Lorne Greene tried to quit Bonanza after only 16 episodes

He wanted Ben Cartwright to do more than quote the Bible. Once his character evolved, Greene said he would've stuck with Bonanza for 100 years.

The Everett Collection

"Can't you tell the difference between him and me?!" Ben Cartwright screams near the end of the Bonanza episode "A Deck of Aces."

In this special season-twelve episode, Bonanza star Lorne Greene got to play two parts: his traditional role as Ben Cartwright, and also a second leading role as a treacherous doppelganger who wanders into town and tries to take advantage of how much he looks like Ben.

This dramatic episode arrived in 1971, at a moment when Greene couldn't have been more pleased with himself for sticking with Bonanza all those years.

Living in a giant house in the hills of West Los Angeles that was originally built for the heir of the Sears department store fortune, Greene had unexpectedly become a millionaire playing Ben Cartwright.

What many fans might not know, though, is that Greene didn't always see this fortune and opportunity in playing his most famous character.

In fact, he got almost instantly tired of pretending to be Ben Cartwright, becoming bored with his high and mighty nature. He even went so far as to threaten to quit the show.

"After the first 16 shows, I went to David Dotort (the producer) and I said I wanted out," Greene told the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in 1971. "We had done 16 shows, and all I was saying was 'Get off my land' and quoting the Bible, which was how the part was written then."

To appease his star, Dotort had writers come up with an episode that gave Greene's character more depth.

"So they wrote a show for me and from then on, it has been fine," Greene said.

How fine, you might ask? Well, once Greene was pleased with the material he was being given, he said he could see himself in the role forever.

"I said to myself that if the show lasted half a season, beautiful," Greene said. "If it lasted a full season, beautiful. Three years, beautiful. Twenty years, beautiful."

In another interview that year with The Boston Globe, Greene went even further to describe his resolve to stick by the show no matter what.

"I made up my mind at the beginning that whether it lasted two weeks or 100 years, I would stick with it, and I intend to," Greene said.

By that point, Greene had been with Bonanza for 12 years and, thanks to lucrative sponsorships that saw each episode pulling in nearly $800,000, he and his costars Dan Blocker and Michael Landon had become millionaires off the show's earnings.

In 1971, the actors earned $15,000 a week just from making the show, and their contract guaranteed each year, they'd earn a thousand more a week.

When the season ran 34 episodes, that amounted to more than $500,000 a season. Later the season ran 26 episodes, but with the bonus earnings, it hardly shifted the actors' impressive incomes, especially when you consider all the additional profits from outside roles, sponsorships, and events that came as a result of the show's popularity.

No other show at that time cost as much as Bonanza to make, except for Gunsmoke and Mission Impossible, but because of the show's continued popularity as a mega-hit, the $220,000 that it cost to produce an episode was a pittance compared to what the studio made off the property.

Everybody was happy, and arguably, Greene was happiest of all.

Not only had his character evolved into a softer version where he only rarely unleashed the fire of the Bible, but he also left the show where he was happier with his character to rush home to be blissfully happy with his wife Nancy and his three-year-old daughter, Gillian, living in the gorgeous home that the Sears fortune built.

In this giant secluded house, which one reporter noted was barely accessible to outsiders, Gillian liked to dance with Lorne, and even in the middle of an interview, he was unable to turn down her invitation.

He joked he'd shed 40 pounds in part just trying to keep up with her high energy.

At that point, Greene was 56 and The Des Moines Register declared he'd piled up "riches beyond an actor's dreams." After that point, the actor would end up sticking with Bonanza not for 100 years, of course, but through the series finale in 1973.

Although surely he remained fond of all those years on the Ponderosa, it was his time with Gillian that he perhaps treasured most. She made him feel like he was not just at the peak of his fortune, but in his prime again.

"Every time I look at that child, I feel as though I were 25 years old," Greene told the Register.

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Sheree 35 months ago
I always loved Lorene Greene. I think he was the sexiest man on TV, and I am not even interested in men, lol.
Pacificsun 35 months ago
I'm so glad I read the comments.

