Bonanza: Where You Can Ride the Range with the Cartwrights

As we wind up our series on Westerns, today we look at what was the most popular western, even if it wasn’t the longest-running: Bonanza created by David Dortort. Dortort was also the executive producer for The Restless Gun and High Chaparral, so he knew something about westerns. Debuting in 1959, the show would continue on the air until 1973, resulting in 431 episodes from its 14 seasons.


Set in the 1860s, the show features the Cartwright family who live in Virginia City, Nevada near Lake Tahoe. The title comes from a term used by miners to describe a large deposit of silver ore.

Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene), a former ship captain from New Orleans, is raising his boys after three of his wives have passed away; each boy had a different mother: Adam (Pernell Roberts), the oldest, is a well-educated architect who built their house; gentle and kind-hearted Eric “Hoss” (Dan Blocker) helps his dad on the ranch as does the youngest and hot-headed Joe (Michael Landon). Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yung) is the family’s Chinese cook. Their ranch is called the Ponderosa after the Ponderosa pines. The men often go into town to see different neighbors, most often the sheriff Roy Coffee (Ray Teal) and deputy Clem Foster (Bing Russell). Another recurring role was “Candy” Canaday (David Canary), the ranch’s foreman.

Victor Sen Yung Biography - Bonanza Boomers

Roberts decided to leave the show in the mid-sixties and it was said that Adam went to sea and later that he settled in Australia. In 1972, Blocker passed away from a pulmonary embolism after gall bladder surgery. The storyline was that Hoss saved a woman from drowning but lost his life doing it. Another actor to leave the show early was Canary after a contract dispute in 1970, although he later returned in 1972.

Roberts – Landon- Blocker – Greene Photo:

The show concentrated more on relationships than action. The storylines were about taking care of family members, neighbors, friends and seeing justice done. This was one of the first series to feature both comedy and drama. However, I have to say, you did not want to be cast as one of the Cartwrights’ love interests; every time one of the boys got serious about someone, they died from some disease, were killed, or went off with some other man. It was also just dangerous to hang out with this family; during the course of the show, Joe was shot 18 times, Ben was shot 14 times, Hoss was shot 11 times, and Adam was shot 6 times. The show also tackled some tougher topics including racism and anti-semitism.

Adam Photo: wikipedia

Landon liked to tell a story about how tough Blocker was. He said during shooting one day, Dan’s horse fell and threw him. Getting up, the collarbone was actually protruding from his skin. Dismissing the crew’s pleas to go to the hospital, he stuck the bone back in place and resumed filming.  At the end of the day, he did go to the hospital to have the bone set.

Landon also liked sharing a story about Greene. He was required to jump off a small ledge into a lake five feet below him. Greene did his own stunt and when he hit the water, he went completely under. His hairpiece floated to the top so the rest of the crew watched to see what would happen. Greene’s hand came up and grabbed the toupee and then it disappeared underwater until Greene emerged with his hairpiece askew and walked past the crew who were uncontrollably laughing. Greene was not the only member to wear a toupee though. Roberts and Blocker wore them, and Victor Sen Yung had an attached ponytail.

Joe Photo:

And Landon, although he had his own hair, dyed it from the beginning since he began going gray at age 20; he also wore 4-inch lifts in his shoes.

Landon was also interested in the behind-the-scenes processes for the show. He made several attempts at writing a script; eventually Dortort accepted one, and from that point on, Landon became a regular writer and director for the series.

Photo: Guest star Leonard Nimoy

The show received a time spot on Saturdays at 7:30 ET and the ratings were decent, but they could not beat Perry Mason, one of their competitors. The show was expensive to produce, but NBC stayed with it because it was one of the first series filmed in color. RCA was NBC’s parent company and they manufactured colored television sets.

For season three, Bonanza moved to Sunday nights at 9 ET. The ratings increased significantly and the show reached number one in 1964 and continued in that spot till 1967 when it went up against The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The show didn’t fall out of the top ten until 1971.

