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Autry National Center salutes 'Bonanza' Sunday

The TV western also marks its 50th anniversary with the DVD release of its first season.

September 19, 2009|Susan King

For 14 seasons, viewers turned in every week to "Bonanza," the first prime-time network western in color. Fans tapped their toes to the now-classic theme song by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, and the Cartwrights -- Ben, Adam, Hoss and Little Joe -- were as familiar to audiences as their own families.

And now the series, which was No. 1 in the ratings from 1964-67, is celebrating its 50th anniversary in style. Earlier this week, CBS Home Entertainment released the first season of the NBC show complete with pristine transfers and fun extras such as an alternate ending to the pilot episode, which features the Cartwrights singing the title tune.

"We knew 'Bonanza' was a real gem," says Ken Ross, executive VP and general manager of CBS Home Entertainment. "We wanted to give it the right treatment."

On Sunday, the Autry National Center of the American West is holding a "Bonanza" day, which not only celebrates the series but also the career achievements of its creator, David Dortort. In addition to Q&As and panel discussions with the Dortort family and experts, the museum will screen episodes of the show on a continual loop.

"Bonanza" revolved around the rugged, macho Cartwright family, who lived on the 1,000-square-mile Ponderosa ranch on the shore of Lake Tahoe in Nevada near Virginia City. Lorne Greene played patriarch Ben Cartwright, who had sons by each of his three late wives: the urbane Adam (Pernell Roberts); the lovable giant Hoss (Dan Blocker); and the young, impetuous and hot-headed Little Joe (Michael Landon). Victor Sen Yung played the cook, Chinese immigrant Hop Sing.

Despite its immense popularity during its long on-air run and subsequent decades in syndication, "Bonanza" wasn't an instant hit. The pilot episode was generally regarded as "pretty bad," according to "Bonanza" expert and head of the series' estate, Andrew J. Klyde.

"Lorne Greene had said that the pilot had everything in it but the kitchen sink," Klyde says. "Kind critics called it a good pilot episode that showcased the potential of the series."

Its first time slot -- Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. -- was opposite CBS' red-hot mystery series, "Perry Mason."

"It had a rocky start," Klyde explains. "It was filmed in color, so it cost 25% more than other series. That was a big problem. The decision makers in New York decided to cancel the show after the first half-dozen shows."

But cooler heads prevailed. "Fortunately, they were allowed to make more shows and eventually they were able to bring them in on budget."

"It needed a little time for an audience to develop," says Dortort, who adds that he had "had no idea" that the series would be part of popular culture for five decades.

"Bonanza" really took flight when it moved to Sundays at 9 p.m. in September 1961. It stayed in that time slot until its final season, when it moved to Tuesdays at 8 p.m. opposite CBS' new sitcom, "Maude."

As for the casting, Dortort originally wanted Lee J. Cobb to play Ben, but he turned it down.

Both Landon and Blocker had done Dortort's previous series, "The Restless Gun." And according to Dortort's daughter Wendy, her father saw Greene in a theater production. "He was really impressed with his voice," she says.

"They brought in a lot of people before the four people were decided on. I know they had a great deal of searching for the right combination of people," says Kent McCray, who was an associate producer on the series. "When David wrote the script, he had certain people in mind."

The Cartwrights were initially much more a family of toughs who aimed to shoot anybody that came upon their land -- a veritable Corleones of the Comstock Lode. "It was an evolution," Klyde says of the show. "If you would watch the pilot today, the characters are unrecognizable."

That's because Dortort was under the gun to deliver the first script. "He was producing 'The Restless Gun' during the day and going to NBC at night to write the script," Klyde says. "I remember Lorne complained that they got the script maybe two days before they started filming."

During the first season, the four actors had a meeting with Dortort to see if he could make the Cartwrights a little friendlier. As Klyde notes, "Lorne said. 'Why are we always pointing a pistol at someone?' "

For information on "Bonanza" day, go to www.autry nationalcenter.org.

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susan.king@latimes.com

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