10 little things you never noticed in the series finale of Bonanza
A former boxer, a French folk song and unwanted thunderstorms made for one gripping thriller.
The Bonanza finale does not offer closure. There is no gathering of the Cartwright clan around the fireplace in the Ponderosa. Little Joe does not ride off happily-ever-after into the sunset to start a new life. Heck, "The Hunter," which finished the long-running Western on January 16, 1973, mostly focuses on just two actors, one of them a guest star.
This was still the era of television that did not typically provide a narrative conclusion to series. Shows just ended.
This is not to say "The Hunter" is unsatisfying. In fact, it's a gripping thriller that shares a lot of DNA with gritty Seventies chase films such as Steven Spielberg's Duel or Savages, the 1974 movie that turned Andy Griffith into a killer. It is essentially a horror story set in the Wild West.
In "The Hunter," Tom Skerritt, making his second appearance on Bonanza, played Bill Tanner, a mentally deranged convict on the loose with his sights set on Little Joe, for no reason other than his own sadistic sport. Even those unfamiliar with Bonanza can watch the episode as a stand-alone thriller. That is weird to say about a series finale, perhaps, but shows that Bonanza was still firing on all cylinders at the end.
Let's take a deeper look.
1. Candy was cut out of the final script.
Despite appearing in the opening credits, neither David Canary (Candy) nor Time Matheson (Griff) was seen in "The Hunter." They may have been late additions to the Bonanza cast, but it was nevertheless surprising to fans to not have all hands on deck for the finale. There is just one brief scene at the Ponderosa, as Little Joe heads off on his journey while Ben (Lorne Greene) and Jamie (Mitch Vogel) work on the account books of the ranch. Well, that was not initially the case. In the original script, later on in act three or so, there was an additional scene at the Ponderosa in which Jamie, Candy and Ben chat over a meal of roast beef. Jamie laments to Ben that he'd rather be out with Little Joe than stuck doing schoolwork. Candy tells him to not eat all the roast beef. Hop Sing and Griff come up in the conversation. Michael Landon, who directed the finale, never shot the scene. He felt it would slow down the action.
2. This actor did the uncredited voice-over work.
Tom Skerritt's twisted, sadistic character, Bill Tanner, hears voices. In his inner moments, the sonorous voice of a military judge rings in his head. "Corporal Tanner," the judge intones in the climax as Tanner goes mad. "Do you have anything further to say before we pronounce sentence? …You thought it was correct to kill women and children?" Though he is not credited, Don Collier provided this ominous dialogue. Collier was a Western star himself, having headlined the 1960–62 series Outlaws as Marshal Will Foreman. He also physically appeared, credited, in five other episodes of Bonanza.
Image: The Everett Collection
3. This is Michael Landon's stunt double.
Early in the tale, Tanner escapes the Wheaton Asylum and comes upon a man — billed only as "Man" in the credits — sitting in his camp. We see only his back, as Tanner steals his rifle and saddlebag. Hal Burton played the silent "Man." But that was not his only work in the episode, not by a longshot. Burton was the principal stunt double for Michael Landon on Bonanza, which means he had to take some of the big tumbles in the desert seen later on. Burton is also the performer in the overhead shot in the jail at the end, firing a rifle into the walls, standing in for Skerritt in the dangerous act.
4. This man was a former professional boxer turned prospector.
A grizzled old man named Harve wakes Little Joe in the final scene. The actors name, actually, is Grizzly Green, born Griswold Kellogg Green. According to his obituary, he worked on Wall Street until the crash of 1929. He then became a boxer, until asthma ended his career in 1940. (He tallied a record of 3–12 from 1937 to '40.) Later, he moved to Arizona to become a prospector and small mine operator. No wonder he seems so authentic.
5. Gunsmoke essentially remade the same story a year later in its final season.
The season 20 opener of Gunsmoke, 1974's "Matt Dillon Must Die," has a eerily similar plot, where Marshal Dillon (Arness) is hunted in the wilderness by a sadistic killer. Of course, they both owe a huge debt to The Most Dangerous Game, the 1932 film based on a 1924 short story.
6. It was Landon's shortest script.
"The Hunter" is a lean, mean, thrilling tale with little dialogue. It was the 20th and final script Landon wrote for Bonanza. The star worked off a 39-page script, his shortest ever. The rough industry rule is that one page of script equals about one minute of screen time, on average, which shows you how pared down this was.
7. It was one of 14 episodes directed by Michael Landon.
Landon not only wrote the script to "The Hunter" and portrayed the prey, but he directed the episode — quite wonderfully. The actor-director uses point-of-view shots, artistic overheads, close-ups and lighting in a dazzling way. It was the 14th episode of Bonanza helmed by Landon, and perhaps his best.
8. "Frère Jacques" is used as a musical motif throughout.
Tom Skerritt's maniac Bill Tanner continually whistles "Frère Jacques", the 18th-century French nursery rhyme. Pairing a children's song with a homicidal killer is chilling. The musical score picks up on the theme, turning the kiddie song into a haunting orchestral motif. The composer Gustav Mahler did the same thing in his Symphony No. 1 in 1888 — about two decades after the fictional Bill Tanner's demise.
9. It was filmed in Arizona.
The Ponderosa, of course, is set in Virginia City, Nevada, but the Bonanza production took place much further south. Landon filmed the finale in Sabino Canyon, outside of Tucson, Arizona. The episode also made use of the iconic "Old Tucson" Western set, which was used in everything from Gunsmoke to Little House on the Prairie.
10. It rained a lot during the production.
When you think of the desert of Southern Arizona, thunderstorms do not immediately come to mind. However, heavy rains plagued the production of "The Hunter" and forced some more scenes to be cut, as Landon reworked the script to accommodate the wet conditions. Ironically, the rain dried up near the end of the filming, when it was still needed, so a sprinkler system had to be set up, according to Ponderosa Scenery.