Hoss Photo:

One interesting production note about this show is that from the third season on, the Cartwrights and recurring characters wore the same clothing for almost every show. There were two primary reasons for this implementation. One is that it made it easier for stunt doubles. (Hal Burton, Bob Miles, Bill Clark, and Diamond Farnsworth among others. I really need to do a blog on stunt men.  The careers of these men are pretty impressive.) It also allowed action shots to be filmed once and then used over and over; for example, when characters were riding a horse, it wasn’t filmed all over again every episode.

The popular theme song was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, orchestrated by David Rose, and arranged by Billy May.  When the music began, we saw a map of the Ponderosa and the Cartwrights on their horses. For season thirteen, a new song, “The Big Bonanza” was written for the show, and the original theme came back for the last season in a faster rendition. Many musicians recorded the song, including Johnny Cash and a Bonanza soundtrack album was released in 1961. When the songwriters were interviewed for the Television Archives, they said Desi Arnaz asked them to write the theme and said he had very little money to pay them and thought the show might only last a year. They made a deal to keep the rights to the song instead of receiving a weekly paycheck. To their surprise, the show was a long-running hit, and they made millions of dollars from the song.

Bonanza Plus Ponderosa Party Time

The opening scene was shot at Lake Hemet in California but later moved to Lake Tahoe. The horses in the scene were rented from Idyllwild Stables in California. There was a set for Virginia City which was used till 1970; it was on the backlot of Paramount (you can also see it in Have Gun—Will Travel, Mannix, and The Brady Bunch). From 1970-73, the switch was made to a less expensive Warner studio. The ranch house was recreated in Incline Village, Nevada in 1967. It remained a tourist attraction until it was sold in 2004 for an estimated $38,000,000.


Once the series began full production, they rented horses from Fat Jones Stables in North Hollywood. The company rented horses for movie and television production beginning in 1912. Joe rode Cochise, Hoss rode Chub, and Adam rode Sport which were not their real names. Greene apparently did not enjoy riding horses, including his named Buck on the show. However, when the series was cancelled, Lorne bought his horse from the stable because he was fond of him. He donated “Buck” to a therapeutic riding center in California where he lived till passing away in 1992.

Although the Cartwright men rode horses, Chevrolet was its sponsor for most of its television run. The stars often appeared on commercials endorsing the cars.


Like so many of the sixties shows, if you liked the series you had a lot of products you could buy to support the show. In addition to comics, books, action figures, and lunch buckets, there were Jim Beam whiskey decanters, View Master reels, collector plates, and more unique, a chain of Bonanza and Ponderosa steakhouses. Blocker owned the chain originally called Bonanza, similar to the Golden Corral ones. When ownership changed, both the restaurant chains were purchased by the same owner and renamed Ponderosa.

Menu Refresh at the Iconic Ponderosa and Bonanza Steakhouse Brands Gives  Several Menu Items Healthy Dining Status |

In 1972, NBC moved Bonanza to Tuesday nights where it was up against All in the Family and Maude. They were unable to compete; ratings plummeted and the show was cancelled.

The shows have been in syndication since they went off the air and can currently be seen on several channels. Recently they have been aired on MeTV and Encore Westerns as well as Hallmark.

Three made-for-television movies were produced about Ben’s grandchildren–Bonanza: The Next Generation (1988), Bonanza: The Return (1993), and Bonanza: Under Attack (1995).


Although Gunsmoke was the longest-running western, there is something about Bonanza and its fan base that makes it different. Like the Andy Griffith Show, there is a group of people who adore the show. Fan clubs abound on the internet, many books have been written, and people who love the show learn all the details of their favorite stars and episodes. Recently, I learned that my sister-in-law named our nephew Ben because of Ben Cartwright; who knew? If you are one of these devoted fans, I don’t have to convince you to check out some of the episodes, but if you haven’t seen the show or it’s been a while, take some time to ride with the Cartwrights and explore the Nevada from the time of Abe Lincoln.

