Question: I've been watching Bonanza reruns and was wondering why it was eventually cancelled. My dad says it was because Dan Blocker died. Is that true? Thanks for your help and keep up the good work! — Tim M., Cicero, N.Y.
Televisionary: Aw, heck — t'ain't nothin, but thanks for the kindly words, Tim.
It's true that when Blocker died at 43 from surgical complications, many felt the heart and soul of the show went with him. But the show also dropped in the ratings after NBC moved it from its longtime Sunday-night berth to Tuesday night. The truth is that Bonanza most likely perished because its time had simply passed. Next to Gunsmoke, it was the longest-running Western on TV (from September 1959 to January 1973) and for much of that time it turned in phenomenal ratings. From 1964-67 it was number one and it only began to slip out of the top 10 in 1971. Not a bad track record.
However, after Blocker passed away and took the immensely popular character of middle brother Hoss Cartwright with him, even the show's leads knew it would be difficult to continue, though they put on a brave face for the press. "After Dan's death I didn't see how the show could continue," Lorne Greene (Battlestar Galactica), who played proud papa Ben Cartwright, told TV Guide in 1972. "I said to my wife, 'That's it. It's finished.' I know Michael Landon felt the same way."
That he did. "The first day we went back to work was just incredible, it was so bad," Landon (Little House on the Prairie), who played youngest brother Little Joe, said. "Everybody was just trying to force good humor, because here we were, back in the same place again. Fortunately, we stayed out of the dining room that day. We've had so many laughs in that dining room over the last 13 years; they were always the deadly scenes — they were so terrible because they were exposition scenes so you could find out what was going to happen in the next act — and that's where Dan and Lorne and I did most of our horsing around."
In those interviews, the actors also gave plenty of can-do quotes about how the show would go on and Landon was happy to have written the script for a two-part season opener, in which Little Joe took a bride (Bonnie Bedelia). Unfortunately, though, the story's downer ending — she died — struck the wrong note with fans, who resented such a dark plot staining the almost unfailingly upbeat series and that resentment was said to have hastened Bonanza's demise.
The thing is, as is often the case with hit shows (Friends, Ally McBeal, etc.), the formula that made Bonanza so popular was anathema to several of its stars. Creator David Dortort was always upfront with what he was trying to do on the show. It was about four men who loved their ranch (though they seldom were seen working it) and each other — and there weren't many fillies to be found (a characteristic Bonanza detractors mocked without mercy) because there weren't supposed to be. "We do not have any moms built into our show — or, for that matter, any women," Dortort said in 1960. "We are, as it were, anti-Momism. We don't have any little brats who talk like Leonard Bernstein. Nor do we believe in the philosophy that life favors the underdog. Instead, we deal with a love affair between four strong men and, even more importantly, with the land and with roots."
Fine and dandy, when it's your baby and the fans are flocking to it. But stage-trained actor Pernell Roberts (Trapper John, M.D.), who played oldest Cartwright brother Adam, could never quite stomach it and he didn't hide his feelings. Among his more choice comments: "There are times when I think we almost manage to transcend our constant lack of good scripts, proper rehearsal and all the other things that bug a man in this business.... Everything on TV is that monster, compromise.... Let's face it, Bonanza could be really good if the powers-that-be cared enough to make it that way." Perhaps all the unhappiness could be summed up in one telling moment, though — when a reporter spent a day on the set and Roberts forgot a line. "What little gem do I have here?" he asked.
Dortort laughed the actor's discontent off in early interviews, but a year before Roberts left the show in 1965 it seemed the public barbs had finally gotten to him. "Pernell has a hate on for Hollywood," he said. "I don't think he really belongs in the acting business. A very good actor, yes, but his performances are erratic. An actor may not be enthralled with a part, but it is his responsibility to do his best." (It is worth noting, however, that the producer subsequently softened a bit, admitting in a later story that he'd welcome Roberts back and forgive everything because he was "that good.")
Even gentle-giant Blocker, who was known for being a can-do team player, admitted his series had its limitations in the plot department. "I think the show is popular basically because of the four characters, not because of the stories — which are sometimes terrible," he said.Or, as a fan of the series said in a decidedly backhanded compliment: "I can depend on Bonanza. It doesn't mix me up."