Lorne Greene: Golden Voiced Thespian of The Ponderosa

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Today is the birthday of Lorne Greene (Lyon Himan Green, 1915-1987). The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Greene grew up in Ottawa and took up dramatics and radio broadcasting while at college, eventually abandoning his chemical engineering studies.

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With that rich, deep voice and his terrific diction it should come as no surprise to anybody that Greene got his start in radio, delivering the national news for the CBC in the 1930s and 40s. In the early 1950s he began to break into acting, on American tv dramas and on Broadway (in a couple of Katharine Cornell productions). Occasionally there were movie roles, in films like Peyton Place (1957) and The Buccaneer (1958).

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His breakthrough of course was the part of Ben Cartwright, patriarch of the Ponderosa ranch in Bonanza. It was an odd fit, Greene with his Shakespearean voice as an outdoorsy, western type. Greene was also on the diminutive side (my dad always used to joke that he was usually filmed on his horse so the audience wouldn’t notice). But the show was a runaway hit; it stayed on the air from 1959 through 1973; it was definitely a prominent part of American life and culture when I was growing up. Greene’s popularity on Bonanza even prompted him to record a number of western-themed record albums, and his spoke-sung “Ringo” became a #1 hit in 1964.

The death of the beloved Dan Blocker (“Hoss”) in 1972 effectively killed the show. But Greene was still around after the loss of his best known role. He had a good part in the 1974 disaster movie Earthquake, in which his character suffered a heart attack and had to be lowered from the upper floors of a skyscraper in an office chair attached to a fire hose by Charlton Heston. 

"Earthquake" Lorne Greene 1974 Universal Pictures ** I.V.

He was also a regular on the original Battlestar Galactica (1978-1980) as Commander Adama.

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And, to our endless teenage mirth and amusement, he was a spokesman for Alpo dog food, an effect not unlike that of Orson Welles selling Paul Masson wine. The sublimity of that voice, contrasted with the ridiculousness of beef chunks!

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