They were better than the story!!!!!
dangler1907 35 months ago
In 1985, Lorne Greene was featured in a "documentary" called "The Canadian Conspiracy". Shocked Americans finally saw how Canadians like Greene had been slowly and deviously taking over the US entertainment industry for years ... and the quiet invasion continues to this day! Be afraid America - Canadians are everywhere! ;)
F5Twitster 35 months ago
I had lunch with Lorne Greene on the set of the original "Battlestar Galactica" in 1978. Happy to report that he was as nice in person as he appeared on TV.
Andybandit 35 months ago
I can't imagine Lorne Greene not playing Ben Cartwright.
Deleted 35 months ago
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Cowgirl 35 months ago
I also prefer the episodes from the first 6 years & rarely watch any episodes after Pernell Roberts left the show.
RRau 35 months ago
It was really wierd seeing him later on the ABC TV series, Battlestar Galactica, which debuted Sept. 1978 and featured an episode with Fred Astaire as a friendly, mysterious alien character..
I was wondering, could Fred Astaire have ever envisioned that when he was dancing with Ginger Rogers in the 1930's?
Moody RRau 35 months ago
Fred Astaire wasn't an alien on BSG. He played a con man who was pretending to be Starbuck's father to avoid some nasty aliens who were after him.
Pacificsun Moody 35 months ago
LOL! Too funny when I read this!
35 months ago
Where else could a boring actor like Greene get rich, other than on a formulaic 1960s western show?
RRau Pilaf 35 months ago
Another very boring actor was Ed Asner, who played Lou Grant on the Mary Tyler Moore show, and later his own spinoff tv series, where he was even more boring as a newspaper Chief Editor..
When 'Vega$' (my favorite show) was shockingly cancelled in 1981 after only three years, Robert Urich was absolutely fuming, saying he's stack up his show any day vs an over-rated bore like 'Lou Grant'..
CraigGustafson RRau 35 months ago
"Robert Urich was absolutely fuming, saying he's stack up his show any day vs an over-rated bore like 'Lou Grant'.."
He'd lose.
jomo CraigGustafson 33 months ago
After reading a interview of Charlton Heston many years ago and discovering what Asner had called him during a campaign for the presidency of SAG, I was appalled at Asner, and never liked him afterwards. I can't say what Asner said, but it was an incredibly crude and vulgar name.
ncadams27 35 months ago
Whenever a lead character plays a dual role, the other character is always the exact opposite and one gets mistaken for the other. Sometimes they are related, sometimes strangers. If a show is on the air long enough, this will be the theme of one or more episodes.
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LoveMETV22 Pacificsun 35 months ago
No problem. I always enjoy reading your comments and your perspective.
Pacificsun 35 months ago
This comment has been removed.
ncadams27 Pacificsun 35 months ago
My Three Sons jumped the shark when William Frawley (Bub) left. I’t was moved to Saturday night and quite frankly I think CBS forgot about it.
LoveMETV22 Pacificsun 35 months ago
MacMurray was definitely savvy in all his deals, that's most likely why they spent the time finding just the right actress to play his wife. I'm sure he had a lot of say in that.
Maverick66 35 months ago
The entire show evolved, not just the Ben Cartwright character. At the beginning, the whole Cartwright clan had that "Get off our land" attitude, but, by the end, they were like Old West social workers with the Ponderosa as their headquarters.
ncadams27 Maverick66 35 months ago
Yea, they have this ranch almost the size of Rhode Island and seem to know when somebody is on their property and ride out to tell them to get off their land. They don’t even appear to have any fences. All that land and they live in a tiny one story house, will all the grown sons still living at home. No wonder Adam left - he was tired of sharing a room with Hoss and Little Joe.
ncadams27 ncadams27 35 months ago
Hoss hogged the covers and Little Joe’s gun barrel kept poking him in the butt.
Pacificsun Maverick66 35 months ago
What IS is about this thread! It is completely entertaining!
ncadams27 Pacificsun 35 months ago
Sometimes that happens. Bonanza is more like a parody of other westerns.
RedSamRackham ncadams27 18 months ago
* Gee, I thought Maverick was a parody of other westerns!
jomo ncadams27 18 months ago
The house was two storeys! And it was the first show that I watched that systematically killed off any love interests for the boys. That bloodline must have ended rather abruptly.
LoveMETV22 35 months ago
Nice story. I like the episode mentioned at the beginning of the article.
MichaelSkaggs 35 months ago
Which episode was the one written for him?
justjeff MichaelSkaggs 35 months ago
"Ben Tells Himself to Get Off His Land"...
WordsmithWorks justjeff 35 months ago
Just as the Lord intended.
MaryMitch MichaelSkaggs 35 months ago
Maybe "The Stranger"? Ben was in most of the scenes. It had Lloyd Nolan (I remember him as the doctor on "Julia") as Charles Leduque, a lawman who came to Virginia City to drag Ben to New Orleans for a trial.
Pacificsun justjeff 35 months ago
OMG. How can you not take Bonanza seriously!
justjeff Pacificsun 35 months ago
Easily... I find humor in many things - especially when I look in the mirror...
RedSamRackham Pacificsun 18 months ago
* How can you take a series about grown men living with their daddy seriously?
Pacificsun RedSamRackham 18 months ago
Well, when they're living off a total of a million dollars, worth in acreage, livestock, property, gold assets, and practically own the Town, I'd be sticking around, too!
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