David Dortort, creator of groundbreaking and long-running television shows like “Bonanza” and “The High Chaparral,” died on Sept. 5 after a long cardiac illness. He was 93.
Dortort in 2009 donated an archive of his personal papers to the Autry, pledging $100,000 to their organization and maintenance. The archive includes the first handwritten draft of the pilot for “Bonanza.”
Considered Dortort’s most important work, “Bonanza” became one of the most popular and the second longest-running western on television, with 425 episodes airing from 1959 to 1973. The family saga of thrice-widowed Nevada rancher Ben Cartwright, his disparate sons, and their vast landholdings also was the first of a new genre at the time — the adult western.
“Prior to that particular time, most of the Westerns that you saw on TV were geared toward children,” said Jeffrey Richardson, the Autry’s associate curator of film and popular culture. “These were shows like ‘The Gene Autry Show,’ ‘Roy Rogers,’ ‘Sky King,’ those types of shows, which were very simplistic in their message.”
With the adult Western, Richardson said, television was able to tackle more controversial issues and social themes — topics that resonated more with what was going on in the United States in the
1960s, rather than in the 1870s.
“The issues that they’re dealing with in the standard ‘mission of the week’ were issues that were relevant to people in the 1960s,” Richardson said. “Gender was one. Race. Society and the role of the ‘big guy.’ ”
In the first season of the show, Richardson said, the characters behaved like the large landowners that they were. But as soon as the second and third seasons, they became more concerned with their responsibility to the society around them. This was a reflection of the politics of the time, when people asked questions of the United States’ responsibility to smaller, weaker nations both in its hemisphere and on the other side of the world.
“It’s an idea that really reflects America at this particular time,” Richardson said. “Should America be the main superpower or should America play with others? You see those types issues related in ‘Bonanza.’”
Through all of that, the show remained a Western, with all the myth and romance that had always made the genre attractive to younger audiences. So here was a show that an entire family could gather to watch, even though the adults watched for different reasons than the children.
“They were done in such a way that adults could appreciate them for the larger message that was being talked about,” Richardson said. “But they could be viewed through a child’s eyes.”
Richardson said “Bonanza,” one of the first shows to be broadcast in color, also had something similar Westerns, like “Gunsmoke,” did not have: the ability to provide a character for everyone in that family to connect with.
“With the Cartwright kids, everyone could identify with at least one of them … you could find your own niche within the Cartwrights,” Richardson said. “Now, it seems most everyone identified with Little Joe! … Because Michael Landon had the most successful post-‘Bonanza’ career. And he was the youngest. He was the cute one. So as a result of that, I think people still have a great affection for him.”
Almost exactly a year ago, the Autry celebrated “Bonanza” Day, the 50th anniversary of the show’s première, as well as the achievements throughout Dortort’s career.
In his later “The High Chaparral,” which ran in 97 episodes from 1967 to 1971, Dortort explored themes that he couldn’t fully engage with the Cartwright family saga. Race became a more pointed subject, for example.
For researchers and those interested in the Hollywood image of the West, the Dortort archive provides a unique perspective.
“The David Dortort archive really shows you how the series was created,” Richardson said. “What he used to create the series, the themes and the topics that he thought were interesting and needed to be expressed.”
There are also some fan letters. One in particular caught staffers by surprise. It was from a German filmmaker in Berlin, who tells Dortort he was walking along the Wall on the West side one day when he heard someone on the East side whistling the theme to “Bonanza.”
“He talked about the irony of it,” said Marva Felchlin, director of the Autry Library. “That says something about the allure of the West.”
Felchlin said the museum hired an archival assistant last week to begin to fully organize the Dortort papers and put them in acid-free storage. The producer’s death makes the work an even more pressing priority. She said the archive should be ready for researchers to peruse by next June.