Big Valley: Home of the Barkleys

We are in the midst of our western series, and today we turn our attention to a show that was on ABC for four years, from 1965-1969: The Big Valley. Created by A. I. Bezzerides and Louis F. Edelman and produced by Levy-Gardner-Laven (a trio of Jules V. Levy, Arthur Gardner, and Arnold Laven).


The series is set on the Barkley Ranch in the 1870s, home of the Barkleys, one of the wealthiest families in the area. The ranch is based on the 30-acre Hill Ranch which existed from 1855-1931. Lawson Hill was murdered in 1861 ad then his wife Euphemia ran it. They also had three sons and one daughter. Today the ranch is covered by Camanche Reservoir waters. The exterior shot of the house used in the show was also Tara in Gone with the Wind.


On Big Valley, Victoria Barkley (Barbara Stanwyck) runs the ranch with the help of her sons Jarrod (Richard Long), Heath (Lee Majors), and Nick (Peter Breck) and daughter Audra (Linda Evans).

Barbara Stanwyck in The Big Valley by Silver Screen | Barbara stanwyck,  Actresses, Silver screen
Barbara Stanwyck Photo:

Heath was her husband’s illegitimate son, but she considered him her own child. He never met his father who had never been told of his existence; Heath learned it from his mother on her deathbed.

Three Great Stories in the Barkley Library - The Big Valley Writing Desk
The boys of Big Valley Photo:

Jarrod was an attorney and was refined and well educated. He was briefly married but his wife was killed shortly after by a bullet meant for him. Nick was the younger, hot-tempered son who helped his mother run the ranch. He was a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War. He had a great sense of humor and was very loyal to his family.

15 Things You Don't Know About Linda Evans - INSP TV | TV Shows and Movies
Linda Evans Photo:

Audra was rather bold for the times. She was a tomboy but had a soft heart and tended to children at the local orphanage.

There was another younger Barkley, Eugene (Charles Briles), who was a medical student at Berkeley. He was seen off and on through season one, then drafted into the army and never really mentioned again.

Considering that the show was only on the air four years, a lot of stars appeared. A small sample includes Jack Albertson, Lew Ayres, Anne Baxter, Milton Berle, Charles Bronson, John Carradine, Yvonne Craig, Yvonne DeCarlo, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Goulet, Julie Harris, Ron Howard, Cloris Leachman, Gavin MacLeod, Leslie Nielsen, Regis Philbin, Lou Rawls, Pernell Roberts, Wayne Rogers, Katharine Ross, William Shatner, and Adam West.

The Big Valley" Joshua Watson (TV Episode 1969) - IMDb
Lou Rawls guest star Photo:

The Big Valley was a western but with a few twists and never predictable. It was the first time a woman would have the lead in a western.  The Barkleys may have been wealthy, but they were raised right. They were hardworking and fought for the underdog, making sure justice prevailed. However, it was not a cliché; no one could be trusted and nothing was exactly as it looked. Characters who appeared angelic ended up being truly evil.


Unfortunately for the show, it was coming in at the end of the western’s popularity and was never in the top 30 during its time on the air. The other new shows that began when it did included Get Smart, I Dream of Jeannie, Hogan’s Heroes, Lost in Space, F Troop, and The Wild Wild West.

However, it received good reviews, and in 1966, Stanwyck was nominated and won the Emmy for drama series. She would also be nominated in 1967 and 1968, losing to Barbara Bain from Mission Impossible both years.

The theme was composed by George Duning. In 1966, a soundtrack from the show was released in mono and stereo versions. During his career Duning would work on more than 300 movie and television scores.

Like many television shows in the fifties and sixties, Dell Comics published six comic books based on the show. For some reason, I did not see much in the way of merchandising for this show compared to other westerns or shows from the sixties.

A warmhearted retrospective with 'Big Valley' cowgirl Linda Evans | Medium

The cast got along well. Evans and Stanwyck were exceptionally close and rehearsed at Barbara’s house every Saturday. When Arthur Gardner was interviewed on the Television Academy, he said that Stanwyck mentored the younger cast members. He said “he could not praise her enough” for the work she did.

