‘Bonanza’ Star Lorne Greene Played a Sailor Before He Was a Cowboy

by Lauren Boisvert
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Lorne Greene better fits the cowboy mold than he does a sailor. But there was a time where he sailed the seas, having adventures in a little striped shirt. In 1955, four years before he would become Ben Cartwright, Lorne Greene was the star of a short-lived British series called “Sailor of Fortune.”

The show followed Grant “Mitch” Mitchell, who was a former U.S Intelligence officer turned sailor. For a half-hour, he was tasked with saving people on the waters from piracy, villainy, and just general shenanigans. According to “My Father’s Voice,” the biography of Lorne Greene by his daughter, he didn’t much care for the show.

Four years later, Greene went on to guest star on “Wagon Train,” which led to his iconic role on “Bonanza.” His performance on “Wagon Train” was so expertly convincing, that it caught the eye of “Bonanza” producers; they cast him the same year. Ben Cartwright was easily Greene’s longest-running role on television. His second-longest-running character is Commander Adama on “Battlestar Galactica” and “Galactica 1980.”

Lorne Greene Was Almost Adam Cartwright on ‘Bonanza’

When offered a role on “Bonanza,” Lorne Greene had his pick. He wanted to play either Ben or Adam, and was conflicted. According to “My Father’s Voice,” Greene went to longtime friend and mentor Leslie Nielsen for his advice. Nielsen said, “There’s no way for you to emerge without a tremendous position of significance in the show […] Probably all four of you will achieve equal prominence. But of the four of you, the only one who can achieve the most prominence is yourself because you’re the father and they’re all three tied to you […] I wouldn’t even give it a second thought.”

Greene chose to play Ben Cartwright, and it served him well. He did rise to arguably the most prominence, surpassed maybe by Michael Landon. Both Greene and Landon had exceptional careers; Landon with both “Bonanza” and “Little House on the Prairie,” and Greene with “Bonanza” and “Battlestar Galactica.”

Greene Nearly Left ‘Bonanza’ After 16 Episodes

Although he’s most famous for being on “Bonanza,” Lorne Greene almost left the show right in the beginning. “After the first 16 shows, I went to [Producer] David Dortort and I said I wanted out,” Greene said in 1971. “All I was saying was ‘Get off my land’ and quoting the Bible, which was how the part was written then.”

Apparently, the part got better after that, because Greene stuck around for 14 seasons. The writers attended to the character, and wrote an episode that showed a deeper, more sensitive side of Ben Cartwright. That pleased Greene, and he stayed with the show. “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.”

Outsider.com