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.


8 Responses to “David Dortort (1916-2010)”

  1. MDH Says:

    Despite the fact that it dominated Sunday nights when I was a kid, the cheapjack staging and rank sentimentality of Bonanza kept me and my pre-teen brothers firmly at bay. Weird — we seemed to be the age group it was aiming for. I’ve since revisited Dortort’s The High Chaparral (which I only vaguely remember from its initial run), and while it has a few problems of its own, it’s engaging enough for me to be surprised that the two shows were conceived by the same person. (If nothing else, it employed real outdoor locations as beautifully as Bonanza was lazily set-bound.) Complicated guy.

  2. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Well, that’s promising regarding HIGH CHAPARRAL, at least. Along the same lines, it’s hard to figure how Paul Henning came up with THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES (dumbest), PETTICOAT JUNCTION (dumber), and GREEN ACRES (not at all dumb).

  3. Laura Says:

    I’m also not a BONANZA fan, but like MDH (who commented above) I like THE HIGH CHAPPARAL. A couple things are reminiscent of BONANZA (i.e., the father figure’s first wife dies, the son is fairly juvenile) but I find it much more authentic and interesting than BONANZA, with complicated adult relationships and excellent location shooting in Arizona. I’d very much like to see HC come out on DVD.

    Best wishes,

  4. Daniel Olson Says:

    Big Bonanza fan. Altho it’s been years since i sat down and caught a glimpse at the goings-on at the ponderosa, last year’s dvd release was like manna from heaven. There was a lot of outdoor (live) photography, the actors stumbled but began to show and take on their roles, and the stories seemed simple but absorbing — at least to these eyes. Did they fall back too often and rely upon the studio-lit fake line shack shots too often? No doubt — probably due to expense, which would have also been tied to the cost of producing one of the first colour TV shows around.
    I heard a story how bonanza played a large role in promoting colour tvs. It may be mere legend but i can’t help thinking kindly of the show — with its three distinctly different siblings and straight-arrow, deep voiced Canuck father. Maybe it’s appeal was lost in translation?;^)

  5. Jeff Wildman Says:

    I also found Bonanza to be a mysterious success, especially after Michael Landon began taking more control of the show’s direction and scripts (scripts which he merrily recycled on “Little House On The Prairie”).
    Dortort and NBC do have the honor of making a large contribution to the syndication rules formulated in 1971 which forced the networks out of the off-network syndication business. Apparently, Dortort and NBC were caught favoring off-network sales of Bonanza to stations who would agree to also take the dud “High Chaparral” as well. This kind of blackmail was the final straw for the FCC who had been looking into unfair practices in the syndication marketplace.

    • MDH Says:

      I’ve read a little about the fallout from the BONANZA/HIGH CHAPARRAL block booking-type scam. Wild. It’s a pity CHAPARRAL didn’t become more than this footnote o,r at best, a cult favorite — as Laura above says, it was by far the better show. In fact, in its initial 1967-68 season, its narrative of three warring cultures and troublesome alliances often evoked the geopolitics of the time. Maybe there’s an argument to be made for THE HIGH CHAPARRAL as TV’s first (only?) Vietnam Western.

      P.S. A somewhat guilty confession: I prefer PETTICOAT JUNCTION to GREEN ACRES. So I’m a sucker for long-form farmer’s-daughter jokes, sue me.

  6. Stephen Bowie Says:

    This stuff about HIGH CHAPARRAL and the block-booking is fascinating. I had no idea. Thanks, guys.

  7. Mark Speck Says:

    With regards to Ricardo Montalban’s comments about the cast constantly fooling around, I can say that one other person who worked with the cast was not happy with their unprofessional attitude.

    Director Joseph H. Lewis, the veteran known for the cult-classic Gun Crazy and, closer to the heart of this blog, the most frequent director for The Rifleman, got a chance to direct for Bonanza, despite his being under contract to Four Star (he did a few other non-Four Star shows around that time, but that’s neither here nor there).

    Anyhow, in what was probably his last interview for Filmfax magazine, Lewis was admittedly upset with the constant clowning of the main cast. He yelled ‘CUT!’, and the shocked cast said, ‘You’re not gonna print that, are you?’ ‘I am, if that’s what you’re going to give me’, Lewis replied. The cast fell over their feet apologizing and promised to behave and act properly, and Lewis had no more problems and finished the episode. They wanted him back to do a second episode, but Lewis felt it best that he didn’t take the second Bonanza assignment.

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