Guy Williams should never have been cut from the Bonanza cast
Will Cartwright had the most potential to corral all of Bonanza's themes.
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Bonanza ran for a total of 430 episodes. Late-coming cast member Guy Williams only appeared in five of those episodes, and yet his character, Will Cartwright, remains one of the most divisive aspects of the show's long, storied history. Today we're determined to show you why TV history got it wrong when it came to Will Cartwright.
Many fans hated even the idea of Will Cartwright, the nephew of Ben Cartwright who showed up in Bonanza's fifth season, and in many ways, it's easy to see why. Williams' character was added to the show as a replacement for Adam Cartwright, played by the popular actor Pernell Roberts who was a big fan favorite on the show. According to writers, Will Cartwright was introduced specifically to give Roberts an opportunity to leave the show, which he seemed very intent to do. The plan was to let him leave amicably, without missing a beat by reducing the number of Bonanza's four leads. It seemed like a simple enough plan: Trade noble, hard-working Adam for reformed rebel Will, and keep the show moving forward.
But that little brainstorm in the writers' room caused almost as much drama as an episode of Bonanza itself! Instead of assuring the rest of the cast that the show would go on just as strong without Roberts, the decision to write in a new character terrified the cast who suddenly stood as witness to how replaceable their characters could be. So when Roberts decided to stay for another season, Bonanza decided to put the whole issue to rest by writing Williams off the show and preserving the sanctity of the original cast.
All of this sounds like a good way to make everyone in the audience happy, right? Well, the way they set up Will Cartwright's exit on the show managed to make things even worse in the eyes of fans when it came to the erstwhile would-be Bonanza star Guy Williams.
First things first: Will Cartwright shows up on Bonanza with an even weirder mustache than the character everyone knew him for, Zorro, immediately looking the part of the villain among the babyfaced Cartwright boys. His entrance on the show is extremely dramatic, showing up shot in Virginia City where he's confronted by Ben, who believes his nephew is already dead. Will weakly tells Ben he's there to visit family before collapsing, and Ben recognizes him then. The shock of this moment provides great Bonanza tension, and Will's character proved over five episodes to be a dependable source of more.
From there, though, Will's lowkey villainy only grows for viewers who see him confronted at the family dinner table with a moral staredown from the Cartwright boys who don't approve of Will's thieving ways. Whether it was intentional or not, the writers drew a line right then, establishing Will as unworthy compared to the other Cartwrights. It's almost like they wanted you to hate him, or at least question his place in the family. But that didn't stop them from wedging Guy Williams into the opening credits.
The writers sensed the backlash and switched it up and in Williams' next episode, "The Roper," where Will has a chance to become a hero and he sincerely rises to the challenge. In fact, the more we learn about Will, the more obvious it becomes that with a little guidance, he could be the kind of Cartwright that Ben is known to raise: good-hearted, compassionate and strong. By the end of Williams' third episode, he's embraced by all the boys and practically counted as a brother.
This is the direction the writers seemed to be taking Will's character when Roberts again made the call to stay on the show, which got Guy Williams cut from the cast. Once the writers knew Roberts was staying, they quickly revised scripts to find a reason to write Will Cartwright off. Their decision? Have Will basically steal Adam's girl out from under him, and ride off with her, never to be seen again. That's a cruel axe when your audience already is ruffled by your character's intrusive qualities!
And that's how a lot of fans remember Will's ending going down, with him elbowing in on Adam's would-be wife. But if you take a more sympathetic eye to Williams' last episode, "Triangle," where Adam catches his cousin wooing the woman Adam's supposed to marry, you can see it's really Adam who has some issues to resolve. As he says himself, he can't commit to relationships, and that stain on his character seems to be the one product of Ben's otherwise beautiful bond with his sons that Will Cartwright was lucky to have escaped.
It's important to remember in these episodes that Adam is Ben's oldest son, and if you recall his backstory, his childhood was genuinely fraught. He lost his own mother at the age of only 3. After that, he bonded instantly and deeply with Hoss' mother Inger, only to lose her, too. Then he had to go through the tragic loss of Little Joe's mom, who died riding her horse. So Adam wasn't exactly built to fall in love. (He was built to build houses, duh.)
Throughout Bonanza, it's established that Adam strings women along. In the first season, when Ben asks him how serious he is about his girlfriend Sue Ellen Terry, his answer is a plain, "I don't know." Later, Hoss pokes fun at Adam for dating a girl named Virginia Keith for three whole years, then letting another man whisk her away to claim her as his wife instead. In the case of Laura Dayton, it's practically just the same situation, only this time the man who rode off into a sunset with his girl was Adam's estranged cousin Will.
Now, we're not saying that we would've changed anything about the episodes that came after Williams left the show, but if Will had continued on the show as the fifth Cartwright, not only would the writers have had him there when Roberts eventually did leave Bonanza, but Williams' character also could've given Bonanza a new arc that maybe better showed Ben's impact on a boy who didn't have to strictly follow his rules, but chose to anyway. There's a chance in that for Will to become even more noble than Adam, over time, by continuing to choose the right way and growing past his minor schemes.
That's why we say that out of all the potential substitutes for Roberts over the series run, including Little Joe's half-brother Clay Stafford and Ben's adopted son Jamie Hunter, Will had the most potential to truly connect with the heart of the show. When they cut his character, the potential for that kind of depth vanished. Which makes it extra funny that instead, of course, Williams went on to star in the hit sci-fi series Lost in Space. It almost draws a direct parallel between Lost in Space and Bonanza, both about pioneering families struggling to keep it together in a hostile environment.
Will Cartwright's exit from the show came during a scene where Adam Cartwright struggles to stand up in his wheelchair to prove to Will and Laura that he'll be fine without them and that he approves of their union. As Adam stands on his shaky legs, it's practically a symbol for his character's status on the show, but there probably wasn't a Pernell Roberts fan watching who didn't want to see Adam emerge as the permanent cast member still standing. We just wish there'd been room on the ranch for Will, too.