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Archetypal television western which was broadcast between 1959 and 1973, Bonanza told the story of the Cartwright family, owners of a vast ranch called the Ponderosa:
Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene), patriarch of the family, a former ship's chandler from New England
Adam Cartwright (Pernell Roberts), his eldest son by his first (late) wife. He was the quiet, educated, angsty one who dressed all in black.
Eric "Hoss" Cartwright (Dan Blocker), his middle son by his second (late) wife. He was the affable Gentle Giant and usually a peacemaker between his brothers.
Joseph "Little Joe" Cartwright (Michael Landon), his youngest son, by his third (late) wife. He was the young, hotheaded immature one.
Beyond the core cast of Cartwrights, the program had a vast ensemble of regulars and recurrers numbering literally in the hundreds, including at times such current and future famous names as James Coburn, Tim Matheson, Jack Elam, Buddy Ebsen, Mariette Hartley, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, George Kennedy, Bruce Dern, Bonnie Bedelia, Dawn Wells, Wayne Newton, Majel Barrett, James Doohan and De Forest Kelley. Beyond the big name guest stars, there were rarely one-off characters on Bonanza — almost every character ever seen, even bad guys, made appearances in at least two episodes; and even nameless extras in the background (such as "Blonde Saloon Girl" and "Brunette Saloon Girl") could and did have multi-year runs playing their characters. In fact, between the length of its time on the air and the scope of its storylines, Bonanza was virtually a gateway series for talent both new and established looking for television credits.More than just a "shoot-em-up" horse opera, Bonanza first exploited and then explored the clichés of The Western, eventually evolving into something more than its origins might have suggested it was capable of.
Burn Baby Burn: The notorious mapburning at the start of the opening credits.
The 1970 season opener, "The Night Virginia City Died," featured plenty of fire ... the burning of old buildings by an arsonist, that is. The fires were a way to explain the move of filming the series from Paramount to the new Warner Bros. studios.
Cartwright Curse: The trope namer. Ben Cartwright has been thrice-widowed. His first wife, Elizabeth Stoddard, died from complications after giving birth to Adam. His second wife, a Swedish woman named Inger Stevenson (and also Hoss' mother), was killed during an Indian attack. Ben's third wife and the mother of Little Joe, Marie DeMarigny, died from injuries after she fell off her horse.
The Cast Showoff: Pernell Roberts was also a talented singer; so some episodes had Adam singing during the plot.
Cattle Baron: A rare protagonist example of the trope, the Cartwright family are stated to have a 640,000 acre spread and a few hundred permanent (though rarely seen) employees. Moving a few thousand head of cattle to new pastures is a morning's work, and the Nevada mining industry was nearly crippled by Ben's refusal to cut and sell more lumber than he was already providing.
Cattle Drive: Several episodes used this as the main plot — usually, Ben or someone dealing with rustlers, trying to resolve a problem within a short time, etc. — or to frame a completely different story. More than once, when an episode focused exclusively on just one or two of the Cartwrights or other regulars and they didn't need the others around, the character would invariably explain that the missing Cartwrights were "away on a cattle drive" (with the given actor either not appearing at all or appearing just briefly at the beginning or end).
The Character Died with Him: Implied with Hoss in several early Season 14 episodes, including "Forever" (Ben mournfully looks at a photo of Hoss on Joe's nightstand, with the camera zooming in on said photo) and "The Initiation" (Ben – angry that a lynch mob is after one of Jamie's friends – shouts out, "I've already buried one son!"). This comes following the unexpected death of Dan Blocker in May 1972 just months before production on Season 14 episodes was to begin.
Cool Old Guy: Ben Cartwright prefers to stay at home and act as Mission Control to his sons, but when the chips are down he can fight, shoot and work just as well as his boys.
Cousin Oliver: The addition of Jamie Hunter Cartwright (Mitch Vogel) to open the 1970-1971 season. As the character of Little Joe began maturing throughout the 1960s, he began to be too old to take Ben's intended-for-teenager's fatherly advice. That, and to maintain interest among younger viewers, justified Jamie's arrival on the Ponderosa. (To be fair, the series continued to be a top 20 hit for two more seasons, with the real dooming catalyst being Dan Blocker's death and a move of the series to Tuesday evenings from its longtime Sunday night home.)
Credits Gag: Subtle ones. In the end credits for many years (and the opening credits in some early years), they would show drawings of people living in Old West times, doing things the way the credit listed would have done. Such as showing an old man with a fiddle for "music by" (on another drawing, the Livingston-Evans song would accompany a pianist), a man reading a book called Bonanza for the writing credits, or an old fashioned Daguerreotype camera for "director of photography". The last picture would be of a showgirl on a curtained stage (this picture was the only one used in the final two seasons).
Joe actually has two! Shorty Slade from "The Gunmen", and Angus Borden from "Alias Joe Cartwright".
Ben's "criminal twin" was a con artist named Bradley Meredith, whose schemes to gain control of the Ponderosa (usually through gambling) come when Ben is out of the area on business. The two episodes aired as season finales in 1971 and 1972 (with another planned for 1973, had the series continued), and Ben always arrives back home in time to gather enough ammunition to run Bradley out.
