David Canary~New Boy On Bonanza
TV Guide~March 3, 1968
'David Canary, A Kid From Ohio, Is Being Counted On To Stop The Show's
Middle Age Spread'
We are in the main cabin of a genuine New Orleans paddle-wheel boat, a
steel-hulled two stacker called "The Dixie", which the press agent swears
once plied the lower Mississippi but which for shooting purposes is now
tied up to the southeast shore of Nevada's Lake Tahoe. Outside tower the
magnificent peaks of the Sierras. Inside the booze flows freely.
David Canary, an outdoor type who has just turned 30, is being
"introduced" to the press, some of whom have come 3000 miles for the
occasion. He is the new boy on 'Bonanza', and therefore an interloper in
the realm once ruled exclusively by Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, and Michael
Landon. There's going to be some shooting today, and Canary will need all
the armour plate he can muster. Poise of a diplomat! Nerves like steel
cables! For no one walks into the world's most exclusive (and
lucrative acting club), without a stiff membership fee.
Greene and Landon (Blocker is temporarily detained), are preparing
for the initiation ceremonies now. The jokes are rib-ticking and needle
sharp. The executive producer and creator of 'Bonanza', David Dortort, acts
as a sort of kindly referee. He begins by explaining the new Canary
character. "Candy is a loner, a stray," says Dortort. "He is not a
Cartwright, so he is not necessarily bound by family ties. He has no Ben
Cartwright to fall back upon in solving his problems."
"Yeah," cracks Landon. "We find out he's illegitimate only midway in
Laughter. Canary, under prodding from the press, explains he's just a kid
from Ohio, who broke his nose playing football for the University of
Cincinnati. Someone drops a highball glass. "You hadda step on my
line," the kid ad-libs fearlessly. "You didn't do that on Mike's line."
Laughter. Greene is moved to tell the company what it means to play
Ben Cartwright. He speaks of "the dignity of the image," the pride he
takes in welcoming this fine young actor "to the Ponderosa family." Again, it's Landon who knifes through the treacle with the sharp cutting
edge of his wit.
"Oh, I love you da-da!" he cries exuberantly.
Big laughter. But is it really so funny? Landon has inadvertently
pinpointed the real reason David Canary is here. 'Bonanza' is suffering
from an acute case of "da-da-ism" and has been for some time. Considering
that an estimated 400,000,000 speaking eight languages watch the show in
79 countries of the world, this is a matter of some moment. Last year
produced the first discernible crack in the rating. The Smothers
Brothers, with a smarty contemporary variety show and some slashingly
contemporary humor, temporarily knocked the champion from its accustomed
high perch in the Neilsen charts.
To make the rebuke even more humiliating, Tommy Smothers took some
gratuitous pot shots at his Sunday night competition in a national
magazine. He suggested that 'Bonanza' was suffering from middle-age
spread and that the stories leaned heavily on the trusting Hoss's
troubles with girls. "Then the father and the kid brother have to figure
some way to get rid of the girl without hurting his feelings," Tommy
added impishly. "Who believes stuff like that anymore?"
Dortort and Robert ('Combat!') Blees, the newly installed line
producer, got the message. "Canary is the sand in the gears," Blees tells
me later. "He's there to shake up the Cartwright establishment, put a bomb
under all those cliche little morality plays. While Papa Ben is yelling
for a fair trial, Candy is capable of something a little more underhanded
"Let's face it, Little Joe really can't pass for less then 26, Hoss has
got to be 32, and Ben well, Ben must be as old as God."
Blocker, arriving the following day, acknowledges the efficacy of the
youth movement. "We're all so damn goody-goody we can't get involved
anymore," he chuckles. "The kid is great. The show needs him."
"Sure, we'll let him in the club," Landon says lightly. "But it still
boils down to four guys. What we really need is good stories."
"Listen," grumps Greene, "Little Orphan Annie doesn't grow old either."
Who is this upstart, Ponderosa plumper-upper, all-purpose Smothers
Brothers, repellent and reverse English Little Orphan Annie? He doesn't
look like much. "I have a face like a bowl of oatmeal thrown against the
kitchen wall," insists Canary which, incidentally, is his real name. The
nose is flattened, the jaw scooped, the build slight but wiry, the look
youthful, the manner diffident. The son of a J.C. Penny store manager, he
started out to become a singer, was diverted by football in the
football-happy town of Massillion, Ohio, where he was raised and escaped
to the University of Cincinnati supposedly to study voice.
