Saluting ‘Bonanza,’ the most popular TV show of the swingin’ sixties
Premiering September 12, 1959, on NBC, Bonanza was television’s first full hour western series filmed in color. For a prime time sagebrush saga, it is second only to Gunsmoke, running a staggering 14 seasons into 1973 and producing a grand total of 431 episodes.
Facing possible cancellation after its first season — the writing was clichéd and the characters were not always delineated sympathetically— Bonanza was saved by network executives keen on promoting new RCA color television sets to an audience still satisfied with black and white sets. And full disclosure — RCA was NBC’s corporate parent.
Given a new lease on life, Bonanza settled comfortably into the Nielsen Top Five by 1961, staying there through season 11 — ten astonishing years later. It was by far the most popular series of the 1960s. In fact, Bonanza ranked No. 1 from 1964–1967 in the ratings, and it still airs perpetually around the world.
During a July 5, 1973, Tonight Show appearance only six months after Bonanza’s untimely cancellation, Michael Landon related with unmitigated glee how awful pilot episode “A Rose for Lotta” was when it originally debuted.
“Two years ago we showed the pilot of Bonanza to the crew,” admitted Landon to pal Johnny Carson. “Now after all these years you forget what it was you really made in the beginning. Lorne Greene wasn’t there. I don’t know if he could have taken it. Really. It was camp. And it’s hilarious. Lorne’s constant line is (Landon adopts a mockingly serious tone), ‘If we’re not back in five minutes, kill him.’
“And Dan Blocker, every time a girl would get off a stage, Dan would go (Landon makes a goofy swooning face). I was jumping around with an umbrella stabbing people in the stomach.
“We sat and watched this, all the guys that had worked together for so many years, and just yucked for one hour. Actually at the time we filmed the pilot we thought it was rotten. We were very lucky that the show got on because the pilot was not a particularly good pilot. Once it got on, things started to gel…”
Bonanza’s premise finds a three-time widower, Ben Cartwright — portrayed by Canadian actor Lorne Greene — one of the largest landowners in Nevada. Nicknaming…