Friday, September 10, 2010

Bonanza Creator David Dortort Passes On

David Dortort, best known as the creator and long time executive producer on the classic television series Bonanza, passed Sunday at the age of 93.

David Dortort was born David Katz in Brooklyn on October 23, 1916. His father, Beryl Dortort, had changed his surname to Katz after coming to the United States from Eastern Europe.

Mr. Dortort attended Boys High in Brooklyn.  He studied American history and creative writing at the City College of New York. After graduation he married Rose Seldin in 1940, who persuaded him to change his surname back to the original family name of Dortort. David Dortort was drafted shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbour and served in the United States Army. Mr. Dortort performed such special services as beginning an Army newspaper and setting up performances of Hollywood entertainers at an Army hospital.

Following the war his first novel was published,, Burial of the Fruit in 1947. In 1949 his second novel was published, The Post of Honour.  Burial of the Fruit  was optioned as a film and Mr. Dortort had hoped to write the screenplay, but the project fell through. It was this that would encourage Mr. Dortort to learn to write for the screen. In 1952 he received his first movie credit, writing the screenplay for the film The Lusty Men; however, it would be in television that Mr. Dortort would spend most of his career.

In 1953 David Dortort received his first television credit, for an episode of Racket Squad. In the Fifties he would go onto write episodes of The Public Defender. Fireside Theatre, Climax, Waterfront, The 20th Century Fox Hour, Screen Directors Playhouse, Lassie, Studio 57, and Panic. He wrote several episodes of The Restless Gun and served as the show's producer for the entirety of its run. He also wrote the screenplays for the movies Rerprisal (1956), The Big Land (1957), and A Gift for Heidi (1958).

It was in 1958 that NBC asked David Dortort to create a Western which the network itself produced. From his knowledge of history, Mr. Dortort knew the gunslinger had actually played a very minor role in the Old West, so he consciously set out to develop a series which would not focus on the gunfighter as many Western series did at the time. Mr. Dortort then pitched to NBC the idea of a series based on a ranch in Nevada following the 1859 strikes of gold and silver at Virginia City's Comstock Lode. Not only would the series feature a hero who was not a gunfighter, but it would have no less than four heroes--a father and his three sons by his three late wives. Mr. Dortort encouraged NBC to film the new series in colour, taking advantage of the frequent on location shooting.

Bonanza debuted on September 12, 1959 on NBC. Initially it aired on Saturday night against Perry Mason on CBS. Its ratings were low its first season, although they rose enough in its second season that it ranked #17 among all shows for the Nielsens for the 1960-1961 season. It was in its third season Bonanza was moved to Sunday night. For that season Bonanza rose dramatically in the ratings, becoming the #2 show on the air for the year. By the 1964-1965 season Bonanza was the number one show on the air, a position it held for three years running. It would become the first show ever to rank in the top five for nine consecutive seasons. Such success would lead to other Westerns set on ranches, including The Big Valley  In all, Bonanza would run fourteen years, making it the second longest running Western network TV series, after Gunsmoke. This makes Bonanza possibly the most successful American television show of the Sixties.

David Dortort would create another Western for NBC, The High Chaparral. The series debuted in 1967 and ran until 1971. The series was historic as one of the first to feature regulars of Hispanic descent who were not out and out stereotypes. David Dortort also served as producer on that series. In 1980 David Dortort and author Evan Hunter developed the mini-series The Chisholms from his own novels. Mr. Dortort also served as producer. Mr. Dortort would go onto produce the telefilms Bonanza: The Next Generation (1988), Bonanza: The Return (1993) and Bonanza: Under Attack (1995), each continuations of the original series. In 2001 he served as the executive producer on Ponderosa, the short lived prequel to Bonanza which proved controversial with some fans.

David Dortort accomplished something few other television writers ever could. He not only created and produced his own series, but he created and produced one of the most successful shows of all time. Indeed, Bonanza still airs all over the world; in the United States it is part of the regular schedule of TV Land. Its characters (Ben, Hoss, Adam, and Little Joe) long ago became part of American pop culture, and for many the ranch house on the Ponderosa is as familiar was their own homes (my brother can actually name where objects are located in the ranch house without even consulting any episodes). While The High Chaparral would not see the success of Bonanza, it broke new ground with regards to the portrayal of Hispanics on the small screen. Indeed, in this it followed Bonanza, which often featured episodes attacking prejudice against other ethnicities. While many television writers have created shows over the years, only a few have created series as successful as Bonanza and fewer still have broken new ground while doing so.

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