Cultured Badass: The Cartwrights. For all their salt-of-the-earthiness and willingness to get their hands dirty, the Cartwrights have fashionable town-clothes, a large, lavishly but tastefully decorated home and modern, expensive weapons. Ben Cartwright is also partial to fine French wines, Château Lafite in particular.
Dark Is Not Evil: Adam's main outfit is completely black, occasionally with a splash of color, and he's probably the broodiest of the bunch. Yet he's still loyal to his family and won't hesitate to help anyone in need.
Defeat Means Friendship: Hoss and Arnie become fast friends in The Ape after fighting to a draw. Due to a misunderstanding, neither one of them knew what they were actually fighting over.
Early Installment Weirdness: The Cartwrights in the early episodes often confronted strangers in the Ponderosa in a hostile fashion with guns drawn. Lorne Greene convinced the producers that since the Cartwrights are such major landowners and a major business interest in the region, they logically would be more hospitable to visitors for economic, social and political purposes.
"We chased lady luck, 'til we finally struck Bonanza.
"With a gun and a rope and a hat full of hope, planted a family tree.
"We got hold of a pot of gold, Bonanza.
"With a horse and a saddle, and a range full of cattle,
"How rich can a fellow be?"
Fourth Date Marriage: Happens frequently, often, and at least twice to each of the main characters, although the altar isn't always reached by the time it's called off. Justified a little by the fact marriages often did occur with haste back in the 1800s.
The Gambling Addict: Helen Layton, who'd driven her husband to drink himself to death over her gambling debts, and latched onto Hoss as her new sugar daddy. When she was exposed, she left town with another man.
High Heel-Face Turn: Lotta Crabtree, a young actress from the first episode. Though she wasn't really evil to begin with, she was originally hired by a gang of crooks into seducing Little Joe so they can take the Cartwright property for themselves. However her feelings for him were genuine. This causes her to feel guilt and remorse for her role in the plot, and is even willing to go against her employers in order to help Joe escape. She is later seen at the end attending a dance with him and enjoying herself.
Historical In-Joke: A few. The Cartwrights were directly involved with the invention of the honeycomb timbering for silver mines and the water pumping windmill, for example.
In an early episode, gold prospectors were complaining about the blue clay that was gumming up their equipment — it was never revealed in-story that it was silver ore.
Real life historical figures from the West - like Mark Twain, Albert Michelson, and Emperor Norton - would make guest appearances.
Chronology their presence in the show is reasonably accurate historically. Twain's first appearance coincides with the time he was working as a newspaperman in Virginia City, Nevada. Michelson is shown as a young Jewish schoolboy from Germany in the same town, subject to antisemism, which he was in real life. Michelson gets an extra coda showing what he did in real life.
Hollywood Healing: Considering the number of times Little Joe was shot/stabbed/trampled by horses/otherwise injured over the course of the series, it's amazing his body was still functional.
Limited Wardrobe: From about the third season onward, the main characters wore the same costume in just about every episode. This was done to cut the cost of re-filming action shots (such as riding clips in-between scenes), as previously-shot stock footage could be reused.
Long Runner: Take a look at the top of the page and count how many years it was on the air....
For many years its run made it only the second longest running primetime American drama after Gunsmoke before being surpassed by Law & Order (20 seasons, itself tied with Gunsmoke) and ER (15 seasons) though only the former had more episodes.
Missing Episode: When the show entered syndication in 1973, the original rerun package contained only the first six seasons (complete, minus one 1965 episode), plus select episodes from the eighth through 11th seasons (1966-1970, those considered to be the "most popular" amongst fans); this is the package that airs currently on TVLand. The entire 1965-1966 season, the episodes from 1966-1970 not included in the original syndicated package, and the final three seasons (1970-1973, which had Mitch Vogel as part of the cast as young teen-ager Jamie Hunter Cartwright) were not included and, amongst die-hard fans presumed to be "lost." However, the "missing" episodes were later included in a second rerun package, and these episodes have aired on CBN and the Hallmark Channel. That said, there are no known instances of the entire run of 430 episodes — from the premiere to the final episode — being aired as part of a single rerun package on a TV network or station.
Put On A Stagecoach: When Pernell Roberts left the show, his character Adam was said to have moved to Australia, and then almost never mentioned again.
Race Lift: The real Virginia City was a popular destination for freedmen escaping the South, especially during the time the show was set. Yet few blacks were ever shown on Bonanza, even as walk-ons. Pernell Roberts said he left the show in part specifically because of the Race Lift.
Rearrange the Song: The driving, rock-oriented version of the theme song heard in later seasons.
Recycled Soundtrack: Unusually for the time, averted - every episode had an original score (mostly by David Rose, although his scores tended to avoid the theme song by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans). Combined with it being filmed in color from first show to last (a rarity for a series which began in 1959), it must have cost NBC a fortune. Safe to say they've made their money back now, however.
Replaced the Theme Tune: Yes, it happened; creator/executive producer David Dortort, who never much liked the Livingston-Evans theme song thanks to its lyrics (which is why they were never heard on the show), asked his composer of choice David Rose to write a new theme - it was used for seasons 12and 13 before viewer demand led to the first song coming back for the final season.