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Research & Thoughts

David Dortort and Me

David Dortort and Me in 2009, the year Mystic Fire was published. I delivered him a copy that day. My brother was with me and said he liked how I could make him smile.


David Dortort, who created the Bonanza TV series, passed away Sunday, September 5, 2010 at his home.  He was 93. Dortort personally hand-picked the four actors for Ben, Adam, Hoss and Little Joe, and had survived them all.  Pernell Roberts (Adam) died earlier that year. 


David lived for that show.  And though he created another one for television, High Chaparral, Bonanza was always his first love.  He kept it going after Roberts left the series in 1965 and was dismayed when NBC pulled the plug after Dan Blocker passed away during the 14th season.  NBC felt it was done. David never did.


He kept returning to his Bonanza Legacy but could not revive the magic that had been. 


The first TV movie was meant to be a series spin-off for Lorne Greene and the grandchildren of Hoss and Joe, but Lorne Greene died before it could be filmed.  In 1993 came the first of two more TV movies with grandchildren, this time included Adam's son, also with the hope that there'd be a TV spinoff series. 


That's when I got lucky. I started writing Bonanza fanfic in 1992, having found some free markets for them, and loved writing them so much I longed to find a way to get them published. That happened through timing and miscommunication. I got Dortort's attention because, also in 1992, I'd started an online Prodigy board for Bonanza fans, the first ever to do so. I found a TV bulletin board dedicated to old TV series and none yet to Bonanza. So I created one.


In 2001, he gave the rights to Beth Sullivan for a prequel called Ponderosa that aired on cable's Hallmark Channel, and featured the family at a younger stage, before the Comstock Lode setting of the original series opener.  But that prequel couldn't pick up a second season (to my dismay, as I'd just submitted two scripts for the series through a script agency where my daughter worked). 


Finally, at Incline Village, after the highly successful 2004 season, the highest attendance ever, the Ponderosa Ranch Theme Park closed its doors and sold to a private developer. 


David Dortort loved his fans. There's the story about how he allowed Adam Cartwright to unceremoniously leave the show because the fans wrote in protest to the storyline of Adam getting married to Laura.  At the time neither Dortort nor Roberts felt they'd be able to pull it off. "We have to watch the reaction of the audience very closely," Dortort said in an interview in 1963. "We get more than 30,000 fan letters a month and they will tell us if they like the idea. If the reaction is negative, then we'll just have to write it out of the series."


Dortort told me in 1996 that, in hindsight, he would have let the marriage happen. But at the time, "It's the most successful show that TV has ever seen, and I, for one, am going to make sure that nothing happens to it." Some fans believe Roberts' open-ended leaving would allow him to see the 'error of his ways' and return. 


When I first wrote to Dortort, back in early 1993, it was after learning about the new TV movie, Bonanza The Return. I saw photos of the cast, heard the storyline, and then wrote a script of my own that I wanted him to read. I also asked him to read a short story I'd written, because I wanted permission to write and sell a novel. And I told him about the Prodigy Bonanza Board. I then got a post from Tom Sarnoff, associate producer of this movie, telling me that David Dortort would be in touch with me shortly. Sarnoff stayed in touch on the Bonanza Board because, as I told Dortort, this was the biggest fan base on the internet. Well, I thought it was at the time. We had an incredibly active fan base, and one that became increasingly angry that the new movies would not feature Jamie or Candy. But Sarnoff asked for our feedback for the Bonanza Retrospect that was being filmed to air previous to this new movie.


I kept up my contact with Dortort, and gave him my idea for another TV movie, having Adam come back to the Ponderosa to die. I told Dortort I just knew Roberts would love a script like that, to finally get closure to that character. Dortort's responses were sporadic, so I also sent the script to Sarnoff, to NBC, to whatever agent I could find.


The 1993 movie did well in its time slot, as did the Retrospect, but they had another movie with these characters the following year that didn't do as well. In part, this was because they had to replace the actor who play Adam's son; in my mind, they didn't do a good job with that.


But I continued to write my novel, Felling of the Sons, and the scripts, and I went back to college. Finally, in 1996 I told Dortort I was coming to LA to visit my brother, in case he'd like to get together to talk about the script. He sent me his phone number and told me to call him when I got there.


