David Dortort dies at 93; created and produced TV western ‘Bonanza’
David Dortort, the creator and producer of “Bonanza,” the long-running television western that was untraditional in its emphasis on relationships over violence and that helped spur public demand for color TVs, has died. He was 93.
FOR THE RECORD: A news obituary in Wednesday’s LATExtra section on “Bonanza” creator and producer David Dortort said the TV show was set in Nevada City. It was set in Virginia City, Nev.
Dortort died in his sleep Sunday at his Westwood home after a period of declining health, said his business manager, Mads Bjerre.
FOR THE RECORD:
David Dortort obituary: The obituary in Wednesday’s LATExtra section of David Dortort, the creator and producer of “Bonanza,” said that the television series was set in Nevada City. The show was set in Virginia City, Nev. —
“Bonanza” was the first prime-time western to be broadcast in color when it made its debut on NBC in 1959. With the scenic wilderness around Lake Tahoe as the setting for the fictional Ponderosa Ranch, the show starred Lorne Greene as patriarch Ben Cartwright and Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker and Michael Landon as his three sons.
The longest-running TV western after “Gunsmoke,” it aired for 14 seasons and was one of television’s highest-rated shows during the 1960s, including three seasons at No. 1. Since the last new episode aired in 1973, it has continued to draw audiences in syndication.
“Not only did David Dortort provide entertainment but he influenced how people viewed the American West. He created a vision of the American West that showed how people can get along … and how the western could take on cultural and social issues facing America in the 1960s and 1970s,” said Jeffrey Richardson, associate curator for film and popular culture at the Autry National Center, the museum and research institute in Los Angeles where Dortort recently donated his production records and other “Bonanza” memorabilia.
Dortort also created and produced “The High Chaparral,” a grittier western that was notable for its culturally diverse cast and frank treatment of conflicts between whites, Native Americans and Mexicans on the Arizona frontier. It ran on NBC from 1967 to 1971.
Born in New York City on Oct. 23, 1916, Dortort graduated from City College of New York in 1936. After completing his military duty stateside during World War II, he wrote two novels, including “Burial of the Fruit” (1949), which brought an invitation from actor Burt Lancaster to turn it into a screenplay. Dortort labored alongside another young novelist and CCNY graduate, Norman Mailer, who was trying to turn his debut work, “The Naked and the Dead,” into a movie.
Both screenplays were rejected. “To hear David tell the story, Norman said to hell with Hollywood and went back to New York … but David said, ‘I’d like to stick around and see if I can learn the art of screenplay writing,’ ” said Andrew J. Klyde, an attorney who knew Dortort for 20 years and oversees licensing and merchandising for “Bonanza.”
Dortort’s perseverance paid off with his first credit as a writer, with Horace McCoy, for “The Lusty Men” (1952), a rodeo drama directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Robert Mitchum.
He soon moved into television work, writing three episodes of “Fireside Theatre,” an anthology series on NBC and later ABC. One of his “Fireside” stories about the discovery of gold and silver in Virginia City, Nev., inspired the show that became his most enduring success.
“Bonanza,” which was set in Nevada City around the time of the Civil War, sought to counter the popular image of the gunslinger by showing the role families played in taming the frontier. After initially struggling in the ratings, it caught on by its third season with strong cross-generational appeal.
Dortort often said the popularity of “Bonanza” was largely due to its universal themes and family values.
“At a time when the dysfunctional family was becoming a current way of life in this country, this was a functional family,” he said of the Cartwrights in a 2001 interview with The Times. “There was always a morality in this show. Yes, there are difficulties, but we can overcome them by working together.”
A letter in the Autry archives showed how the program also reached across international boundaries. “It was from a man who lived in divided Berlin” years before the Berlin Wall came down, Richardson said. “He told how he was whispering the tune of ‘Bonanza.’ From the other side of the wall, someone started whistling it back to him. In the darkest days of the Cold War, these two individuals, divided by so much more than this wall, were able to find a common bond.”
Dortort took pride in the show’s impact on the rise of color TV sets in the 1960s. It became a marketing tool for savvy dealers, who began to hold open houses when the show came on. “People would react in astonishment, with delight, and then,” Dortort recalled in a 2005 interview for the Autry National Center magazine, “buy a set.”
Dortort’s wife of 67 years, Rose, died in 2007. He is survived by a daughter, Wendy Czarnecki, of Petaluma, Calif.; a son, Fred, of Berkeley; a brother and a granddaughter.
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