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Retro : Back on the Ranch

July 14, 1991|SUSAN KING | Times Staff Writer

It's a bonanza time for those who fondly remember the Little Joe years of Michael Landon. Not only are repeats of "Bonanza" airing (on Channel 5, Channel 69 in San Diego, the Family Channel and TBS), Republic Home Video is releasing on Thursday eight volumes ($14.98 each) of popular episodes from the series.

Landon, who died July 1 after a short battle with inoperable liver and pancreatic cancer, became a powerful television actor-director-producer-writer and starred in two warm, successful NBC series, "Little House on the Prairie" (1974-83) and "Highway to Heaven" (1984-89).

But TV audiences were first charmed by a boyish Landon on "Bonanza," which rode the range on NBC for nearly 14 seasons and finished second to "Gunsmoke" as the longest-running TV Western.

Though "Bonanza" had action and gunplay to spare, it was more character and story-driven than the usual small-screen horse operas. Set near Virginia City, Nev., during the Civil War years, "Bonanza" focused on the Cartwrights, a wealthy ranching family.

Canadian actor Lorne Greene was the gruff but loving patriarch Ben Cartwright, who owned and operated the Ponderosa. Married and widowed three times, he had a son by each wife. The eldest, Adam (Pernell Roberts), was serious-minded and being groomed to inherit the ranch. Hoss (Dan Blocker) was quite literally larger than life. What he lacked in brains he more than made up for in brawn. The youngest, Little Joe (Landon), was the most romantic. And who could forget Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yung), the loyal Cartwright family cook and housekeeper?

"Bonanza" premiered Sept. 12, 1959. Its claim to fame was being the first network Western televised in color. After two moderately successful seasons, "Bonanza" struck gold when NBC moved it from Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. to Sundays at 9 p.m. as a replacement for "The Dinah Shore Chevy Show." It placed No. 2 in the ratings in the 1961-62 season and was No. 1 from 1964 to '67.

Roberts departed the Ponderosa at the conclusion of the 1965 season and David Canary, now on "All My Children," joined the cast in 1967 as Candy the ranch hand.

Ratings began to drop during the 1971-72 season. The series was dealt two blows in 1972 from which it never recovered: Blocker died suddenly from a blood clot in the lung before the start of the '72 season and NBC moved the series from Sunday to Tuesdays at 8 p.m. By Jan. 16, 1973, "Bonanza" was history.

After leaving the series, Roberts appeared in guest shots on such series as "The Wild, Wild West" and "Mission: Impossible" and starred from 1979 to '86 as Dr. John McIntyre on the CBS series "Trapper John, M.D." Greene, who died of cancer in 1987, starred on the ABC series "Griff" (1973-74), "Battlestar Galactica" (1978-80) and "Code Red" (1981-82). He also hosted the syndicated documentary series "Last of the Wild" (1974-79) and was the commercial spokesman for Alpo.

Victor Sen Yung died in 1980.

Among the "Bonanza" episodes being released on Republic are 1962's "The Crucible," about a madman (Lee Marvin) who tries to torture Adam after he is robbed by two criminals, and 1964's "The Cheating Game," in which Adam's budding romance with a widow is strained when a friend of her deceased husband arrives at the Ponderosa.

"Bonanza" airs Monday-Friday at 10 a.m. on Channel 5; Monday-Friday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. Channel 69; Saturday-Sunday at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. and Saturday at 11:30 p.m. on the Family Channel, and Saturday at 5 a.m. on TBS.

"Little House on the Prairie" airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on Channel 5 and 6 a.m. on TBS.

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