Lorne Greene

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He has been hired by the national broadcaster to bring Canadian updates on what was happening overseas.

The Second World War was raging in Europe, and many tuned in to listen for loved ones’ names as the announcer read out the list of soldiers killed in battle that day.

As he sat down behind the mic in the radio booth, he looked back at the winding road that brought him here from a drama instructor at a summer camp, to chemical engineering and eventually broadcasting where his deep and booming voice made him a natural

CBC hired him to be their principal radio newscaster and he quickly became known as The Voice of Canada.

Only now Canadians called him The Voice of Doom.

This man went on to have many more names and eventually even became America’s Dad…and how that happened is a story worth telling.

I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!


For generations of children and adults, he was Ben Cartwright, the patriarch of the highly popular TV show Bonanza, but the story of Lorne Greene begins in Canada’s capital, Ottawa.

On Feb. 12, 1915, Lyon Himan Green, and that is Green without the last E, was born as the First World War raged on and across Canada men were going off to war, never knowing if they would return.

Greene was born into a family of Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire.

His father, Daniel, was a shoemaker, while his mother Dora was a homemaker who often called, Lorne — Chaim, pronounced Ha-im.

Chaim is a name of Hebrew origin, meaning “life” which has been around since medieval times and can take on different variations like Hyman.

And that can be seen on Lorne’s early report cards, as he was listed as Hyman in school.

Somewhere along his journey Lyon Himan Green, without an E, became Lorne Greene, with an E which is what he was known as for the rest of his life.

(small pause -transition)

Three years after Lorne’s birth in 1918, the family was hit by tragedy when his older brother died of the Spanish Flu.

To continue the story, we skip forward a decade, when a rather innocent incident put Lorne on the path towards fame.

Lorne was 13 and hadn’t studied for a test so he skipped school.

Thinking his father would be at work he headed home early.

When he arrived, he found his father at home, when he asked why he wasn’t at school, Lorne lied and said he was home to get an umbrella.

Lorne’s father then drove him back to school.

That’s when his father discovered the size of Lorne’s deception.

In speaking to the principal, he found out that Lorne had faked sick notes from his mother and became so upset that Lorne vowed to never disappoint him again.

He said years later,

“All I remember is my father’s eyes saying to me, what kind of delinquent have I brought into this world. From that moment on, I became a reformed character. He never mentioned that incident again, and he didn’t tell my mother because he knew it would hurt her.”

To stay out of trouble, Lorne turned to acting.

As a teenager, Lorne was a drama instructor at a summer camp in Algonquin Park called Camp Arowhon

His family had hoped he would become a concert violinist, but Lorne had other ideas.

They supported him, even though the family hit hard times in 1929 when his father lost his business, then things got even tougher when his life savings evaporated in the stock market crash.

Regardless, they scrimped and saved through The Great Depression so Lorne could attend Queen’s University in 1932 with his sights on a chemical engineering degree.

 While at school Lorne continued to hone his skills as an actor but soon discovered he had an innate ability for radio.

He attended a Radio Workshop put on by the drama guild at the campus radio station CFRC that’s when he switched his major to languages so he could have more time to act and graduated in 1937.

Before he did though he was spotted by a talent scout while performing in a play at school and he was off to New York to perform with the Neighbourhood Playhouse.

There he stayed for two years and trained to get rid of his Ottawa Valley accent, and learned to speak phonetically, a skill that served him well on the radio.

In 1938, he married Rita Hands of Toronto. Together, they had two children, twins Charles and Belinda Susan.

One year later, he took a job as a radio broadcaster with the CBC.

During WWII Lorne went from the Voice of Canada to the Voice of Doom

And also, a broadcasting innovator. When he was in the booth he needed to know when to stop talking. They say timing is everything and that’s especially true in broadcasting,

Before Lorne there was no real way to let announcers know when they had to go to commercials, or segments, so he invented a stopwatch that ran backwards and patented it.

It became the standard, not just in radio but also TV… to this day broadcasters everywhere use a version of it.

For Lorne, the invention became a nest egg which he could dip into during his lean financial years as an actor.

His voice also gave him a leg up on others… it was so unique… very deep and resonated with many… which is how he began to narrate films for the National Film Board, including Churchill’s Island in 1941, which won the first Academy Award for Best Documentary.

