Lorne Greene said the reason Bonanza was good was because of one producer
"I told him it was for the birds."
Bonanza was one of the longest-running live-action series in American television history. 14 seasons. 431 episodes. All centered around Ben Cartwright and his boys.
Obviously, the show had some enduring power behind it. Audiences today still enjoy tuning in to see how Ben will handle this week's conflict, be it a nasty cattle rustler or a parenting problem.
Ben Cartwright himself, Lorne Greene, spoke about what he thought made Ben a character that resonated with people in a 1965 interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. In the beginning of the show, he actually didn't like Ben... and neither did the audience.
"When I first started Bonanza, I was typecast as a 65-year-old patriarch with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other," Greene said. "They had me playing one of these fire and brimstone characters... Back then, the show was time-slotted against Perry Mason, and we were dying."
Greene couldn't sit by and watch the show slowly fade. "I went to the producer, a wonderful guy, David Dortort, and I told him the character of Ben Cartwright as written and as I was playing it was one-dimensional, without meaning or substance. I told him it was for the birds. 'The audience can't identify with a biblical fanatic,' I insisted. 'We've got humanize the guy, to make him warm, to make him authoritative without being domineering. We've got to make him a loving father who commands respect through the force of his own personality, a good man, a strong man, a decent man.'"
How did the producer react to the star of his show basically telling him that he wanted to rework the character completely? Surprisingly well. "The ordinary producer would have told me to get lost," Greene said. "Not Dortort. He heard me out. He still hears me out. That's why the show is good. This producer is open to suggestions. He's painstaking and considerate."
Greene made sure that Ben Cartwright combined "authority with kindness" and wanted him to come across as a loving father. So if you love the character of Ben, you can thank Lorne Greene — and the producer who was willing to listen.