The NBC western Bonanza ended a thirteen-and-a-half season run on this date in January of 1973 – 50 years ago today.
I was reminded of the milestone by someone who should know: Andrew J. Klyde, archivist, historian and attorney for Bonanza Ventures which controls merchandising and licensing worldwide for the series.
Bonanza had been one of NBC’s biggest hits for a dozen years, surviving stiff competition from The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour in the late ’60s.
By the fall of 1972, however, the series was clearly headed for the last round up. Dan Blocker, who played towering Cartwright son Hoss and one of the most popular actors on television, had died the previous spring after complications following gallbladder surgery. He was 43.
Not helping extend the series was the fact NBC moved it out of its familiar Sunday night perch to Tuesdays. Competition got a lot stiffer that fall with the addition of All in the Family spinoff Maude to the CBS schedule. According to Klyde, fans were also disappointed when the 1972 season premiere made no reference to the departed Cartwright.
The two-hour season premiere, written by Blocker’s co-star and, by that point, the de facto producer, Michael Landon (Little Joe), reportedly turned away viewers in droves. Instead of coming together to see Little Joe get married, viewers witnessed the new bride (played by Bonnie Bedelia) dying in a fire!
The final episode that aired in first-run on NBC, also written and directed by Landon, featured guest star Tom Skerritt.
The cast and crew were working on another episode when the call came in on a Monday that the series was cancelled as of that Wednesday. This cut short the run of the cast’s latest addition, Tim Matheson.
NBC was contractually obligated to pay Landon and Pa Cartwright, Canadian-born lead Lorne Greene, a full season salary. Pleas made to finish production on a handful of episodes fell on deaf ears. NBC execs were content to cut their losses and reap in many years worth of syndication gold.
Greene was reportedly furious. He was quoted at the time as saying NBC should have allowed them to “go out gracefully,” and “a caretaker gets more notice.”
He got over it, however, when he was offered the lead in a new ABC police series that fall, titled Griff. Co-starring Ben Murphy, it lasted half a season. Landon, who went on to Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven, also went right back to work. At the time of the cancellation, he already had a development deal with NBC to produce and star in another series.
In all, Bonanza lasted 432 episodes, second only to Gunsmoke among TV westerns. Viewers can already enjoy DVD sets of Seasons 1-11, [released officially in North America by Paramount-CBS Home Entertainment]; Klyde confirmed to me the rumor that Season 12 is in the works is true, and hopefully not long thereafter the entire series will be available for fans to enjoy.
For more inside tales of Bonanza, listen to my 1991 interview with Landon – including his hilarious take on Greene’s riding skills — by following this link to Brioux.tv: the podcast.