Bonanza was a TV mainstay for a generation of viewers. It’s the second-longest-running Western series in the United States (after Gunsmoke) and continues to air in syndication. The actors who made Bonanza a hit have a legacy that extends well past the peak of their careers, but most have died in the decades since the series ended. Even after their deaths, two of the show’s biggest stars remain inseparable.
The series was 1 of the great TV Westerns of its era
Set in the 1860s, Bonanza follows the adventures of the Cartwrights, owners of the Ponderosa, a thousand-square-mile ranch on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe. (The ranch inspired an amusement park of the same name that was active from 1968 to 2004.) The show differed from most Westerns at the time because its storylines focused less on the range and more on the relationships among the family members, their neighbors, and topical moral dilemmas.
The family patriarch was Ben Cartwright, played by Lorne Greene. He was married three times, and each of his wives gave birth to one son who lived with him on the Ponderosa.
His eldest son was Adam Cartwright (Pernell Roberts), an architectural engineer who built the ranch house. Then came Eric “Hoss” Cartwright (Dan Blocker), a gentle giant on and off camera. The youngest was the hotheaded Joseph, aka “Little Joe,” played by Michael Landon years before his star turn in Little House on the Prairie.
Bonanza ran for 14 seasons — 432 episodes — before NBC abruptly canceled the series in 1972.
The main ‘Bonanza’ cast members are no longer alive
Fifty years after the final episode aired, nearly all of the Bonanza cast has died. But a few show alums remain alive and enjoy respected careers after leaving the Ponderosa.
Mitch Vogel joined the cast as a 14-year-old to play the teen cowboy Jamie Hunter. He became a part of the Cartwright family in season 13 after being adopted by Ben. Before Bonanza, Vogel had appeared in Yours, Mine, and Ours — a 1968 comedy starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda — and The Reivers, for which he earned a Golden Globe nomination. He later joined other Westerns, including The Virginian and Gunsmoke, before retiring from acting in 1978 at age 22, Looper reports.
Tim Matheson took on the role of Griff King, a new character added during Bonanza’s final season. Griff went to prison for nearly killing his stepfather but was allowed out on parole and worked with Ben as a ranch hand. Matheson was another child actor, winning parts in Leave It to Beaver, Johnny Quest, and, coincidentally, Yours, Mine, and Ours. Unlike Vogel, Matheson stuck with the profession as an adult, appearing in National Lampoon’s Animal House as Eric “Otter” Stratton and The West Wing as Vice President John Hoynes (for which he won an Emmy). Viewers can see the now-75-year-old Matheson in Netflix’s Virgin River as Dr. Vernon Mullins.
Marlo Thomas and Mariette Hartley also appeared on the show in minor roles.
Thomas’ role as the Chinese mail-order bride Tai Lee is an ugly relic of the times, but the actor avoided such blatant stereotypes afterward. She is best known for starring in the sitcom That Girl and playing Rachel’s mom in Friends. Thomas also created the children’s series Free to Be…You and Me and does philanthropic work for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The now-85-year-old has been married to TV talk show host Phil Donohue since 1980.
In various Bonanza episodes, Hartley played four guest characters, each with romantic feelings for a different man. She later earned three Primetime Emmy nominations for her work in The Incredible Hulk, The Rockford Files, and Goodnight, Beantown. Hartley, now 82, still works occasionally, appearing in 9-1-1 and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She also spreads awareness about bipolar disorder and mental health services.
2 ‘Bonanza’ cast members remain close even in death
Dan Blocker died tragically young, at 43, after suffering a pulmonary embolism following gallbladder surgery in 1972. His death took such a toll on the Bonanza cast that the show became one of the first to reference a character’s demise in its story.
Lorne Greene died in 1987 at 72 after complications from pneumonia following ulcer surgery.
Like Blocker, Michael Landon also died young. He was only 54 when a bout with pancreatic cancer proved fatal in 1991.
Pancreatic cancer took Pernell Roberts too. He was 81 when he died in 2010.
Landon and Greene’s bond transcends Bonanza. The two actors rest near each other at Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City, California. Greene’s gravestone references the show with a message that begins, “The world’s best-loved father. BEN CARTWRIGHT.”