"Football was not just a sport where I came from," he remembers. "Winner
was everything to the point of insanity. Sick, sick, sick! Many a time I
have gone into a game, my ankle taped and shot full of novacain. I broke
my nose in the Indiana game my sophomore year at Cincinnati. Not just
broke it; shattered the whole bridge. We won 21-0."
He was possibly the smallest--170 pounds, and 5-11-1/2--left end ever
drafted by the Denver Broncos of the American Football League. He turned
the offer down. "Football had become a thing with me, I had a good
baritone voice and singing was what I really wanted. Just before the
Oklahoma A&M game, I walked out and never played football again."
After graduation, he went to New York. Three days later, he had a chorus
job on Broadway. He took up the Method with a private tutor. He found the
stage medium "sculpted and intellectualized to a degree, as TV's instant
acting can never be." Still, he was not one to put TV down even
then. Before he knew it he was an actor, working up from bits in shows
like "The Happiest Girl In The World", with Cyril Ritchard to the lead in
the long-running off-Broadway musical "The Fantasticks."
"'The Fantasticks' became my life. When the Army got me in the fall of
1962, I emptied the garage and swept out the gym at Fort Hood in
Texas. But I also directed an Army production of 'The Fantasticks', not to
mention acting in nine other shows. Universal spotted me in San
Francisco, where I had gone to rejoin 'The Fantasticks' in December
In no time he was doing movies ('St. Valentine's Day Massacre') and
TV ('Peyton Place', 'Gunsmoke', 'Cimarron Strip', etc.). Dortort watched
him play the bully in a saloon scene in "Hombre", a Paul Newman movie
which happened to be shooting next door to another Dortort show 'The High
Chaparral', near Tuscon. Dortort plumped him as "the kind of kid who comes
on and suddenly there's nobody else on the screen" (a remark which
might raise the eyebrow of Newman, had he been around to hear it), and
quickly cast him as "Candy."
The day following the press conference we are sitting on the beach
watching the director setting up the pilothouse shot aboard "The Dixie"
and discussing the nuances of playing the outside role on the screen and
"I'm the new kid on the block," says David Canary pleasantly. "They
don't know me. They have too many memories, confidences. It's hardest when
they're cutting up, telling stories on the set. I'm not there--like when
you first walk into a party. I may never catch up. Maybe it's not
necessary that I do."
The insiders on the other hand, go out of their way to make him feel at
home. Landon bought him a heating pad for a nerve he pinched in a fight
scene. Greene makes a point of complimenting his acting. Blocker
introduced him to his agent for personal appearances. Noblesse oblige? The bank presidents being evil with the junior clerk? Canary doesn't think so. "Giving me the business like in that press
conference yesterday! It's really more an inclusion," Canary says.
Happily he has yet to catch the Pernell Roberts Syndrome and other
diseases that suddenly successful young actors are prone to. Roberts, the
former star of 'Bonanza' and erstwhile third Cartwright brother, flew the
coop when his contract ran out three years ago, disdainfully tossing away
a small fortune rather than "compromise myself as an artist".
This sort of behavior does not particularly impress Canary, although he
seems less impressed with the internecine flap which Roberts' departure
caused. "What they really resent," he muses, "is turning your back on all
Dortort, the battle-weary veteran who describes himself as "one of the
few producers who love actors," sighs forebearingly. "Look at him," he
says. "Poor but happy. Give him a few years, and he too, will become a
millionaire with all those problems!"
Right now Canary is not worried. He has a young wife (a tiny
actress, Julie Anderson, whom he met in New York), and child (Lisa, 2), who he frequently brings with him to the Tahoe location. He lives in a
modest Westwood apartment, reads a few books, a little of Alan Watt's "The
Way of Zen", a touch of "The Territorial Imperitive" and a dash of
cybernetics but not very much of it...and prefers walking to playing the
Hollywood social game. "I am more the sensual than intellectual man," he
As for the "problems" Dortort mentioned, Canary figures if he could turn
his back on the profitable pandemonium of professional football, he can
do the same for the Ponderosa, if the weather turns sour. He prefers to
think he will not have to depend on Da-da to tell him when to come in out of the rain.
~By Dwight Whitney