Lorne Greene, the barrel-chested actor best known for his portrayal of Ben Cartwright, the strong, stern, immutably ethical yet caring father in one of America’s most popular television series, died Friday afternoon of respiratory complications.
The star of “Bonanza” was 72 and died at St. John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica where he had been admitted last month with a perforated ulcer. He underwent abdominal surgery Aug. 19 and while recovering developed pneumonia.
Greene’s wife and three children were with him when he died, said St. John’s spokeswoman Mary Miller.
The Canadian-born star of one of TV’s most successful series, whose rich baritone voice was once described by a columnist as “surely one of the finest ever wrought by nature,” was a dramatic fixture in his native land for years before coming into American living rooms on Sept. 2, 1959, where he was to spend the next 14 seasons as Ben Cartwright.
And it is as that level-headed patriarch of the Ponderosa for which he will be always remembered, despite the classical and popular credits he accumulated as a young actor.
Along with Dan Blocker (Hoss), Michael Landon (Little Joe) and Pernell Roberts (the short-lived Adam), Greene gathered a following of such magnitude that even President Lyndon B. Johnson reputedly had enough respect for “Bonanza’s” ratings that he would not schedule a speech that would clash with the show’s 9 p.m. time slot on Sunday nights.
In a 1964 interview, Greene told the New York Post that his interpretation of the widowed Cartwright raising a clan of three diverse sons was based on his own father.
“I don’t know whether I could ever match my father as a person,” he said, “but as an actor I try to be like him.”
He offered the story of a 13-year-old Greene trying to match wits with his father as an example:
“One day when mother was away, I cut an exam I hadn’t studied for and came home, thinking my father would be at work. But there he was! He asked me why I’d come home. It was a beautiful sunny day, but the only reason I could think of was ‘to get my umbrella.’ He said casually, ‘Oh . . . well, maybe you’d better take your rubbers, too, so you won’t get your feet wet.’ Then, very subtly, he insisted on giving me a lift to school, and when we got there he said, ‘I’ll walk in with you.’ ”
Confronted by Notes
Consequently, Greene’s father walked him into the principal’s office where a “foot-high pile” of notes Greene had written with his mother’s forged signature awaited them.
“All I remember is my father’s eyes saying to me, ‘What kind of a delinquent have I brought into this world?’ From that moment on I became a reformed character,” Greene said. “He never mentioned that incident again and he didn’t tell my mother because he knew it would hurt her.”
Greene’s father, Daniel, a boot maker, and his mother, Dora, raised Greene in Ottawa, Canada, as an only child.
In 1932 he enrolled at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, ostensibly to become a chemical engineer. Greene gravitated toward drama, an art he had dabbled in in high school. There he joined the Drama Guild, where he produced, directed and acted in the group’s plays.
After graduation, and after a two-year fellowship with the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, the 6-foot 2-inch Greene returned to Canada but found little or no acting opportunities.
But at the outbreak of World War II, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. was looking for a newscaster with a strong voice to broadcast war news. Greene fit the position so well that he soon became known as The Voice of Canada.
In an article titled “How I Switched From Shakespeare to Six-Guns,” written for MacLean’s magazine in 1960, Greene noted that “I left Canada in 1953 because I could find nothing very satisfying about delivering commercial pitches on camera. I felt the whole atmosphere of TV in Canada was listless.”
During his years as a radio announcer in Canada, Greene had been aware of the difficulty that announcers had in determining the amount of time remaining toward the close of the program. His solution was a stopwatch that ran backwards, reading clockwise from 60 to zero. Greene was invited to demonstrate his inventive device to an executive at NBC in New York.
While at Rockefeller Center in 1953, Greene ran into Fletcher Markle, a man he once worked with in Canada. Markle, the producer of “Studio One,” invited Greene to perform on that top-rated CBS drama program.
Jack Gould of the New York Times said Greene’s performance as the Thought Police official in “Studio One’s” adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984,” “was superb, alternately friendly, understanding, and deadly sinister.”
After numerous roles on Broadway and in television, including the Apostle Peter in “The Silver Chalice” and Yellow Jack on NBC’s “Producer’s Playhouse,” Greene was seen in a guest shot on “Wagon Train.” On the strength of that appearance the producer, David Dorton, recognized Greene as the authoritative figure he wanted for his new Western, titled “Bonanza.”
Off to a Rocky Start
The series was scheduled opposite the immensely popular “Perry Mason” series and at first did terribly. “Bonanza” didn’t gain ratings respectability until NBC and the Chevrolet sponsors shifted the program to Sunday night as a replacement for “The Dinah Shore Chevy Show.”
It zoomed to the top of the ratings, placing No. 1 for three consecutive seasons starting in 1964.
“A big reason for this show’s popularity,” Greene said that year, “is the strength and warmth of the family. The father-son relationship is the strongest there is. It’s been the basis of drama all the way back to the Bible. Notice, Abraham wasn’t told to sacrifice a daughter.”
The fatherly image Greene offered Blocker and Landon was not limited to the screen. He guided and supervised the joint business ventures of the two younger actors. Using his paternal wisdom, Greene managed to make them and himself millionaires by 1966. (Pernell Roberts as Adam asked to leave the show after six years).
In 1964, Greene told a Los Angeles Times reporter: “Some day I may wind up with indigestion, but you’re only here once so I believe in having as many careers as possible.”
And Greene did have many “careers.” In one week in 1965 , for example, he narrated a training film for the U.S. Defense Department, was guest speaker at a Salvation Army meeting, cut the obligatory ribbon at the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and, of course, continued to reign over the Ponderosa.
After “Bonanza” went off the air in January, 1973, Greene tried to diversify his repertoire by playing such roles as a Russian espionage agent in “Destiny of a Spy,” and a grizzled old farmer in the TV adaptation of Steinbeck’s “The Harness.”
He could not, however, shake the paternal image he gained in “Bonanza.” Even in the popular series “Battlestar Galactica” (1978-80), Greene was typecast. As Commander Adamas, he played the paternal leader of a space-age wagon train, which forever searched the galaxy for a permanent camp site.
But that series, like his brief private-eye series, “Griff” and the ill-fated “Code Red,” did not match “Bonanza” for its popularity and was dropped by the networks.
He made a few films, including “Earthquake” and “Tidal Wave,” and was seen in the popular TV mini-series “Roots,” “The Moneychangers” and “The Bastard.”
Greene said he would never do another full-time TV series unless he had some kind of control of the script. With “Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness,” a series that dealt with animals and the environment, Greene got exactly what he wanted: control.
Greene hosted the series and co-produced it with his son Charles, from 1982 until his death. “I feel energetic when I’m working,” Greene told United Press International in 1982. “I do what most people do when they retire, but I do more. I keep the mind working. I find that the harder I work, the younger I feel.”
Married an Actress
In 1961, Greene married Nancy Deale, an actress and artist he met while directing one of her plays, bringing to that marriage twins Belinda Susan and Charles from a former marriage. They became parents of another son, Edward, in January, 1968.
His caring nature off screen won him numerous honors and awards over the years, including the Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the Award of Valor from the Mississippi NAACP (for breaking a contract after learning that his audience was to be segregated). He was named Canada’s Man of the Year in 1965.
He remained busy until the end of his life spending several months each year in Toronto where the former “Voice of Canada” was now producing “New Wilderness” for syndication.
“As Red Skelton puts it,” Greene said, ‘life is divided into three parts: childhood, middle age and ‘Man, you look great.’ I think I will leave it at that.”