Lyon Chaim Green, better known to Westernistas, especially Bonanza fans, as Lorne Greene, was pretty Canadian. There were quite a few people Western lovers will know who hailed from the Dominion and then made it in the world of the Western and I don’t mean only Bat Masterson. Actors such as Glenn Ford, Yvonne de Carlo, Rod Cameron and more were frequent appearers in Hollywood oaters. But we don’t really think of them as Canadian. Lorne Greene, on the other hand, was known as the Voice of Canada. He was born in 1915 in Ottowa, attended Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, studying chemical engineering but switching to languages, served with the Royal Canadian Air Force and on CBC he became the country’s top radio newscaster (in the early years of World War II, he was nicknamed The Voice of Doom because of his deep voice and the gloomy news reports he had to read). And he remained Canadian: for example, he was MC at the Royal Command Performance when Queen Elizabeth visited the country in 1964 and was Canada’s Man of the Year, 1965. He’s been on a Canadian postage stamp.
He went to New York in 1953 to market a special count-down clock he had invented (it made him quite a lot of money) and there he had a chance encounter with a TV producer which netted him parts in Studio One which got good reviews. He decided on an acting career.
He was often the villain. Probably his biggest role was as the prosecuting attorney in Peyton Place but he did appear in the occasional Western (which, as we know, is what counts) from 1957 on. That year he was third-billed in Columbia’s Guy Madison oater The Hard Man. He was no decent Ponderosa patriarch in this one, but a really unpleasant crooked rich man ready to resort to murder to get his way. The part would have suited Lyle Bettger or David Brian, or a shade earlier Victor Jory. But Greene did it very well.
The following year he was a rich hacienda owner, supposedly of Irish origins, whose daughter falls for Jock Mahoney in Universal’s The Last of the Fast Guns. He wasn’t quite such a villain in that one.
He was in Paramount’s Robert Taylor Western The Hangman in 1959 as a judge but it was a fifteen-second micropart so that doesn’t really count.
But then it was Bonanza, and that was that for big-screen Westerns. He did sing the intro ballad for the 1966 AC Lyles ‘geezer western’ Waco (it got to #50 in the US country charts) but didn’t appear in the movie.
In early 1959 he was (as Lorne Green) a naval officer, Captain Amos Carr, in an episode of Bronco, and later he was uncredited as a colonel in Gold, Glory and Custer, a Cheyenne episode, but he also did a Wagon Train, The Vivian Carter Story, a performance which caught the eye of producer David Dutort, who was at the time casting the new show Bonanza.
Bonanza was NBC’s Sunday-night anchor for over a decade. It was a phenomenally successful show. Lasting 14 seasons and 431 episodes, right through into the 1970s, its Western longevity was matched only by Gunsmoke. It won Emmys and Wranglers and dozens of other awards. And in a way, Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright was Bonanza.
Myself, obviously I watched it, because, well, it was a Western series, and what’s more it came along at the right time for me, starting in 1959 when I was eleven. I hadn’t really got into the likes of The Adventures of Kit Carson, say, because I was only three when it started. But by the end of the decade I was an avid fan of Gunsmoke and Have Gun – Will Travel, as well as many other shows. I liked Bonanza too because it sometimes introduced real-life (though as I now know highly fictionalized) Western characters into the stories, and that appealed to me. But there was always something faintly soapy and ‘family saga’ about it, and I didn’t care for the ‘comic’ episodes. My chief complaint, though, was that it was my sisters’ show. The same was true of Laramie, which started the same year. My eldest sisters divided over who was the more gorgeous, Jess or Slim, and I thought this was silly. Plus, many episodes were far too talky. Furthermore, I didn’t like Hoagy sitting on the fence singing a damn song every week. But Laramie was nothing compared with Bonanza. Then the strife became close to internecine. My eldest sis sighed over Adam and the next one down had a crush on Little Joe. Eleven-year-old Western fanatic boys had no patience with such foolishness. (My youngest sister refused in surly fashion to be assigned Hoss as her idol.)
Anyway, whatever the Bonanza situ in the Arnold household, the show was a megahit.
It was shot in color (it was partly intended as a vehicle for marketing RCA color TVs) and it also claimed to be influenced by studies at the time that suggested American males were obsessed with ‘momism’, over-identifying with their mothers. The show was distinctly patriarchal and male. Lorne was the father of each of his three sons by different wives, who, however were departed.
At first it competed on Saturdays with Perry Mason and it struggled in the ratings war (Greene said it was nearly axed) but it gradually gained ground. When a rumor was printed that the show was to be terminated, NBC was deluged with protest mail. The series was switched to Sunday nights and never looked back. From 1964 to 1967 it was the number one show on the air. At its peak it was shown in 80 countries and watched by 400 million people. LBJ reportedly would not go on air to address the nation while it was on.
Greene said that he was asked to play Cartwright as a stern paterfamilias who ruled the Ponderosa with a rod of iron but he objected, and softened the character. “I felt the Cartwrights should make nice, say to people … C’mon in.” Greene was ranked #2 by TV Guide in its list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time”. He must have been miffed at that #2.
Of course it was phooey historically. Nominally set just after the Civil War and based around the Comstock Lode, many of the costumes, firearms and characters were highly anachronistic. It didn’t matter a jot.
The series made Lorne Greene rich. He got a fee of $17,000 per episode wherever it was shown. He was also a shrewd investor, owning office real estate in downtown LA, for example. He built a replica of the Ponderosa in Arizona, complete with staircase leading nowhere.
At the height of Lorne’s fame, in 1964, he came out with a song that obsessed me and my school mates, Ringo. We knew all the words and sang it endlessly, doubtless to the intense annoyance of all around us. The character of Ringo has always exercised a fascination on the (especially juvenile) Western-lovers’ imagination. Click here for more on that vital subject and click on the record cover below (external link) to listen to this sublime example of American lieder (eat your heart out, Schubert). He released an RCA album that year too, Welcome to the Ponderosa, but I don’t remember that.
But nothing lasts forever. Pernell Roberts left after the completion of his six-year contract and his character was written out. Dan Blocker died of a pulmonary embolism in May 1972. Lorne Greene had a mild heart attack. The show moved to Tuesday nights. Audiences declined. Bonanza was finally canceled in the fall of 1972. There were various attempts at revival, and Bonanza: The Next Generation was projected and a pilot made. Greene signed to reprise his role of Ben but died before the show filmed and John Ireland became the patriarch (Michael Landon was Little Joe’s son). A prequel, Ponderosa, was mooted in 2001. But the glory days were over.
As for Greene, he moved to a crime show, Griff, in 1973 but it flopped and was axed after only three months. He took the role James Stewart turned down in Universal’s Earthquake in ’74, playing Charlton Heston’s father-in-law and Ava Gardner’s father (so Ava must have been a sibling of Adam, Hoss and Little Joe, I guess). He devoted his last years to wildlife conservation, producing natural-world TV shows, for example. He did the occasional non-Western TV show and a lot of voice work (especially for Alpo dog food). He was the stoic silver-haired commander of Battlestar Galactica. His last appearance was vaguely Western when he was Sam Houston in the telefilm The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory.
Lorne Greene died in Santa Monica, Cal in September 1987, aged 72.
He was certainly not the greatest Western actor, far from it, and really he is identified with only one role, but he did enough to make him a feature of the Western landscape, and, most importantly, to receive a career summary on Jeff Arnold’s West. Fame indeed.