Bonanza is an NBC-produced western television series that ran on the NBC network from September 12, 1959 to January 16, 1973. Lasting 14 seasons and 430 episodes, it ranks as the second longest running western series (behind Gunsmoke) and still continues to air in syndication, The show centers around the Cartwright family, who live in the area near Lake Tahoe, Nevada. The show stars Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker, Michael Landon, and David Canary. The show's title "Bonanza" is a term used by miners in regard to a large vein or deposit of ore, and commonly refers to The Comstock Lode. In 2002, Bonanza was ranked No. 43 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.
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" (Dan Blocker); and the youngest was the hotheaded and impetuous Joseph or "Little Joe" (Michael Landon). Via exposition (Bonanza, "Rose For Lotta", premiere, 9/12/59) and flashback episodes, each wife was accorded a different ethnicity: English (Bonanza, "Elizabeth My Love"; episode #65) Swedish (Bonanza, "Inger My Love", episode #95) and French Creole (Bonanza, "Marie My Love", episode #120) 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 ranch (over one thousand square-miles) 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 (Paulette Cohn, "Bonanza: TV Trailblazer", American Profile Magazine, p. 12, June 5, 2009).
Episodes ranged from high drama ("Bushwacked", episode #392, 1971; "Shanklin", episode #409, 1972) to broad comedy ("Hoss and the Leprechauns", episode #146, 1964; "Caution, Bunny Crossing", episode #358, 1969) and addressed such meaty issues 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); 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, however, 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.