Did you grow up watching the great American Western show Bonanza? It was released at the height of the craze of the Western and immediately captured the hearts of American audiences. To this day, generations old and new continue to be entertained by the Bonanza cast.
Sadly, we’ve lot many of the main actors who entertained us over the years and will continue to do so through reruns of the show.
Whether you’re a new fan or a veteran fan, how much do you know about the Bonanza cast?
Let’s look back at the main members of the Bonanza cast who have left us and their incredible lives and careers…
Bonanza revolved around the Cartwright family who worked on a ranch in Nevada. The head of the household was Ben Cartwright who had three sons: Adam, Eric aka Hoss, and Little Joe.
Ben Cartwright was played by Lorne Greene. The Canadian actor began his career as a radio broadcaster and soon became known as “The Voice of Canada.” But he knew he wanted his face to become as famous as his voice.
In the 1950s, he emigrated to the United States and began working in Hollywood. His early career consisted of bit parts in television shows and films. These included TV shows such as You Are There and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He also acted in films such as The Buccaneer, The Trap, and The Hangman.
While he was getting regular work, he hadn’t yet been able to match the success in film and television that he had on Canadian radio. But his big break came in 1959 when he was cast as Ben Cartwright in Bonanza.
This was the role that Lorne Greene was most associated with for the rest of his career. It was also the one that he loved the most. He loved playing Ben Cartwright and was happy to be recognized as the patriarch of the Old West’s most lovable family.
Lorne Greene passed away in 1987 from a respiratory arrest following cardiac arrest. He had undergone abdominal surgery. During the recovery process, he unfortunately developed pneumonia and became dependent on an oxygen tank. He died with his wife and three children by his side.
His co-star Michael Landon was one of the last persons to visit him in the hospital. To this day, the Canadian actor is remembered as one of the great icons of American television.
Michael Landon had played Ben Cartwright’s youngest son Little Joe. He sadly left us too early at the age of 54 in 1991. As with Lorne Greene, his early career consisted of bit parts on television shows – though he didn’t gain any prominence from these appearances.
And like his TV dad, his big break came when at the age of 22 he was cast as Little Joe Cartwright in Bonanza. The character was the youngest of the three Cartwright brothers and was easily one of the most loved characters on the show. In fact, the handsome young actor received more fan mail than any of his co-stars.
The show launched Michael Landon to stardom. He appeared on the cover of TV Guide a total of 22 times – behind only Lucille Ball!
After his work on Bonanza, he also starred in two other television shows that would later become classics. He appeared as Charles Ingalls in The Little House on the Prairie and as Jonathan Smith in Highway to Heaven. He also wrote, directed, and acted in a film called Sam’s Son which was loosely based on his life during his youth.
In 1991, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Sadly, this cancer was terminal, and Michael Landon left us at the age of 54 on July 1st of that year. He’s remembered as an actor who managed to take advantage of every opportunity that came his way. He’s a great inspiration for us to live our lives to the fullest!
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The middle child of the Cartwright family was named Eric. But he was best known by his nickname ‘Hoss.’ Hoss was easily one of the most-loved characters on the show and no one could have played him better than Dan Blocker.
This cheerful character was the Gentle Giant of the family. Dan Blocker was known to have a sunny personality – much like Hoss himself. But his early life didn’t show any promise of becoming an iconic actor.
Dan Blocker was born in the small town of De Kalb in West Texas. From a young age he grew to over 6 feet and weighed over 200 pounds before he hit his teens. This made his father, a poor farmer, worry about whether his son’s height and girth would hold him back in life.
During the Korean War, Dan Blocker was drafted. He served in 1951 and 1952 and was later awarded a Purple Heart for the wounds he received during combat. He would later receive a Master’s degree in Dramatic Arts Sul Ross State Teacher’s College where he also played football.
He began his career as an English and drama teacher for high school students. But his ambitions went beyond teaching drama. He wanted to become a professional actor.
In the late 1950s, he moved to Los Angeles to find work as an actor. Like Lorne Greene and Michael Landon, his early career consisted of bit parts in television shows. He appeared in a few Western shows such as Cheyenne and The Rifleman. But while his work became regular, he remained relatively unknown to most Americans.
Then, his big break came when he was cast as Hoss Cartwright in Bonanza. He immediately became one of the most-loved characters. Through the character, he showed that he could blend comedy and emotion in a way that few actors could. Many of the show’s funniest and most heartwarming moments include scenes with Hoss!
In the early 1970s, at the height of his fame, Dan Blocker underwent gallbladder surgery. On May 13, 1972 he sadly passed away from a pulmonary embolism – a result of his surgery. The show continued without him and it was referenced that Hoss had died. While this may be commonplace today, it was incredibly unusual for the time.
The 14th season of Bonanza was its last and was not popular among audiences. It was clear that without Hoss, there was no desire to watch the show. He was truly the necessary addition that the show needed. To this day, the final season rarely sees reruns – as fans of the show hate watching Bonanza without watching Dan Blocker as Hoss!
The eldest son in the Cartwright family was Adam, played by Pernell Roberts. The Georgia native began his career acting in bit parts in television shows. Like his fellow Bonanza cast members, he didn’t get his big break until he was cast in the show.
He had a few challenges with the role. He was primarily a stage actor and had difficulty playing a cowboy. He also took a few issues with the character – feeling that the oldest son of the Cartwright family shouldn’t always defer to his father for advice.
He felt that Bonanza wasn’t as mature a show as he would have wished. He left the show in the mid-1960s. Nevertheless, audiences loved his performance as Adam Cartwright. He continued to act in notable television shows and occasional films for the remainder of his career.
He passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2010.
One of the great supporting characters in Bonanza was “Candy” Canaday played by David Canary. The character actor had begun his career as a football player and showed lots of promise. However, he turned away from signing with the Denver Broncos to try his luck at acting.
He gained prominence as Dr. Russ Gehring in Peyton Place. He also had appearances in shows such as Gunsmoke, Hawaii Five-O, and Alias Smith and Jones. He also had a supporting role in the classic crime film The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.
He had developed fame in his work prior to Bonanza. But once he was cast as the cowboy “Candy” Canaday in Bonanza he became a household name. He appeared in over 90 episodes throughout the show.
Following the show’s end, he continued to get regular work in film and television. His most notable work after Bonanza ended was in the soap opera All My Children.
He died from natural causes in 2015 having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years earlier. However, his daughter felt that he had actually died due to complications from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy – a disease he must have sustained from his football days.
One of the best aspects of Bonanza, is that it was one of the first American shows to give acting opportunities to minority actors. One of the most loved characters from the show was Hop Sing played by Chinese-American actor Victor Sen Yung.
He began his career in his twenties – often playing supporting roles in major films. He also appeared as Charlie Chan’s son Jimmy Chan in the Charlie Chan series. He was already a household name and became even more famous through his role in Bonanza.
The actor also ran a small pottery business. On one day, in 1980, he was creating clayware using his oven. Unfortunately, there had been a gas leak and he died from natural gas poisoning. He’s remembered today as one of the actors who paved the way for future generations of Asian-American actors.
The Chinese Alumni Association of the University of California, Berkeley offers a scholarship named after him.
These great actors are sadly no longer with us. But such is the magic of television, that they’ll continue to entertain us for generations to come. For that, we are truly in debt to their incredible talents…
Are you a fan of Bonanza? Do you think that the show will continue to be popular in years to come? Or is it up to Bonanza fans to share the legacy of the show with the newer generations?
Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.
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