On September 11, 1987, actor Lorne Greene, the iconic paterfamilias of the Cartwright clan on the long-running TV series “Bonanza,” died at the age of 72.
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Ben Cartwright may have seemed very much at home in the expansive Nevada flatlands of the Ponderosa ranch, but the actor who filled his boots was the son of Russian Jews who immigrated to Ottawa, Ontario early in the 20th century.
His original name was Lyon Himan Green, and he was born on February 15, 1915, the son of Daniel and Dora Green, he from Vitebsk, she from outside Minsk, both in current-day Belarus. The couple had met and married in the old country. Once Daniel had set himself up in Ontario, he called for Dora to join, shortly before the birth of their second son. (Lyon had an older brother who died in 1918 at age 5 of influenza.)
Daniel owned a shoe-repair shop behind the family home in The Flats section of Ottawa, near the Canadian houses of parliament. He specialized in making orthopedic shoes, and did good business. In her memoir about Lorne Greene, Linda Greene Bennett, his daughter, says her father recalled being set up with a shoeshine stand by his father in the center of town at age 11 or 12.
Both his parents were Zionists, and Lorne, who was called Chaim at home, grew up speaking Yiddish.
Although he began Queen’s University in Ontario as a chemical engineering student, Greene (who meanwhile added the “e” to the surname) switched to being a language major, and spent his free time acting and working at the campus radio station.
The Voice of Canada
With his sonorous voice, he was a natural for radio, and after graduation Greene was hired by the Canadian Broadcasting Company as a news reader. By World War II, which Canada entered in 1939, Greene was the leading national news broadcaster for the CBC, which dubbed him “The Voice of Canada.” (So grave did he sound at times that he also picked up the epithet “The Voice of Doom.”)
Greene created a stopwatch for broadcasters that showed time remaining, rather than time elapsed, and during a 1953 trip to New York to market the timepiece, he met a producer at the CBS-TV drama program “Studio One,” who offered him work. That quickly led to several roles on Broadway, then film work in the United States. His movie debut was in 1954 as the Apostle Peter in “The Silver Chalice.”
Finally, in 1959 he won a starring role in NBC’s “Bonanza,” playing the sagacious, thrice-widowed father of three grown men who together run the family’s 600,000-acre Nevada ranch, sharing each other’s challenges, triumphs and griefs.
Greene said that he based his portrayal of Ben Cartwright – combining “authority with kindness” – on his memories of his father. Interestingly, the creator of “Bonanza,” Daniel Dortort, told journalist Ruth Ellen Gruber that he named the character for his own Russian-immigrant father, who was called Ben, and that “essentially, the values I put into ‘Bonanza’ are Jewish values that I learned in my home, from my father.”
“Bonanza” was the first one-hour TV series broadcast in color, and ran 14 seasons, from 1959 to 1973. At its peak, Greene was said to be earning $32,000 an episode, and he so identified with his character that he built himself a replica of the Cartwrights’ Ponderosa ranch house.
Greene was married twice and had three daughters. He also had a career on the side as recording artist, with songs half-spoken, half-sung. After “Bonanza” was canceled, he continued working in both TV and film, most notably in the sci-fi movie and series “Battlestar Galactica,” playing Commander Adama. He was also involved in conservation work, hosting a TV nature series, and founded a Toronto school of radio arts.
Shortly before his death, he signed a contract to appear in a TV movie sequel, “Bonanza: The Next Generation,” but died of pneumonia, following abdominal surgery before filming began, and the screenplay was rewritten without his character.