Remember him as Pa, the best darned dad there ever was, paterfamilias of the Ponderosa. Lorne Greene, who died in Santa Monica this month at 72 of a heart attack following surgery for a perforated ulcer, ruled the ranch and the ratings for 14 phenomenal years on NBC’s Bonanza. He played Ben Cartwright—but he really was playing his own father, Daniel, a Russian-Jewish immigrant to Canada, a shoemaker. Mr. Greene never spanked little Lorne. In Ottawa, Dad just gave him “one of those looks.” On the Ponderosa, when one of Ben’s boys—Adam, Hoss or Little Joe—would act up, Greene said, “I’d give him the same look.” That was his secret.
That and his deep-as-a-well voice. At the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the ’40s, Greene became known as the Voice of Canada. He was a radio man. He even invented a watch for broadcasters (it tells the time left in a show), and on a trip to New York to sell that watch in 1953, he ran into a producer of CBS TV’s Studio One. A part on that legendary series led him to Broadway, then movies(Peyton Place, The Buccaneer), then a guest shot on Wagon Train. And that led to Bonanza in 1959. “It was the best and the worst thing that ever happened to him,” says his manager, Charlotte Dial. “It was very difficult for Lorne to break out of that mold.”
Sadly true. After Bonanza, Greene’s TV career faded slowly in the west. In 1973’s Griff, he was a private eye; in 1979’s Battlestar Galactica, a space commander; in 1981’s Code Red, a fire fighter; in Alpo commercials, a friend to animals—always paternal. “He was the epitome of what a father is,” says Galactica’s Richard Hatch. Gillian Greene, 19, Lorne’s daughter with his second wife, Nancy (he has grown twins, Charles and Belinda, 42, from his first marriage, to Rita Hands), agrees. “Dad never asked for anything in return other than love,” she says.
Greene was set to play Ben once more in Bonanza: The Next Generation, a syndicated movie that starts shooting Oct. 26 in the old series’ home, at Lake Tahoe. But even as the movie was being planned, Greene’s health was waning. David Dortort, producer of both Bonanzas, rewrote his script to give Greene less physical work. Now a younger brother will be invented to take his place.
Two days before he died in a Santa Monica hospital, Greene got a visit from a Bonanza son who himself became a TV dad on Little House on the Prairie, Michael Landon. “He was Ben Cartwright to the end,” says Landon, now starring in Highway to Heaven. “He couldn’t speak. I took his hand in mine and held it. He looked at me and slowly started to arm wrestle like we used to. Then he broke into a smile and nodded. And everything was okay.”