12 September 2010

The Bonanza Curse

I just discovered that some show called Bonanza was a big deal back when there were only a few television stations to watch. I think I saw reruns when I was a kid, but never got into westerns.  Father wasn't into the reruns either.  Did you know everybody associated with it is dead now?

Lorne Greene – Ben Cartwright
Canadian-born Lorne Greene began his career as the chief radio announcer for CBC radio from 1939 to 1942, becoming known as the "Voice of Doom" for his deep, gravelly voice. Although his distinctive voice had propelled him into newscasting, he had earlier shown an interest in acting during his education at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. After a stint in the military in 1945, Lorne co-founded the Academy of Radio Arts in Canada as well as the Jupiter Theatre.
In 1953 he moved to the U.S. to pursue his acting career, making numerous appearances on various telecasts before landing the role of Ben Cartwright on Bonanza in 1959, a role he would continue to play for the next 14 years. Early in the show's history, Ben Cartwright recalls each of his late wives in flashback episodes. A standard practice with most westerns was to introduce some romance but avoid matrimony. Few media cowboys (save Roy Rogers and Fess Parker's Daniel Boone) had on-screen wives. Any time one of the Cartwrights seriously courted a woman, she died from a malady, was slain, or left with someone else.
In 1974, shortly after Bonanza's cancellation, Greene costarred with Ben Murphy in the police-drama "Griff". In 1978 he played the futuristic Adama in the original "Battlestar Galatica" series. In the 1980s, the actor hosted the documentary series, "Lorne Greene's New Wilderness". Greene died in 1987 at age 72. In TV Guide's, Book Of Lists (Running Press, Philadelphia, 2007, p. 198), Ben Cartwright was listed as the #2 TV father in 50 years of TV history (behind Cliff Huxtable).

Pernell Roberts - Adam Cartwright

Georgia-born Pernell Roberts played the black-clad, eldest son Adam, an architectural engineer with a university education. Adam built the impressive ranch house ("Bonanza: The Return", NBC TV, 1993). Roberts was widely known for his life-long activism, which included participation in the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, and pressuring NBC to refrain from hiring whites to portray minority characters. The actor disdained the assembly-line mindset of serial television, and fought with series writers regarding Adam's lack of independence. Bonanza's creator/ executive producer David Dortort described Roberts as, "Aloof, rebellious and outspoken." Despite the show’s success, Roberts departed the series following the 1964-65 season (after 202 episodes) because he wanted to return to theater. The series continued for another eight years (228 episodes) without him.
Roberts was the only accomplished singer of the original cast, though David Canary who joined Bonanza in 1967, had a background in voice and performed on Broadway. During Roberts' Bonanza years, he recorded numerous folk and western songs (which are available on compact disc, only as part of the fourth disc of the Bonanza 4-CD boxed set on Bear Family Records).
Attempts to fill Adam's void were made via Ben's stepson and nephew. Maverick Clay Stafford (Barry Coe) briefly played Ben's stepson and Little Joe's wayward, maternal half-brother. Nephew Will Cartwright (Guy Williams), son of Ben's late brother John, was welcomed into the household with open arms. Neither character survived, as two of the remaining stars felt that grafting-in new Cartwrights might threaten their own contract negotiations (Bonanza Gold, July 2006).
Roberts would gain renewed celebrity in the lead role of the CBS drama "Trapper John MD", from 1979-86.

Dan Blocker – Hoss Cartwright

Three hundred pound Dan Blocker played the gentle middle son Eric a.k.a. Hoss. Born in Texas, he was a teacher before Hollywood. The Hoss character had a warm heart and a penchant for lost causes. The character was originally conceived as "lovable but slow-witted." Blocker, however, was the only cast member with an advanced degree, a Masters in Dramatic Arts. Prior to starring inBonanza, Dan had a recurring role as Tiny Budinger in the 1958–1959 TV western series Cimarron City starring George Montgomery, also on NBC. That series' cancellation after only one season freed him to be cast as Hoss Cartwright, his most famous role.
By 1971, the actor grew to 365 pounds. In 1972, Blocker died suddenly from a post-op blood-clot to the lungs, following surgery to remove kidney stones. The show's producers chose to simply mention the character's death in passing (TV producer Sheldon Leonardwas the first to "kill off" major characters, starting in 1956 with Make Room For Daddy and in 1963 with The Real McCoys, wherein the female leads of each show chose not to renew their contracts). Hoss's horse was Chub, a Thoroughbred/ Quarter horse standing 15.3 hands high and weighing 1,250 lb. Chub had a stripe face marking.