52 The Big Valley ideas | tv westerns, barbara stanwyck, linda evans

It’s too bad the show didn’t begin earlier in the decade; it might have been able to stay on the air a bit longer. It was a unique concept with a powerful woman as the star. You can currently see it on Me TV on Saturdays as well as a few other networks.       

The Lone Ranger Rides Again . . . And Again . . . And Again

Like most of the westerns we are studying this month, The Lone Ranger first aired as a radio series. In 1933, the masked hero and his best friend Tonto, traveled throughout the Old West, capturing outlaws and putting them behind bars.

Fran Striker began reworking some old scripts about westerns in 1932. Those stories became The Lone Ranger. George Trendle brought Striker in to work on the radio scripts in 1933 when the show debuted. Striker continued to pen books about the hero with his first being The Lone Ranger in 1936 and his last The Lone Ranger on Red Butte Trail in 1961, 25 in all.

The Lone Ranger Rides by Fran Striker

The television show began in 1949 and ran for eight years. Clayton Moore portrayed the ranger and Jay Silverheels portrayed Tonto. Silverheels was a full-blooded Mohawk Indian from the Six Nations Indian Reservation in Ontario, Canada. In season three, Moore was temporarily replaced by John Hart, but he returned for the final two years. The other recurring character we see during the series is the ranger’s nephew Dan Reid played by Chuck Courtney. This was ABC’s first big television hit.


The show began and ended the same way. As the show opened, the Lone Ranger’s horse would rear up on his back and the ranger shouted “Hi-Yo Silver.” At the end of the show, someone would as “Who was that masked man?” Another repeated phrase from the series was “Kemo sabe.” Tonto called the Ranger this which translates to “faithful friend.”

The backstory of the ranger is that a patrol of six Texas Rangers was massacred and only the Lone Ranger survived. He now wears a mask to protect his real identity and he and Tonto, who nursed him back to health, travel around bringing justice to the territories. The ranger owns a silver mine which is why he named his horse Silver and why he carries silver bullets.


MGM film veteran producer Jack Chertok was brought in to produce the show. He would later produce Ann Sothern’s show Private Secretary and My Favorite Martian.

This show was produced and filmed differently than most shows in the classic age. Seventy-eight episodes were broadcast for consecutive weeks. Then they were all shown for a second time. After 156 weeks, they decided to film another 52 shows but there was a controversy and Moore left the show and was replaced by John Hart. Again the 52 filmed shows were consecutively shown and then rerun. For the next season, the original creator George Trendle sold the rights to Jack Wrather in 1954. Wrather hired Moore again and produced another 52 shows which were shown and then rerun. For the final year, only 39 episodes were produced with Sherman Harris taking over as producer. The final season was the only one shot in color. Because there were only new episodes in five of the eight years, only 221 shows were produced.

At this point, film stars were still avoiding television, seeing it as a temporary competition with films. Therefore, most of the guest stars we see on the show were actors who went on to have successful television careers. Some of those include Michael Ansara, James Arness, Frances Bavier, Hugh Beaumont, Dwayne Hickman, Stacy Keach Jr., Marjorie Lord, Martin Milner, Denver Pyle, and Marion Ross.

The Lone Ranger" Texas Draw (TV Episode 1954) - IMDb
Photo: imdb Marion Ross guest starred

This was one of the first series to be nominated for an Emmy; unfortunately, it lost to the first version of The Life of Riley starring Jackie Gleason. The nomination came in 1950 at the second Emmy ceremony. The early years had very limited categories for awards.

General Mills was the original sponsor for the show. They also sponsored the radio show from 1941-1961.

The Lone Ranger, first created and broadcast in Detroit, turns 86 this week  | Michigan Radio

The theme music was the classical piece, the William Tell overture. Rossini composed the piece in 1829.

Like Adam West and Batman, Clayton Moore really embodied the character of the Lone Ranger. After the show ended, he would make up to 200 appearances a year as the crime fighter. In 1979, Jack Wrather, who owned the rights to the character, sued him, but Moore won a countersuit allowing him to continue appearing as the masked hero.

