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Actor Lorne Greene, ‘Bonanza’s’ Ben Cartwright, Dead At 72

September 12, 1987 GMT

SANTA MONICA, Calif. (AP) _ Lorne Greene, who for 14 years played the firm but gentle father to three strapping sons as Ben Cartwright on television’s ″Bonanza,″ died Friday with his wife and three children at his side. He was 72.

Greene died at Saint John’s Hospital, where he underwent abdominal surgery Aug. 19 for a perforated ulcer. While recovering, he developed pneumonia, at times requiring an oxygen tank to help him breathe.

″The cause of death is listed as respiratory arrest followed by cardiac arrest,″ said Saint John’s spokeswoman Mary Miller. She said Greene died at 12:14 p.m.


Greene’s wife, Nancy, and children Charles, Linda and Gillian were with him when he died, she said.

Services will be held Monday at Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City, said aide Roxanne Lawrence.

A barrel-chested man with white hair, bushy black eyebrows and a deep, resonant voice, Greene tried different television roles late in his career, playing a detective in ″Griff,″ a space commander in ″Battlestar Galactica″ and a fire chief in ″Code Red.″

But he remained most closely tied to his image as a widower in the old West, the patriarch who rode herd on a trio of headstrong sons - Adam, Hoss and Little Joe - played by Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker and Michael Landon.

″He was Ben Cartwright to the end. He was ready with no complaints,″ Landon said after the announcement of Greene’s death.

″The last time I saw him he couldn’t speak. I took his hand in mine and held it. He looked at me and then slowly started to arm wrestle like we used to and he broke into a smile and nodded and everything was OK. I think he wanted me to know everything was OK.″

″I’m so sorry. We go back many years,″ said actor Robert Stack, who worked with Greene in the movie ″The Gift of Love″ with Lauren Bacall.

″He had a gifted voice,″ Stack said from his Los Angeles home. ″It goes back to the word Clark Gable said to me once. The main obligation of a performer is to be a professional, and he was.″

Greene’s condition had improved just last weekend, but on Thursday he suffered a setback and was returned to the intensive care unit where he died.

The ″Bonanza″ series made Greene a multimillionaire and he invested in real estate and ran a string of thoroughbred horses in Southern California. He also became known in recent years for a series of dog food commercials for television.


He had planned to perform again as Ben Cartwright in a television movie. Despite his death, ″Bonanza: The Next Generation,″ will begin production as scheduled on Oct. 26 at the Lake Tahoe-area site of the original series, said David Dortort, producer of the upcoming film and creator of the original series.

″Ben Cartwright passed away today,″ said Steve Syatt, spokesman for Gaylord Production Co. ″There’s no way that we can fill that role, so we’ll obviously have to do some rescripting.″

″He was a great Canadian gentleman and we were friends,″ said Mickey Rooney. ″Lorne has now gone home to the Ponderosa, and the motion picture and television industry has lost a great talent.″

Greene once built a replica in Arizona of the Ponderosa ranch house set from ″Bonanza,″ complete to a staircase that led to nowhere. But unlike the sometimes stern, humorless Cartwright, Greene was full of good spirits and often joked with his co-stars.

Greene was a little-known actor and former newscaster in 1959 when he was cast for ″Bonanza.″ After a shaky start, the series zoomed in popularity and was seen by an estimated 400 million people in 80 countries.

After 14 years on NBC it was canceled in January 1973, but the 431 episodes will be seen in reruns for many years to come. Roberts quit the show in 1965 and Blocker died May 13, 1972.

Greene, who was born Feb. 12, 1915, in Ottawa, Ontario, based his portrayal on his own father, Daniel, a maker of orthopedic boots and shoes.

″I don’t know whether I could ever match my father as a person, but as an actor I try to be like him,″ Greene once said.

He became interested in drama while a student at Queens University and then won a two-year fellowship to the Neighborhood Theater in New York.

Returning to Canada at the outbreak of World War II, he was unable to find work as an actor and went into radio. Greene became the chief newscaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and during the war years was known as ″The Voice of Canada.″

In 1949, he helped establish the Jupiter Theater, an enterprise which has produced some of Canada’s finest drama. By 1953, he had decided to become a professional actor.

He was in New York to market a backward-running radio stopwatch that he had built when he landed his first part on ″Studio One.″ That led to a movie, then to another ″Studio One″ appearance and the lead opposite Katherine Cornell in the Broadway production of ″The Prescott Proposals.″

Greene wanted a variety of dramatic experience and hoped that after 10 years he could move on to producing.

″When ‘Bonanza’ came along I got into it by the sheer circumstance of being there at the right time,″ he recalled once. ″I thought, well, you don’t know how long it is going to run. We didn’t think it would last long. The first scripts were bad.″

When he passed his 10-year limit he remained with the show. ″But it didn’t make me unhappy. I was at peace with myself.″

Greene also appeared on television variety shows and recorded such hit records as ″Ringo,″ ″Destiny″ and ″Five Card Stud″ in which he talked rather than sang to music. ″Ringo,″ about a renegade cowboy, was on the charts for 12 weeks in 1964.

In a change of pace, Greene played a Russian spy in the TV movie ″Destiny of a Spy″ and delivered a sensitive performance as a farmer with an invalid wife in the TV movie of John Steinbeck’s ″The Harness.″

″You need stretching exercises as an actor,″ he said in an interview. ″I have to keep my other muscles going. That’s why I do personal appearances and guest shots. They keep you alive.″

Greene remained a Canadian citizen, although he was active in Democratic politics.