Long before contemporary television audiences were roped into the drama of such modern-day Westerns as Longmire and Yellowstone, Ben Cartwright and his sons were riding into homes every week via the popular TV series Bonanza. Starring veteran actor Lorne Greene as family patriarch Ben Cartwright, the Bonanza cast also included Pernell Roberts as eldest son Adam, Dan Blocker as Hoss and Michael Landon as Little Joe.
The show ran on NBC from November 12, 1959, to January 16, 1973, and became one of the most beloved series in American television history. Over 14 seasons and 431 episodes, Bonanza became NBC’s longest-running Western and the second-longest-running Western on TV behind Gunsmoke. Bonanza still airs in syndication, introducing a whole new generation to the adventures of the Cartwright family, who lived on the Ponderosa, a sprawling thousand-square-mile ranch near Virginia City, Nevada, in the 1860s.
In addition to Greene and his TV sons, over the years, the Bonanza cast also included David Canary, Guy Williams, Tim Matheson, Mitch Vogel and Victor Sen Yung, who played lovable cook Hop Sing.
Fun facts about the Bonanza cast
Here’s a look at some interesting facts you might not know about Bonanza and the actors we grew to know and love.
1. Bonanza wasn’t Michael Landon’s biggest role
Born Eugene Maurice Orowitz, Michael Landon not only won hearts as Little Joe on Bonanza, he also went on to star in other successful shows, portraying Charles Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie and Jonathan Smith in Highway to Heaven. While filming Highway to Heaven, Landon brought real-life cancer patients and people with disabilities to the set. He also hired people with disabilities to write some episodes of the show. In a 1991 interview, Landon said, “I believe in God. I believe in family. I believe in truth between people. I believe in the power of love. I believe that we really are created in God’s image, that there is God in all of us.”
(Click through to see the beloved ‘Little House on the Prairie’ cast then and now)
2. David Canary was also a soap opera actor and drafted by the NFL
In addition to his role as ranch foreman Candy Canaday, the Elwood, Indiana, native played Adam Chandler on the soap opera All My Children. He received 16 Daytime Emmy Award nominations and won five times. Canary was also known as a gifted singer and was quite the athlete. He was picked by the Denver Broncos in the inaugural 1960 American Football League draft, but instead of signing with the Broncos, he headed to New York City to pursue acting. Looks like that worked out well for him!
3. Tim Matheson went on to star in Animal House
A native of Glendale, California, Matheson portrayed Griff King, a parolee who seeks to turn his life around working for the Cartwrights on the Ponderosa, in the last season of Bonanza. If Matheson looks familiar beyond Bonanza, it’s no surprise.
The 75-year-old actor has had an impressive career fueled by such diverse roles as the mischievous Otter in National Lampoon’s Animal House and Vice President John Hoynes on the NBC drama The West Wing. That role earned him two Prime Time Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series. He’s also had quite a career as a voice actor, including the lead character in the animated series Jonny Quest and Sinbad Jr., the Sailor in Sinbad Jr. and His Magic Belt. (Click through to read Tim Matheson Shares Secrets From 62 years in Hollywood)
4. Victor Sen Yung was shot during a 1972 hijacking
The actor, who was best known for playing the Ponderosa’s cook Hop Sing on Bonanza, was on hijacked Pacific Southwest Airlines flight 710 when the FBI rushed the plane and he was shot in the back during the exchange of gunfire. He and another passenger who was shot survived, but a third passenger and the two hijackers were killed.
Another interesting fact? Sen Yung once paused his acting career to serve in the U.S. military. The San Francisco native was also a vital part of the popular Charlie Chan films, well-known for his portrayal of Chan’s son, Jimmy. He starred in 11 Chan films between 1938 and 1942. He had to leave the Chan series when he served in World War II but resumed his acting career when he finished his military service. In 1959, he joined the Bonanza cast as Hop Sing and starred in 107 episodes between 1959 and 1973.
5. Dan Blocker was a highly decorated war hero
The towering 6’4” native Texan was wounded in the Korean War and received the Purple Heart in addition to the National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal with two bronze stars, Republic of Korea Presidential Citation, United Nations Service Medal and Combat Infantryman Badge. Prior to joining the Bonanza cast, Blocker had roles on other popular Westerns, including Gunsmoke, The Restless Gun and The Rifleman. He played Eric “Hoss” Cartwright on Bonanza from 1959 to 1972 in 415 episodes.
6. Pernell Roberts was also a well-known activist
A native of Waycross, Georgia, Roberts portrayed Ben Cartwright’s oldest son, Adam, on Bonanza and went on to star as Dr. John McIntyre in the title role on Trapper John, M.D. Roberts passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2010 at age 81, but throughout his life was known for his activism. He participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 and was known for pressuring NBC to hire ethnic actors to portray minority characters instead of employing white actors in minority roles.
7. Lorne Greene wasn’t comfortable riding a horse
Lorne Greene, who portrayed patriarch Ben Cartwright, wasn’t as comfortable on horseback as you might expect, but his role was made much easier by a gentle horse named Buck. Before they started filming Bonanza, the cast was taken to Fat Jones Stables to select the horse they would ride on the show. Greene chose thoroughbred buckskin Buck, who not only looked beautiful on camera, he was also good-natured and gentle.
When the series ended in 1973, the veteran Canadian actor bought his trusty steed from the television studio and donated the animal to a therapeutic horseback riding facility. Greene loved Buck for his kind temperament and knew he would be great with kids, so Buck lived out his days teaching physically disabled and mentally challenged children trust and coordination. Buck lived to be 45 years old, a long life for a horse.
8. Mitch Vogel started his acting career at age 10
He first appeared on Bonanza in 1968 in an episode titled “The Real People of Muddy Creek.” Two years later, he joined the cast of the show as Jamie Hunter, an orphan taken in by the Cartwrights and later adopted by the family. He appeared in the last three seasons of the show. Vogel left acting and moved to Pittsburgh, where he got married, had two daughters and formed a rock band. He later moved back to Southern California.
As a singer, he performs solo and sometimes with a band called Madd Dogs. He and Tim Matheson are the only surviving members of the Bonanza cast. The 67-year-old often takes part in Bonanza conventions.
9. Bing Russell is actor Kurt Russell’s father
A native of Brattleboro, Vermont, Bing Russell, who portrayed Deputy Clem Foster, grew up hanging around the New York Yankees spring training camp in Florida and became friends with Joe DiMaggio and other players. Lou Gehrig gave Russell the last bat he used to hit his last home run before retiring. In 1945, Russell married Louise “Lulu” Crone, and they had four children, including Kurt. Father and son acted together in the 1979 TV movie Elvis, where Kurt played Elvis Presley and Bing played Presley’s father, Vernon.
10. Bonus: Michael Landon’s daughter is now a Western star, too
While she wasn’t in the Bonanza cast, 39-year-old actress Jennifer Landon, the daughter of Michael Landon who played Little Joe on Bonanza, is well known for her role as Teeter on the hit series Yellowstone. Even when she’s not filming, Landon enjoys the Western lifestyle and working with animals. “When we’re shooting, those animals are those animals and we’re working them, so it’s like the perfect fit,” she said in an interview with Screen Rant.
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