The remarkable story of how they almost rejected the original cast of Bonanza
"I want to go with these four because television will make its own stars."
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Bonanza rode in on its horses in 1959, prepared to redefine how America thought about the Old West. This show wouldn't be about cowboy gunfighters, but instead a pioneer family, a decision made by series creator David Dotort after he hung up his hat on his prior Western series The Restless Gun.
The Restless Gun was Dotort's first series. It followed the cowboy Vint Bonner on all his adventures following the Civil War. Featured in five of its episodes was a face that would soon become familiar to Bonanza fans everywhere. Dan Blocker featured in five episodes of the show, but it was an episode during the first season that cemented it in Dotort's head that he'd need to use Blocker a lot more on any show he wrote thereafter.
The episode was called "The Child," and it took place on Christmas Eve. In it, Blocker played "El Bruto," a giant accused of murder who is locked up in a barn until the holiday festivities end. Dotort said this might be his favorite episode of his first series, due to Blocker's emotional portrayal. It was Blocker's third episode on the series, but nevertheless, Dotort said in an interview with the Archive of American Television, "That’s the one, in a sense, where I discovered the talent of Dan Blocker."
That was also, essentially, the moment Hoss Cartwright was born, because when Dotort sat down to write the pilot for Bonanza, he had Blocker in mind the whole time. Dotort can't really talk about Blocker without praising him in the interview, taking a second to go even further when he said of Blocker, "That was a great advantage, because I knew his talent as an actor."
The very next person who came to mind for Bonanza was actually Michael Landon. Landon had been working in Westerns for almost five years when Dotort figured he'd be perfect for Little Joe. So he wrote that character with that actor in mind, too.
The same goes for Lorne Greene, whom Dotort said he remembered seeing in an episode of Wagon Train earlier the same year that Bonanza debuted and The Restless Gun ended. That episode was "The Vivian Carter Story," and it found Greene as a lovestruck cowboy who meets a girl he wants to marry on a train, only to find her destination is to her wedding to someone else. When her story ends darkly, it's the future Ben Cartwright who comforts her and makes the noble call not to rush her into a marriage to him in her sensitive state. From that cloth, Dotort molded Ben Cartwright.
So not only was there not really a casting call for Bonanza, but Dotort actually conceived the show based on these actors whose talents he'd gotten to know so well. The only outlier was Pernell Roberts. Roberts was a stranger to Dotort, but that turned out to be a good thing! Dotort said in the interview, "The big problem I had was finding the leading man. ... I had heard about an actor named Pernell Roberts who had been in a number of films and a stage actor on Broadway. ... So I went down to see him, and there was something about him that really caught my eye. He was a handsome, good-looking guy, but more than that, he had kind of a depth as an actor. There was also an air of mystery about him, like you were kind of caught up, fascinated by the guy. What was the secret? So I asked him to play Adam, the oldest son and he agreed."
You'd think, knowing the success of the show looking back, that would be that, and Dotort could only be met with nods, delivering a pilot episode, a novel show concept, and the whole cast already picked and primed, even serving as character inspiration. But that's not how show business always goes. Dotort said when he announced, "This is the cast," it was only met with protests. That's right, no to Ben, no to Adam, no to Hoss and no to Little Joe. The problem, "‘How could you pick all these four unknowns? And you’re on a big budget!"
Good thing for Bonanza fans, Dotort held his ground like he was defending the literal Ponderosa. He said the only star he was interested in working with was Marlon Brando. Barring Brando's interest, he was sticking to his cast. His reason why didn't just impress the studio, it ended up being prophetic of the whole TV industry itself. Dotort said, "I want to go with these four because television will make its own stars."