Today, we look at how Bonanza pulled out all of the stops for Michael Landon’s TV writing debut, “The Gamble.”
This is “All the Best Things,” a spotlight on the best TV episodes, movies, albums, etc.
This is a Year of Great TV Episodes, where every day this year, we’ll take a look at great TV episodes. Note that I’m not talking about “Very Special Episodes” or episodes built around gimmicks, but just “normal” episodes of TV shows that are notable only because of how good they are.
Bonanza is a weird show in that it was very popular for many years, but man, so many of its episodes were just not particularly good, especially when compared to the much better Western TV show that was on the air during its entire 14 season run, Gunsmoke (Gunsmoke debuted before Bonanza started and ended after Bonanza ended).
When the show began, Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene), the rich cattle rancher, was a strict disciplinarian to his three sons (from three different wives), Adam (Pernell Roberts), Hoss (Dan Blocker) and Little Joe (Michael Landon). However, everyone on the show hated that setup. The adult actors who played his sons hated how they were treated like children, while Greene hated how much of a jerk Ben seemed. So Greene insisted that they lighten up his character, and in Season 3, they revamped his character. The show also moved to a new time slot, and the ratings skyrocketed, and eventually became the #1 show for a number of seasons, remaining in the top five for NINE seasons in a row.
Heck, by the time the show ended, part of its ratings decline was the fact that a syndicated version of the earlier seasons was so popular that its ratings might have been cannibalized a little bit (plus, Roberts left the show after Season 6 and Dan Blocker passed away after Season 13, so the later seasons were very different from the “classic” years).
In any event, Bonanza was often pretty silly, but one thing they tended to do well at was action plots, and one of their better ones was Season 3’s “The Gamble,” which was the first TV writing credit for Michael Landon, Little Joe on the show, who later went on to be an accomplished TV screenwriter.
He co-wrote the episode with Frank Cleaver, and it was directed by William Witney.
The concept of the episode was that the Cartwrights stopped over in a sleepy town with $30,000 in cash from a recent sale. They were exhausted and needed to rest. The livery owner (Robert Sampson) came up with a plan to rob the Cartwrights. He told the Sheriff (Charles McGraw) and the deputy (Ben Johnson), and the three robbed the local bank of $30,000 in the morning using saddle bags with the Ponderosa brand. They shot an innocent man in the robbery.
They then “discovered” the $30,000 in the bags owned by the Cartwrights, and returned it to the bank, and arrested the Cartwrights (the Cartwrights’ $30,000 then went into the sheriff’s safe). The Cartwrights were put on trial, and convicted, and sentenced to death the next morning. Little Joe escaped, and rode hard to the Ponderosa (and nearby Virginia City) and put together a posse to save his family.
The amount of money put into this episode was crazy. Just the actors riding on horses with Little Joe alone! The next morning, soon before the hanging began, Little Joe reveals that he has the deputy tied to a noose, as well, and has the deputy confess in front of the whole town. Little Joe then revealed his small army of armed men.
The livery owner (a total psycho who delighted in visiting the Cartwrights in prison and tormenting them about their impending doom) shoots the deputy, and the sheriff shoots him. The sheriff tries to claim it was the deputy and the livery owner, but obviously, he can’t answer why the Cartwright’s money is in his safe, and he confesses.
There’s some great character moments on the captured Cartwright men as they sit in jail, assuming they are near death.
The whole episode is on YouTube (for now – no promises of how long it will remain up!)…
Okay, if I’m going to have 336 more of these, I could use suggestions, so feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!