This was an issue for the CBC, who ordered its staff announcers to turn over a large percentage of their income from side gigs to the network.

Greene chose to become a freelancer.

He did some work for CBC, while also working as a newscaster at CKEY in Toronto to supplement the acting he was doing on radio and on the stage.

In 1942, he was asked by CBC to record 25 interviews with movie stars for the Victory Loan program.

One of those interviews was with the legendary singer Bing Crosby, which changed Lorne’s life.

After listening back to the recording Lorne discovered he was imitating Bing Crosby’s voice without knowing it.

He said in 1961,

“We did the entire interview over because Crosby had taught me, from that one experience, always to be myself, to emphasize my own identification, my own personality. To get ahead in the entertainment field you must be yourself, not someone else. I have hung on to Lorne Greene ever since.”

Soon after he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps, and served for two years as a soldier, who had a habit of shining the buttons on his uniform, which caused some confusion. He said,

“Every time I met an American soldier on the street, he saluted me.”

It turns out, among American soldiers, the lower ranks don’t polish their buttons as that is typically done among officers, giving the impression that Lorne was an office, instead of a private.

After his time as a soldier, he returned back home to Canada to continue his radio career and created an acting and broadcasting school, which I’ll get to in a bit.

To pursue his dreams, he freelanced in radio and acted on stage all while founding the Jupiter Theatre in Toronto, where a young William Shatner would get his start.

In 1952, Lorne made the decision to leave Canada and move to the United States to pursue acting.

He mostly had theater experience, but a new medium called to him, He said,

“In my time, you had to go to the States to make it. There is no substitute for a box office name and TV offered the quickest road to instant fame.”

He quickly began to pick up TV roles as a guest star on various early programs.

In 1954, he made his Hollywood debut when he appeared as Saint Peter in The Silver Chalice, a biblical movie that was also the feature film debut of Paul Newman.

He continued to work in various television shows and appeared on stage at the Stratford Festival as Marcus Brutus in Julius Caesar in 1955 alongside William Shatner.

Then later that year Lorne landed the role that made him famous, Ben Cartwright on Bonanza.


Originally, he was offered the role of either Ben Cartwright, or the eldest son Adam Cartwright. Lorne didn’t know which to choose so he went to his friend Leslie Nielsen for advice.

Nielsen said,

“There is no way for you to emerge without a tremendous position of significance in the show. Probably all four of you will achieve equal prominence. But of the four of you, the only one who can achieve the most prominence is yourself because you’re the father and they’re all three tied to you. I wouldn’t even give it a second thought.”

With that, Lorne chose the role of Ben, and landed in living rooms everywhere when Bonanza debuted on NBC on Sept. 13, 1959.

The show followed the story of the Cartwright family who lived near Virginia City, Nevada on their ranch called The Ponderosa.

The show was unique for its time as it explored Ben and his relationship with his three sons and less with ranch life.

Ben had been married three times and widowed three times.

Each of his sons was from a different mother.

Pernell Roberts played his son Adam Cartwright, who was an architect, while the kind-hearted middle son Eric “Hoss” Cartwright was played by Dan Blocker.

If you ever watch Brooklyn 99, Dan Blocker is the father of Dennis Blocker, the actor who plays Detective Hitchcock on the show.

The third and youngest Cartwright son was Little Joe, played by Michael Landon.

Storylines often ranged from high drama to broad comedy, but the show also dealt with issues such as domestic violence, substance abuse, anti-war sentiment and bigotry towards Asians, African Americans, Indigenous People, little people and the disabled. It was surprisingly progressive and ahead of its time.

Ben was beloved by viewers immediately, and in 2007, TV Guide listed Ben Cartwright as the second greatest television dad in history, behind only Cliff Huxtable from The Cosby Show.

But when it first premiered, Bonanza’s future was not guaranteed, the show was really expensive to produce and NBC almost canceled after the first season, but due to the popularity of the show they kept it on air, and it became the first series filmed and broadcast in colour.

The show was also popular with the critics and was nominated for 12 Emmys, winning three during its run.

At its height, it was seen by 400 million people in 80 countries around the world. 

