‘Bonanza’: What is the ‘Cartwright Curse’?

by Jonathan Howard
(Original Caption) USA: Publicity photo from the TV series Bonanza, left to right are: Pernell Roberts as Adam Cartwright; Dan Blocker as Hoss Cartwright; Mike Landon as Little Joe Cartwright; and Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright.

One of the biggest tropes in television drama is the “Cartwright Curse,” named famously after the beloved Cartwright family of Bonanza. In short, don’t get too close to the main characters. You are most certainly going to end up dead or off to new horizons soon after.

While the Cartwright family was full of three handsome and brave young men, plus their virtuous father. The way the trope goes, the main character never gets to have a lasting relationship. Girlfriends, fiancees, even wives, end up dead, leaving, or somehow disappearing from the show. With each episode presenting a new and pressing moral dilemma, long-term relationships aren’t a thing.

Since Bonanza was on TV, other shows have utilized the Cartwright Curse. Even modern dramas and procedural shows utilize this trope today. Fans of Law & Order‘s Elliot Stabler know what the detective has been through. The widower is a perfect example of the Bonanza Cartwright Curse.

While this “curse” is usually focused on the male protagonist(s), that isn’t always the case. Especially in more recent years, this trope has been extended to female leads and characters as well. By bringing in a temporary interest, it allows viewers to get invested, and then have those emotions dashed aside when the love interest is removed from the show. It brings drama, and suspense to shows without dedicating a recurring character.

Also, the Cartwright Curse allows writers to grow and develop main characters through self-introspection. Instead of having a dedicated love interest they can confide in, the development is done mainly through personal thought and reflection. However, those temporary characters can help in that development.

The only way to break the Bonanza born curse is for characters to have kids who then go through their own development, issues, and challenges.

‘Bonanza’ Star Lorne Greene Auditioned for Show on ‘Wagon Train’

Before Lorne Greene was the patriarch of the Cartwright family, he had to make a special audition for the show. He appeared on Wagon Train back in 1959. The episode was titled The Vivian Carter Story. He did not play a kind man, instead, he was an intimidating character named Christopher Webb.

In the show, Vivian Carter decides she wants to get married. Greene’s character loves her, but he understands that the two are just not meant to be. Sounds an awful lot like the Cartwright Curse, but from the female side of things again. Just to make things harder, Greene was auditioning against another actor, Ward Bond.

Both the Bonanza star and Bond had been to acting school. However, Greene turned up the sound in his voice, stood tall, and delivered a great performance. So, he earned the praise and attention of show producers. He was selected as Ben Cartwright and the rest is history.