the documentary Cocaine Cowboys.
On the first season of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, episode "Homo Homimi Lupus", Detective Robert Goren is able to catch and arrest Simon Matic, a former Serbian soldier wanted for extortion and rape by calling Matic's cellphone after following him into a crowded restaurant. His victim had told Goren that his ringtone was the theme to Bonanza. Matic also goes by the name of "Little Joe."
The couch gag for an episode of The Simpsons, titled "We're on the Road to D'ohwhere", is a parody of the show's title sequence featuring a map of Springfield burning to reveal the Simpson family riding toward the camera.
In the TV series The Golden Girls, an episode titled "Wham, Bam, Thank You, Mammy", Blanche (Rue McClanahan) gives her former nanny, Viola Watkins, a music box and she opens it and the Bonanza theme song plays, to which Blanche says "The Theme from Bonanza".