For nine years it was one of the top five television shows in the US until 1971 when it fell out of the top ten and then in a move that surprised almost everyone on Monday, November 6th, 1972, NBC officially canceled Bonanza.

As an actor, Lorne never subscribed to method acting.

He told Macleans,

“The only way I can work as an actor is by being me. I don’t try to change me. I don’t try to become Ben Cartwright. I happen to be Lorne Greene. I am not anybody else. I can only react to any circumstances as myself. I don’t even have a western accent; I change stuff in the script in order to make it more like me.”

Although he added that Ben was inspired partly by his father

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

Here is Lorne Green speaking with CBC during a drive to the set in Los Angeles in 1960.

Regardless of Lorne’s approach to portraying Ben, there was ONE thing that he tried to keep secret.

A secret, at least from the public because everyone on set knew it and it was because of something that happened on set during a pretty simple but hair-raising stunt.

(small beat)

During the filming of one episode, Lorne had to jump from a ledge hanging over a pond, with about five feet of water.

On cue, Lorne leapt over the edge feet-first into the pool, completely disappearing under the water.

Before he could resurface, a small tuft of hair floated to the surface.

Lorne’s hand shot up and grabbed the hair piece and pulled it down. A moment later, he emerged from the water tank wearing it slightly askew.

According to castmate Michael Landon, Lorne walked past the crew (all trying to hide their laughter) and straight into his trailer.

Although slightly embarrassing for Lorne, he was in good company amongst the follicly challenged cast because Michael Landon was the only Cartwright who did not wear a hairpiece; Pernell Roberts and Dan Blocker wore them too.

His follicles, his marriage and being older didn’t stop Lorne from being a bit of a sex symbol. He received so much fan mail from women, about 1,000 letters per week, that producers of the show had to expand his role and give him more romantic plot lines.


Bonanza was an amazing opportunity and, Lorne was always thankful He said,

“Thanks to Bonanza I have been very fortunate. I have accomplished my goal. My name now is known from coast to coast in the United States and Canada and in 12 foreign countries. An actor couldn’t ask for anything more.”

But it wasn’t all roses for the actor… he also lived through some thorns during this time, his marriage collapsed, and Lorne and Rita divorced in 1960.

One year later in 1961, he married Nancy Deale, with whom he had a daughter named Gillian. She is married to Sam Raimi, best known as the director of the Spider-Man and Evil Dead trilogies.

Lorne was able to capitalize on his popularity on Bonanza to a record deal and he recorded several albums of country-western and folk songs, which included both spoken word and singing.

His biggest hit was Ringo, released in October 1964.

I’ll apologize now for the ear worm. but as you can imagine the song reached number one in the U.S. Billboard charts on Dec. 5, 1964, remaining there for six weeks.

It also hit number 21 on the Hot Country Singles Chart and number one in Canada on the RPM top singles chart.

Greene also recorded a French-language version of the song.

In 1963, he started a ten-year long tradition of co-hosting the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC alongside Betty White.

He also received the Order of Canada in 1969, and an honorary Doctor of Laws from Queen’s University in 1971.

While the show has been off the air for 50 years now, the legacy of Bonanza continues. In 2002, it was ranked #43 on TV Guide’s list of the 50 greatest TV shows of all time.

The years of doing his own stunts, riding horses, took a toll on Greene, who was by now 58 years old and dealing with back pain.

It was so severe that it made it difficult to sit still in the makeup chair and at night he couldn’t sleep and suffered until he tried acupuncture.

While acupuncture has been practiced in the US since the 1800’s, it was during the 1970s that the general public became aware of its existence following President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China.

Lorne told People magazine in 1974,

“I got dressed, went home, and waited for the pain to return. It never did.”

With a new lease on life without back pain, he looked for new acting opportunities.

Lorne found a new role on the crime drama Griff, where he played a former Los Angeles police officer Wade “Griff” Griffin who becomes a private detective.

Despite his name recognition, the show was cancelled after only 13 episodes.

Lorne would take the blame. He said,

“It is my fault. I am not going to cop out and blame anyone else. I simply should have refused to do the first six shows. What went wrong? It was as simple as ABC. No, really, I have no hard feelings against anyone. It was just a matter of different philosophies. I wanted a series that was strong on characterization. The network wanted to do a puzzle show. It took me six episodes and a lot of quiet screaming to get my way.”