The Lone Ranger was never permanently retired. Two animated series were released in 1966 and 1980. Also, both Silverheels and Moore starred in two big-screen features: The Lone Ranger (1956) and The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958).

In addition, Moore slipped into his costume again for a film in 1958 to promote the Lone Ranger Peace Patrol to convince kids to buy US Savings Bonds. A 2013 movie reboot came out with Armie Hammer in the starring role.

The Lone Ranger has had an iconic place in history for 87 years now. Almost every generation recognizes the hero, and his black mask is at the Smithsonian Museum. It’s pretty incredible for a show that really had five years’ worth of episodes made and has been off the air for 64 of those years. Although this era did not often portray African Americans or Native Americans very well, this show was about friendship, and I read very little about negative portrayals of anyone on the television series. You can easily find the episodes on DVD, Youtube, or a variety of network channels.


When my son who is now 29 was about 9, he was enthralled by westerns and watched The Lone Ranger and Daniel Boone.  Internet and email were newer forms of technology, but he was able to reach out to Fess Parker and Clayton Moore.  Both were very kind.  Moore sent him his autographed book with a written note. He still enjoyed discussing his time as the crime fighter. A classic man from a classic show.

Gunsmoke Took 20 Years to Get Outta Dodge

From 1952-1961, you could tune into Gunsmoke on your local radio to hear the adventures of the folks in Dodge City, Kansas created by Norman Macdonnell and John Meston. The primary characters were Marshal Matt Dillon (William Conrad), Doc Charles Adams (Howard McNear), Miss Kitty Russell (Georgia Ellis) and Chester Wesley Proudfoot (Parley Baer). Three years after its debut, the series shifted to television as well, running on CBS from 1955-1975, producing an incredible 635 episodes. For television, Macdonnell took over the reins as producer with Meston the head writer. Gatsbe Exchange Framed Print Gunsmoke Cast Marshal Dillon Kitty  Fester and Doc: Posters & Prints

James Arness was offered the role of Dillon on television. The network wanted John Wayne who turned it down. He did, however, introduce the first episode. Both Raymond Burr and Denver Pyle were also considered for the role. Matt Dillon spent his youth in foster care, knew the Bible well, and at some point was mentored by a caring lawman. He also talks about his time in the Army in some episodes.

Gunsmoke Cast Matt Dillon 8x10 Photograph – Vintage Poster Plaza

The role of Chester, with a new last name of Goode now, was played by Dennis Weaver. Chester was not only a loyal employee to Marshal Dillon, but he brewed a mean pot of coffee. He had a noticeable limp which apparently resulted from an injury in the Civil War. Weaver later said if he realized how hard it would be to film that long with a fake limp, he would have not used it. Other sidekicks to the Marshal included Ken Curtis as Festus Haggen, Burt Reynolds as Quint Asper (1962-65), Roger Ewing as Thad Greenwood (1966-68), and Buck Taylor as Newly O’Brien (1967-75).

Chester Good....Dennis Weaver Gunsmoke I've always loved that hat | Movie  stars, Actors, Tv westerns

Doc was now Galen Adams and played by Milburn Stone. Doc was an interesting guy. He apparently was educated in Philadelphia and spent some time as a ship doctor on gambling boats on the Mississippi River where he met Mark Twain. His young wife died from typhus two months after their marriage. He finally settled in Dodge City after wandering a bit.

Gunsmoke photo 197 Milburn Stone

Miss Kitty was portrayed by Amanda Blake. Perhaps the closest bond she had with Dillon was that she also grew up in foster care in New Orleans. She was in more than 500 of the television episodes. In addition to her role as “entertaining men” in Dodge City, she is half owner of the Long Branch Saloon. Kitty and Matt obviously are attracted to each other and are very close. Kitty was a successful business owner and had a cold demeanor about professional matters but had a soft heart in other matters. Blake was ready to leave the show in 1974, and her storyline was that she finally returned to New Orleans.

