‘Bonanza’: Why Lorne Greene Nearly Left Show After 16 Episodes

by Joe Rutland
(Photo by Reinhard-Archiv/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Can you classic TV fans imagine “Bonanza” without the stately presence of Lorne Greene on it? Well, that almost happened on the show.

Greene, who played patriarch Ben Cartwright for 14 seasons on NBC, came pretty close to high-tailing it out of the Ponderosa after 16 episodes.

That’s according to an article from MeTV. Greene became a bit peeved about playing a character who always appeared high and mighty.

‘Bonanza’ Star Forced Producer’s Hand To Change His Personality

“After the first 16 shows, I went to David Dortort (the 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.”

Dortort quickly came up with a solution for his “Bonanza” star. The show’s writers put together an episode where Ben Cartwright showed off a deeper side to him.

That’s all it took to keep Greene on board with the TV show. It’s a good thing he did because “Bonanza” would end up making Greene quite a wealthy man.

“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.”

Legendary TV Western Saw Its Successful Run End In 1973

“Bonanza” ran from 1959-73 before it was canceled. The show might have reached 20 years because of one character’s popularity…and it wasn’t Greene. Dan Blocker, who played “Hoss” Cartwright, had quite a fan base watching those episodes week in and week out. Fans loved “Hoss” so much.

Sadly, Blocker died in 1972 from complications of gall-bladder surgery. “Bonanza” tried to keep on going but ratings dropped and fans weren’t watching as much. NBC decided that spending $220,000 per episode for a fading TV show wasn’t worth it, so out the show went.

Greene would go on, though, and appear in other TV shows until he died on Sept. 11, 1987, at 72 years old. He died from pneumonia after complications from ulcer surgery.

“Bonanza” still holds a soft place in the hearts of television viewers. New generations are always being introduced to the Cartwright clan. That family also included Pernell Roberts as Adam Cartwright for a few seasons. It remained a popular show right until the very end. These days, people can find a lot of episodes in syndication reruns.

All four original cast members of the Cartwright family have died. Yet the show continues to have a soft spot in the world of classic TV. “Bonanza” only trails “Gunsmoke” as the second-longest-running TV western in the medium’s history. “Gunsmoke” ruled on CBS for 20 seasons between 1955-75.