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.
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"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.