Michael Landon – Little Joe Cartwright

It was young Michael Landon who received most of the fan mail, and was seen in female-oriented teen magazines. In addition to acting, Landon began to develop his skills in writing and directing Bonanza episodes, starting with "The Gamble." Some of the shows Landon directed are considered to be the most moving including, "The Wish," "He Was Only Seven," and "Forever." According to David Dortort, Landon himself grew difficult during the last five seasons the show ran, "Nearly every line, every scene, every set up... everything would halt for endless story conferences on the set... it got increasingly bitter toward the end" (Bear Family boxed CD liner notes). In a 1992 memorial retrospective directed by the star's son Michael Jr., "Michael Landon: Memories with Laughter and Love," cast member David Canary said that the one word that most described Landon to him was "fearless." Landon appeared in all but fourteen Bonanzaepisodes for its 14 year run, a total of 416/430 episodes. Little Joe's horse was Cochise, a black and white pinto. Cochise was made into a breyer animal creations model in 2009.
In the episode, "Marie, My Love" (1963), the episode detailing Ben Cartwright's wooing of Little Joe's mother, we learn that Little Joe has an older half-brother named Clay Stafford, who later spends some time at the ranch. On Lorne Greene's 1964 song "Saga of the Ponderosa" ("Bonanza" set, Bear Family Records, disk 1), Marie's first husband was "Big Joe" Collins who dies saving Ben. After Ben marries Marie, they chose to call their son "Little Joe". Whether to Stafford or Collins, Marie Cartwight was previously married.
After Bonanza, Landon produced and starred in two other successful NBC series, the first being the pioneer adventure, Little House on the Prairie, which aired for roughly nine and a half seasons between 1974 and 1983. Landon's character was absent the ninth season with the final half season a series of movies. The second series was Highway to Heaven which ran from 1984-1989.

Victor Sen Yung - Hop Sing
Chinese-American actor Victor Sen Yung played the Cartwrights' happy-go-lucky cook, whose blood pressure rose when the family came late for dinner. Sen Yung gained fame as one of Charlie Chan's crime-solving sons from 1938-42. Cast here as the faithful domestic Hop Sing, the comedic character had little to do beyond chores. Though often referenced, he appeared in an average of five shows each season. As a semi-regular, the actor was only paid per episode. After 14 years he was widely known, but financially struggling. The character was central in only two episodes: "Mark Of Guilt" (#316), in which he uses finger prints to absolve Joe of a murder charge, and "The Lonely Man" (#404), in which he unlawfully becomes engaged to a white woman. In 1972, a Pacific Southwest Airlines plane on which Yung was a passenger was hijacked. The FBI attacked the hijackers, and in the ensuing gunfire Sen Yung was shot in the back. He and another wounded passenger survived, but a third passenger and the two hijackers died. In 1975, Yung appeared on Gary Moore's "To Tell The Truth" show and related the events of the hijack. Dressed in a sport coat and flanked by two dissimilar impostors, none of the four panelists were able to choose him as the character actor. Yung occasionally found work on other series, such as "Man From Uncle", and "Kung Fu". The actor died mysteriously in his own home in 1980.
Creator David Dortort died in 2010 and Fred Hamilton died in 1980.
Hop Sing was also immortalized in the Seinfeld episode about Communists. "Cartwright" is the name the maître d used when calling George in the Chinese Restaurant episode of Seinfeld.

I hope a Seinfeld curse is not around the corner.

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