Bonanza is a classic television show and beloved western. America tuned in each week to see the Cartwrights deal with life on the Ponderosa. It truly was appointment viewing.
The show stayed on the air from 1959 through 1973. It now seems hard to fathom that the show, initially, struggled to gain traction.
Maybe, it was due to Bonanza’s bad night on the TV schedule. NBC showed it on Saturday nights. Anyone who went out on a Saturday never saw Bonanza. After it’s first season, the show ranked 45th in the Nielsens. A year later, the series enjoyed a significant jump, but it still was only 17th best.
NBC switched the show to Sunday nights. And the results were immediate. Season three kicked off with a plot to kill Hoss Cartwright. And by season’s end, the show rocketed to No.2.
But when was the national TV audience all in for Bonanza? That was season six. And it stayed No. 1 from 1964-67.
Bonanza Stayed Popular Until Last Season
The show maintained its popularity, even when there were major cast changes. Pernell Roberts, who played eldest son Adam, stayed through season six. He eventually starred in his own show Trapper John, M.D. a spinoff of M*A*S*H.
David Canary joined the series in season nine as Candy Canady. After Bonanza, Canary found long-time stardom in the world of soap operas. He played twins Adam and Stuart Chandler on All My Children.
The show even had to deal with the death of a main character. Dan Blocker, who played middle-son Hoss, died, unexpectedly, May 13, 1972. He passed away of a pulmonary embolism after a routine gall bladder surgery. For the first time in TV history, a show referenced the death of a character. But Bonanza, during the series, never said how Hoss died. In a reunion movie, Bonanza, Next Generation, it was revealed Hoss died a hero as he tried to save a drowning woman.
Lorne Greene, who played Ben Cartwright, wasn’t optimistic the show could go forward
“After Dan’s death, I didn’t see how the show could continue. I said to my wife, ‘That’s it. It’s finished.'”
The show also had a dark episode as its season 14 premiere. This was its first new episode without Dan Blocker. The episode initially was supposed to be about Hoss getting married to a woman named Alice. But the script was changed. Michael Landon, as Little Joe, fell in love with Alice.
She became pregnant with the couple’s first child. But in this two-part episode, Alice also died. She was murdered by a gambler and his henchmen. They set Little Joe and Alice’s cabin on fire to cover up her crime.
The network canceled Bonanza after the season. The ratings dropped from 20th in season 13 to 50th after the 14th season.