Lorne Greene, the actor who played Ben Cartwright on the immensely popular television Western Bonanza, is born in Ontario, Canada. An only child, Greene later said he based his portrayal of Ben Cartwright on his own father, Daniel Greene.
Greene’s rise to national stardom in Bonanza did not come until relatively late in his career. He first began acting as a student at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, where he abandoned his major in chemical engineering to follow the more exciting lure of the stage. For several years he worked in the theater in New York City, but he won his first major position in 1939 as an announcer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. His deep, warm voice soon earned Greene the title, “The Voice of Canada.” During World War II, he served as a flying officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force. When he returned to Canada, Greene began to win more acting roles in the fledgling Canadian television industry. In 1954, he made his big screen debut as the Apostle Peter in The Silver Chalice.
Greene’s big break came in 1959. The American TV producer David Dortot spotted Greene playing a small role in the Western Wagon Train. Dortot was in the midst of creating a new TV Western based on the adventures of a rancher father and his three sons. He thought Greene would be perfect for the role of “Pa”-Ben Cartwright. Greene agreed to take the role. His three TV sons (each by a different wife) were the thoughtful and mature Adam (Pernell Roberts), the gentle giant Hoss (Dan Blocker), and the hot-blooded young romantic Little Joe (Michael Landon).
Bonanza debuted on NBC in 1959 and remained on the air until 1973, making it one of the longest running TV Westerns ever. Somewhat unique among the many other TV Westerns of the time that emphasized solitary cowboys and gunmen, Bonanza focused on the strong familial bonds between Ben Cartwright and his three sons. The silver-haired Greene created a Ben Cartwright who was an ideal father. Strong, compassionate, and understanding, “Pa” shepherded his sons through tough times with a grace and wisdom that won him the affection of millions of viewers. Besides offering appealing characters and interesting story lines, Bonanza was also popular because it was the first network Western to be televised in color.
After Bonanza was canceled in 1973, Greene acted in several other short-lived TV shows, including Battlestar Galactica. He died in 1987 at the age of 72, still best remembered by millions as “Pa” Cartwright.