It's now been decades but I can still remember my excitement at the time. I booked my flight the next day.

I guess I had charmed him in several ways. One, the script I wrote before even seeing the 1993 finished movie amazed him. I had those grandchildren's characters down perfectly. I told him how Adam leaving the show might have saved my life after my dad died two years later. And how I inadvertently married a Joe and had sons named Adam and Bennett. My daughter, though, wouldn't let us call her Hoss. And I told him I raised them "the Cartwright way."


When I finally got to his house in June 1996, after a few misadventures, I was amazed by the first question he asked me. "How do you know Pernell? Has he said he'll do your script?" I wanted to shrivel up and blow away. I just meant I created the script to be the kind of a thing that would appeal to him. After taking my stumbled response to this question he then asked what right I had to shop that script around. He wondered if I always did things the hard way.

"Well, I guess so, Mr. Dortort. But what's the easy way? No one's ever told me."


Oh, we had a long and very friendly conversation after that, even after I told him I thought Bonanza was two different series – with Adam, and without. I had to finally get off my Prodigy fan site because of the anger of Joe fans, and this anger is still out there.


But Dortort and I kept up our correspondence, tweaking the script I wrote, and trying to get Pernell involved. But I might have sounded arrogant, because Pernell never once responded to me. Finally it was written so that Adam was only mentioned in it, and then Dortort wanted me to scrap the script and write one for Dirk Blocker to play Hoss and Hoss's son. Well, I just couldn't. He was so good as Walter in the TV movies. Dortort felt bad that he didn't cast Dirk as Hoss's son in those movies and wanted to make it up to him.  (Oh, if only I'd tried!  But I was going for my BA in history at the time.)


Most of what Dortort and I talked about those two times I visited him I don't remember.  I didn't take notes, nor did I tape record anything.  There are snatches of things I know that I don't believe I got anywhere else. I did get permission to publish Felling of the Sons, and then, in 2005, got the contract for Mystic Fire after we talked on the phone about the Civil War; he appreciated how much I knew.


On my second visit to his house in 2001 I suggested that he host one of the Marathons being shown on Hallmark around the time of the airing of Ponderosa.  He only laughed and said, "Who'd want to see an old fart like me?" Of his five favorite episodes, there was one I didn't know, because it was a later episode. No surprise that Crucible was one of them. And yes, he did host a Bonanza marathon for Hallmark. He had just been teasing me.


We had some great phone conversations about Ponderosa during its airing, too:  How first Sullivan wanted to use a Japanese actor for Hop Sing.  "There were no Japanese in the U.S. at that time!"  And Lake Tahoe was represented by a "little mud puddle" because they were filming over in Australia, until he could convince her to use stock footage.  But it was obvious in his voice that he was thrilled to have the Cartwrights on the air again.


When it wasn't picked up for a second season, his energy began to wane. 


Dortort had convinced NBC executives to film his series in color by showing them Lake Tahoe: "Would you film that lake in black and white?"  They decided to use it to sell the new color TV sets.  This is one reason Bonanza holds up so well today.  It doesn't appear 'old.'  But in one of the obits I found online about David I noticed that they quoted him as being proud that a lot of color TV sets sold to watch Bonanza – perhaps his reflection of being the number one show on the air for a number of years.


It had reached #2 in its third season, and was number one for three continuous years, never falling below the #3 slot until its 12th season. See more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonanza.


Dortort once negotiated with some A-list screenwriters to write the script for a big screen movie version of Bonanza, but when I met with him at his home in 2001, he said "80% of it is crap!"  I asked to see it, but he couldn't.  There's a Hollywood rule against it.  I could imagine the nightmares it would be in trying to cast those four roles, too.


I bugged Dortort a lot to write his autobiography. We would have been fascinated by his first-hand look at filming the series. I told him to tape record it and I'd type it for him. Sadly, it never happened. First his eyesight went, and then his hearing. My last visit to him was in 2009, and it was so gratifying to see the smile on his face when we talked. As I left, he said, loud and clear, "Thanks for visiting, darling."


My life, as part of the Bonanza world, is one that I will always cherish, for having this man let me in for those visits, providing a bright spot in an often dark and grueling world.

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