Retro : The Sons Also Ride

TIMES STAFF WRITER

TV audiences got into a comfortable old habit during the 1960s. At 8 p.m., families would turn on their sets to catch "The Ed Sullivan Show" on CBS, and at 9 p.m. they'd switch over to NBC to watch Bonanza.

"Bonanza," the first network Western telecast in color, starred Lorne Greene as Ponderosa Ranch patriarch Ben Cartwright; Pernell Roberts as eldest son Adam; Dan Blocker as Hoss, and Michael Landon as the youngest son, Little Joe.

Though the series got off to a rocky start when it premiered in 1959, "Bonanza" was the No. 1 show from 1964 to 1967. It remained in the top 25 until its final season in 1973. Al Caiola's recording of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans' theme song hit No. 19 on the charts in 1961.

Two decades after "Bonanza" rode off into the sunset, it's back on the same day, same time and same station. The faces, though, aren't the same.

Bonanza: The Return stars Oscar-winner Ben Jonson as Bronc Evans, Ben's friend who takes over as owner of the Ponderosa after Ben's death. Richard Roundtree plays Bronc's foreman Jacob Briscoe. Michael Landon Jr. stars as the late Little Joe's son Benjamin, and Blocker's son, Dirk, plays an ambitious newspaper reporter. (Brian Leckner, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Dan Blocker, plays the son of Hoss."

In the new movie, the Ponderosa is in deep trouble because a scheming tycoon (Dean Stockwell) will stop at nothing to get the property for a strip-mining operation. It's up to Bronc, Jacob and Ben's grandchildren to save the ranch from destruction.

Landon and Blocker also are hosts of Back to Bonanza, a one-hour retrospective that airs Sunday at 7 p.m.

David Dortort, who created the original series, is the executive producer of both new projects. He believes the time is right for a series of "Bonanza" movies. "We've been receiving letters from people around the country, even different parts of the world, telling us" they want "Bonanza," Dortort says.

"Maybe what television is lacking is a warm, upbeat, wholesome family-oriented show. Maybe there's a chance that 'Bonanza' can come back because that's essentially what we were."

Johnson ("The Last Picture Show") agrees with Dortort. "What we're trying to do is bring something decent back to the screen," says Johnson, who appeared on several "Bonanza" episodes. "There's been so much trash the last few years that it's just embarrassing. I hate to tell anybody I am in the business with some of the things they put on the screen. They have some hippie up there using four-letter words. That makes me mad."

Dortort's model for "Bonanza" was the legend of King Arthur and Knights of the Round Table. "I thought, what an opportunity to take the myth of the West and instead of turning it into a gunfighter story, why don't I do something like Camelot, a magic place high in the Sierras ... a family that sinks their roots and fights for their land and offers sanctuary to the unfortunate. Apparently, that message was picked up all over the world."

Making "Bonanza: The Return" was fun for Blocker, though he didn't feel any great emotional tug. "My dad totally separated his work from his life," Blocker says. He fondly remembers visiting his late father on the set as a youngster.

"It was a way to spend time with him," Blocker recalls. "It was a joy. It was cowboys and Indians."

His father, though, "didn't take himself as a celebrity seriously. He started out as a high school teacher and as much as he loved his work, very little time ever went by that he didn't think, 'I don't know. Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I should have stayed a school teacher.' "

Landon, 29, also has fond memories of watching his father, who died in 1991 after battling cancer, at work on the Ponderosa. "It was more of a dream than specific events," Landon says. "What I definitely remember was shaking hands with Dan Blocker. He had paws on him. I remember shaking hands with him and looking down and my hand was completely gone. It just disappeared."

The actor-director feels "The Return" captures the spirit of the original series. "I think it's driven by the camaraderie and relationships between the family members," Landon says. "What was nice about the shoot is that there really was that camaraderie. Sure, it was a job, but it was more than that.

"There were a lot of guys working on the shoot that date back to the original 'Bonanza.' They ended up going off with my father to 'Little House on the Prairie' and 'Highway to Heaven.' I knew a lot of these guys."

Still, Landon quietly adds, "the part that was somewhat strange was that the main man was not there--my father. It was kind of the missing piece. But I think he would be happy. It's a dream come true for me to be able to do something like this. It was an absolute blast."

"Back to Bonanza" airs Sunday at 7 p.m. on NBC; "Bonanza: The Return" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC; repeats of "Bonanza" air weekdays at 3 p.m. on KTTY; 7 p.m. on KDOC and 11 p.m. on the Family Channel; Saturdays at 5 a.m. on TBS and 2 and 11 p.m. on the Family Channel.

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