‘Bonanza’: How Old Was Michael Landon When the Series Began?

by Clayton Edwards
(Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images)

“Bonanza” was a different kind of western. Instead of purely showing the grit of cowboys and thrilling gunfights, it was focused on a family. The Cartwright family owned a huge ranch at the feet of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Ben Cartwright, the patriarch had three sons from three different wives, each with their own very different personality. The youngest among those was Little Joe, played by Michael Landon.

Michael Landon was only twenty-two years old when he got the role on “Bonanza,” which premiered in 1959. However, he looks like he could have been a few years younger. Little Joe was young, handsome, and hot-headed. He was as good with his hands as he was with the ladies. Landon played the role to its fullest.

“Bonanza” was Michael Landon’s first television role that lasted more than just a few episodes. However, by the time he took the part of the youngest Cartwright boy, he had appeared in several shows, shorts, and feature films. He might have been young, but he knew his craft.

During the show’s long run, Landon was able to both hone and showcase his impressive acting chops. He had to have some serious emotional range to pull off the role. The show followed the adventures of the family from week to week. Much like real life, the episodes covered a variety of moods and topics. Sometimes the drama was heavy and the stakes were high. Other times the scripts were full of laughs. At the same time, “Bonanza” cleverly covered several modern social issues through the lens of mid-nineteenth-century America. The entire cast, including the young Landon, had to be on top of their game to keep up.

How ‘Bonanza’ Influenced ‘Little House on the Prairie’

Fans of both “Bonanza” and “Little House on the Prairie,” will notice some similarities between the shows. Chief among those similarities are Michael Landon and the time period in which the shows take place. It goes deeper than that, though.

Firstly, both shows focused on then-modern issues. Both “Bonanza” and Little House applied modern sensibilities to those issues. This makes them more of a look at what was going on when they aired than a serious look at the time period in which they are set. Michael Landon made critical creative decisions on Little House. So, his time as Little Joe most likely influenced him going forward. It is hard to believe that he worked on the show for fourteen years and took nothing away from it. So, to say that the writing on “Bonanza” influenced his writing and direction on some episodes of his later series may be speculation. However, it is a safe bet.

Other influences from his time on the Ponderosa Ranch are more obvious. For instance, the theme song for “Little House on the Prairie” came from an episode of “Bonanza” titled “Top Hand.”

In fact, Michael Landon brought “Bonanza” composer David Rose over to do a large portion of the music on Little House. Rose went on to win two Emmy awards for his work on the show.

Landon was 36 when “Bonanza” ended. In a way, he grew up on the Ponderosa. He matured as a person as well as an actor. It’s easy to see how his time on “Bonanza” influenced his future, especially his role as Charles Ingalls.