David Dortort (1916-2010)

September 9, 2010

The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have quite properly noted the passing of David Dortort, a relatively minor fifties screenwriter who struck gold when he created the aptly-titled Bonanza in 1959.  Dortort died on September 5 at the age of 93.

Bonanza was a vastly popular hit of a kind that’s hard to fathom today.  It was probably the original “flyover show,” that is, a show that scores in the ratings and runs forever without ever earning the approval, or even the attention, of the cognoscenti.  The modern equivalent would be something like NCIS or According to Jim: series that win no awards and get mocked by the press but that obviously work as comfort food for a lot of people.

I remain largely averse to Bonanza.  I haven’t seen all that much of it, but the episodes I recall were banal in their storytelling and persistently flat and cheap-looking in their imagery.  (Which is ironic, and unfortunate, given that Bonanza was the first really important series to originate in color.)  The show got an official DVD release last year and I don’t think it provoked the same excitement of rediscovery that accompanied the digital debuts of Gunsmoke or Have Gun – Will Travel (several years ahead of Bonanza, incidentally, despite being in black and white and thus a harder sell). 

Bonanza seemed to get lazy not too long after its longevity was assured.  One of the key stories I’ve found about the show is in Ricardo Montalban’s interview with the Archive of American Television.  When Montalban guested on Bonanza, he was appalled by the stars’ clowning around and their refusal to participate in a serious rehearsal.  Montalban rounded up the actors and reamed them out for their unprofessionalism.  I don’t know if Montalban’s experience was typical, but it jibes with the aspect of Bonanza that I find unpleasant.  The on-screen adventures of Hoss and Adam and Little Joe are also exude a certain tiresome, adolescent self-regard, and if Montalban’s description was accurate, that tone may have originated with the cast.

I did try to interview Dortort for my oral history project, but between my tight schedules and his unreliable health we were never able to get together.  I got as far as compiling a file of pre-interview research, most of which has been covered in the obits for Dortort.  But I did learn a couple of obscure things that might be worth reporting here.  One is that NBC hired Dortort to head its feature film division in the late sixties.  That was a moment when the other television networks entered the theatrical distribution world with some brief success – ABC released Take the Money and Run and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, CBS The Reivers and Scrooge – but for NBC and Dortort the venture was apparently a bust.

The other thing that interested me about Dortort was his inclination to discuss his creation in intellectual terms.  In one interview, he cited Marshall McLuhan and called Bonanza the “conscience of the middle class.”  Not many TV pioneers of Dortort’s generation (especially in the taciturn genre of the western) are willing to entertain such hifalutin notions of the impact of their work.  I would have enjoyed questioning Dortort further about his theories on why Bonanza connected so successfully with such a wide audience – especially since its appear remains something of a mystery to me.

For further reference: The Archive of American Television has a thorough video interview with David Dortort, and there are good websites devoted to Bonanza and Dortort’s follow-up, The High Chaparral.

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