Lorne’s familiar voice still appeared in living rooms across north America when he became the spokesperson of Alpo Beef Chunks dog food.

Despite the lack of success in television roles through much of the 1970s, Lorne didn’t worry about money.

Not only did he have the stop watch patent but also Bonanza had made him a multimillionaire and he invested that money into real estate, making him a nice fortune.

He also built a replica of the Ponderosa ranch in Arizona, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Always a man with a good sense of humour, his home included a staircase that led nowhere.

In 1977, he appeared once again on TV and this time as a villain…  one of the few villainous roles of his career when he portrayed the first slave holder of Kunta Kinte in the iconic miniseries Roots.

And he wasn’t done yet…

A year later, In 1978, he took on his second-most famous role, that of Commander Adama in Battlestar Galactica.

He was now 63 years old and although the show only lasted for one season it became a cult favourite for decades, eventually inspiring a gritty reboot in the 2000s.

In 1981, he starred in Code Red, a show about a fire department chief whose command included his children as firefighters.

The show only lasted 19 episodes, which was just fine with Lorne who said.

“I compromised. It was the most unhappiest time I’ve ever had in the business. It was horrible. I hated getting up to go to work. I didn’t believe any of the scripts. I didn’t believe any of this could happen. You have to be careful about a series because you are not in control.”

After working on the show, he turned to doing something that gave him full control and that led to another iconic series for the legendary actor.


In the 1980s, Lorne Greene began to use his fame and energy to support wildlife and environmental issues.

This led him to host and narrate the nature series Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness, a show that promoted environmental awareness.

The show debuted on Sept. 14, 1982, lasting for five seasons during which time it was the number one show in its time slot every year and was eventually syndicated to the United States and 23 other foreign countries eventually winning three Daytime Emmy Awards.

In 1987 Lorne was awarded the Earle Grey Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Gemini Awards for his decades of work in TV as one of Canada’s most famous actors.

Throughout his life, he served as a father figure for Canadian actors in Hollywood, and always retained his Canadian citizenship, despite living in the United States for decades. He said,

“I feel close to Canada. Last year they asked if I would come to Ottawa to be the Grand Marshal of the parade. Now who the heck wants to be the grand marshal of a parade right? When it is seven above zero, riding in an open convertible? But I still went.”

In May 1987 it was announced that a TV movie called Bonanza: The Next Generation, was in pre-production with a plan to begin filming in January 1988.

Lorne was the only member of the original cast to agree to appear in the film.

It was not to be.

On Aug. 19, 1987, Lorne went through abdominal surgery for a perforated ulcer. After the surgery, he began to experience post-operative respiratory complications caused by the onset of pneumonia.

By Aug. 30, he was breathing with help from a ventilator.

On Sept. 3, Lorne was responding well to treatment for the pneumonia, but his condition was still listed as serious.

On Sept. 11, 1987, Lorne Greene died in Santa Monica, California. With him when he died was his second wife Nancy, their daughter, and his twins from his first marriage.

Just prior to his death, his television son Michael Landon visited him, he said,

“He was Ben Cartwright to the end. He was ready with no complaints. 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 okay.”

In May 2006, Lorne Green was one of the first four entertainers to be honoured by Canada Post with a 51-cent postage stamp and in 2015, he was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.

That’s the end of Lorne Greene’s story but he had a major impact on Canada, before he ever left the country for Lala Land.


In 1945, he founded the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto. The goal of this academy was to train future broadcasters and actors.

Alumni from the academy include journalist and actors who made their mark in Hollywood including comedy icon Leslie Nielsen, James Doohan who played Scotty on Star Trek, Fred Davis who hosted Front Page Challenge on CBC for 38 years and Billie Mae Richards, who voiced Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in various movies from 1964 to 1979.

The school, unfortunately, wasn’t financially successful and was closed in 1952. Lorne sold the building to recoup some of his losses.

Nonetheless, in the seven years it operated,381 students graduated and 90 per cent of them found work in acting or broadcasting.


Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, MeTV.com, Canada’s Walk of Fame, Queens University, Wikipedia, IMDB, Cowboys and Indians, Outsider, Montreal Star, Vancouver Sun, Edmonton Journal, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Sault Star, Calgary Herald,

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