‘Bonanza’: How Lorne Greene Changed Ben Cartwright by Threatening to Quit

by Craig Garrett

It’s tough to imagine the classic tv western Bonanza without patriarch Ben Cartwright, but the character nearly left after episode 16. Lorne Greene was fed up with playing a character always up on a high horse. According to an article from MeTV, Greene just about rode that high horse out of town.

After the first 16 shows, I went to David Dortort (Bonanza’s producer) and I said I wanted out,” Greene told the “Hawaii Tribune-Herald” in 1971. “We had done 16 shows, and all I was saying was ‘Get off my land’ and quoting the Bible, which was how the part was written then.” For his star, Dortort devised a remedy right away. The writers created an episode in which Ben Cartwright exhibited a more serious side of himself. “So they wrote a show for me and from then on, it has been fine,” Greene said.

Lorne Greene obviously had a change of heart after that episode. He was with the show the entire run, from 1959 to 1973. With 430 episodes, it is second only to Gunsmoke in terms of sheer volume. Greene was delighted by the long run. “I said to myself that if the show lasted half a season, beautiful,” Greene said. “If it lasted a full season, beautiful. Three years, beautiful. Twenty years, beautiful.”

Of course, Bonanza may have had an even more prolific run if not for tragedy striking. A break-out character on the show was Hoss. The fan-favorite was played by the charismatic Dan Blocker. Unfortunately, Blocker died following complications of gall bladder surgery in 1972. The barrel-chested actor was only 43. Though Bonanza continued for a short time without Blocker, it just wasn’t the same. The Ponderosa shuttered its doors just months later.

Bonanza star goes from the Old West to Outer Space

However, Lorne Greene had quite a career after his time on Bonanza wrapped. He was able to play another iconic father figure on a tv show quite unlike Bonanza. Greene portrayed Commander Adama in the cult sci-fi series, Battlestar Galactica.

Though the series only lasted one season, it spawned a direct spin-off and a popular reboot in 2004. Early in Battlestar Galactica‘s run, Greene had similar thoughts of characters being stagnant. He said as much in a 1979 interview with the Washington Post. “Now, we’re at the phase where ‘Bonanza’ changed,” Greene said. “Some of us have talked to the producer and found him very open. This is an experiment in many ways, and in an experiment, you cannot have a closed mind.” Lorne was urging the producers to bring deeper meaning to the scripts. “People ask why we’re having reruns already with such a new show. The answer is that it gave us time to write some more shows with thought,” he said.