Synopsis by Hal Erickson
The first hour-long network Western series telecast in color, Bonanza was also the granddaddy of all "property" Westerns, future examples of which included The Virginian, The Big Valley, and The High Chaparral. The series took place during and after the Civil War in Virginia City, NV. Lorne Greene starred as Ben Cartwright, silver-haired owner of the fabulous, half-million-acre Ponderosa Ranch. The industrious, independent Cartwright had been widowed three times, each of his wives providing him with a single son. Pernell Roberts played eldest son Adam, the brooding, intellectual offspring of Ben's first wife Elizabeth; Dan Blocker played middle son Hoss, the beefy, affable issue of Ben's second wife Inger; and Michael Landon played youngest son Little Joe, a hotheaded, temperamental lad who took after his mother, Ben's third wife Marie. The four Cartwrights comprised the principal cast during the series' first six seasons, with occasional appearances by Victor Sen Yung as the Ponderosa's Chinese cook Hop Sing; Ray Teal as Virginia City's taciturn lawman, Sheriff Roy Coffee; and Bing Russell (father of Kurt Russell) as deputy Clem Foster. When Pernell Roberts left the series at the outset of season seven, it was explained that Adam had gone to Europe to complete his education. Several attempts were made to replace Adam in the hearts and minds of the viewing public: Guy Williams of Zorro fame was seen briefly as cousin Will Cartwright; David Canary appeared as ranch foreman Canady (aka Candy) during seasons nine through 11, then again during season 14, Lou Frizzell showed up as Ben's friend Dusty Rhoades beginning in season 12, as did Mitch Vogel as Dusty's ward Jamie Hunter, a teenaged orphan; and during the series' final year, Tim Matheson weaved through the proceedings as ex-convict Griff King, whom Ben tried to give a second chance by taking him on as a ranch hand. Making its NBC debut on September 12, 1959, Bonanza spent its first two seasons on Saturday evenings, opposite CBS' Perry Mason. Ratings improved tremendously when Bonanza shifted to Sunday evenings at 9 PM (EST) beginning in the 1961-1962 season; in fact, the series was America's number one show for three seasons in a row, from 1964 through 1967. It might have run forever had it not been for two calamitous events during the 1972-1973 season: the decision by NBC to reschedule the show to Tuesdays, and the unexpected death of longtime regular Dan Blocker. With ratings plummeting precipitously, the show was canceled on January 16, 1973 -- a rather ignominious climax for a classic Western series that was second only to Gunsmoke in longevity. Since that time, a number of attempts have been made to revive Bonanza, notably a trio of made-for-TV movies produced in 1988, 1993, and 1995; the latter two appearing after the deaths of Lorne Greene and Michael Landon. And during the 2001-2002 season, the PAX network aired the prequel series Ponderosa, which detailed the adventures of the four Cartwrights in the years before Bonanza took place.