Amanda Blake - Wikipedia

During its twenty-year stint, the show had some notable guest stars.  Just a few celebrities who graced the set include Jack Albertson, Ed Asner, James Backus, Beau Bridges, Charles Bronson, Bette Davis, Angie Dickinson, Richard Dreyfuss, Buddy Ebsen, Barbara Eden, Jodie Foster, Mariette Hartley, Ron Howard, June Lockhart, Jack Lord, Rose Marie, Howard McNear, Harry Morgan, Leonard Nimoy, Carroll O’Connor, Denver Pyle, Wayne Rogers, William Shatner, Cicely Tyson, and Adam West.

While the show portrayed the hard life in the West, it was also a warm and humorous celebration of a group of people making a new life together.

The opening of the show is a gunfight between Matt and a “bad guy.” It was shot on the same Main Street set used in High Noon, the Grace Kelly/Gary Cooper classic. The scene was dropped in the 1970s when a nonviolence emphasis was placed on television shows and the opening was Matt riding his horse.

Gunsmoke, The Great American Western

The show began its life on Saturday nights at 10 pm ET. In 1961 when the radio show left the air, the television show switched from half an hour to an hour. For season 13, it moved to Monday nights at 7:30 for four years, and then at 8 pm for four years. By season two it was a top ten hit, rising to number one where it remained until 1971.

The first seven seasons were sponsored by L&M cigarettes and Remington shavers.

The well-known theme from the show and radio was “Old Trails” composed by Rex Koury. Lyrics were later recorded by Tex Ritter in 1955 but not used in either radio or tv. Although I could not confirm it, I read several mentions that Koury was so busy, he actually penned the song while using the bathroom. William Lava composed original theme music for television; other composers who contributed music during the twenty years were Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann, Jerome Moross, and Franz Waxman.


Surprisingly, the show was only nominated for fifteen Emmys during its reign. Of those, there were only three wins: one for best dramatic show in 1957, one for Dennis Weaver as supporting actor in 1958, and one for Milburn Stone in 1967.

After surviving the rural purge Paley conducted, the cast thought they were not in jeopardy and were all stunned by the cancellation in 1975. CBS had not prepared them that they were debating ending the show. They assumed the show was continuing till it had 700 episodes and many of the stars read about the cancellation in the trade magazines.

The show has appeared in syndication in three different versions. One package is half-hour episodes from 1955-1961, one package contains hour-long black and white episodes from 1961-1966, and the final package contains one-hour color episodes from 1966-1975. Me TV currently airs the one-hour color shows.


Arness would appear in five made-for-television movies after the show went off the air. In 1987, Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge featured Blake as Miss Kitty and Taylor as O’Brien. Stone had passed away in 1980, so his role was not part of the new film. Gunsmoke: The Last Apache premiered in 1990 without Blake who had died in 1989. In 1992-1994, Gunsmoke: To the Last Man, Gunsmoke: The Long Ride, and Gunsmoke: One Man’s Justice would appear before the series rode off into the sunset for good.

After being on television so long, it’s not surprising that there were a lot of merchandising opportunities for the show. In addition to typical items like lunch boxes, there was Gunsmoke cottage cheese. A Matt Dillon figurine was available with his Horse Buck.

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There were also board games, puzzles and a variety of books including numerous paperbacks and comic books from Dell and Gold Key.

1950s Gunsmoke lunch box with thermos. Vintage Gunsmoke Matt Dillon U.S.  Marshall metal lunchbox with thermos. Lunchbox depicts James Arness as Matt  Dillon draw…

Fans had an affinity for the show. During its time on the air more than thirty westerns came and went, but Gunsmoke continued, in the top ten for most of its two decades. Few series have their own museum, but you can visit Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City to learn all about the show. Furniture from the series is included, as well as signed photos from the cast and other memorabilia including one of Miss Kitty’s dresses.

When you hear someone say “Get outta Dodge,” you can fondly remember Gunsmoke which is where this phrase began. Perhaps being cancelled was a blessing in disguise. After two decades, maybe it was time to get outta Dodge, maintaining the high standards and high ratings that made the show such a long-running success.