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Welcome to Bonanza: Scenery of the Ponderosa!
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Adam, Little Joe, Ben and Hoss!

Carrying On Without Dan Blocker
TV Guide~October 7, 1972

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     'How 'Bonanza', Now In It's 14 Year, Plans To Get Along Without Hoss'

     Sometimes it's not hard to find symbols everywhere you look.  For instance: in front of the sound stage at the Burbank Studios, where 'Bonanza' is shooting a saloon scene, stands a big red truck full of lights and props.  On it is painted the legend "BONANZA---NBC SUNDAY 9 P.M." The truck is a Ford.

     It doesn't mean much until you remember that this season 'Bonanza' has been pried out of its traditional niche on Sunday night and moved to Tuesday at 8 (ET)---and that its long-time sponsor, Chevrolet, has switched its brand from 'Bonanza's' burning map over to ABC's anthology series, 'The Men'.

     Neither of these changes would have stirred up much industry gossip had they not been followed by an authentic tragedy--the death this past May of Dan Blocker, that vast and gentle man who in 13 years as Hoss Cartwright worked his way up from a former Texas school teacher to one of the best-loved television actors in the world.  In Hollywood, where spite often counts for as much as sentiment, the word was out: 'Bonanza', which last year had occasionally slipped out of the Top 10 shows in the ratings, was on its last legs.  The giant was about to topple.

     "After Dan's death I didn't see how the show could continue," admits Lorne Greene now, "I said to my wife, 'That's it; it's finished' I know Michael Landon felt the same way.  But that's the way it is in any family when a death occurs.  The family feels that something so radical has happened that life can't go on, that everything has changed.  Nevertheless, you do go on.  Things are changed, but not as much as you first thought.  You don't go out and hire somebody else to take the place of the member who died; what happens is the character of the family unit changes to include other people."

     Who those other people would be became the immediate problem of 'Bonanza's' executive producer, David Dortort, a literate and sensitive man who has just ended a lengthy exclusive contract with NBC but insists that--"I'm still tremendously committed to 'Bonanza'--it's my baby, my creation, and I'll continue to give it my closest supervision.  " His first decision was to bring back Candy, a rowdy and rambunctious ranch hand played for three years (1967 to 1970) by David Canary.  Then he and producer Richard Collins sat down with their associates to come up with a new character.

     "Of course Dan is irreplaceable," says Dortort.  How could a man with his enourmous talent and humanity be replaced?  So, how does the show go on?  The answer is that we have to find new directions.  We've had an intensely close family situation which began with a father and his three sons; then Pernell Roberts left and we had two sons.  There was Candy, of course, and we had Ben Cartwright adopt a boy, Jamie, played by Mitch Vogel.  Now, we're introducing another new character, a young man who brings his own set of problems that are unique to him, to his background, and experiences--it opens up new avenues for dramatic exploration." Shortly before shooting began, Dortort hired Tim Matheson--who a regular on 'The Virginian' for the 1969-70 season--to play Griff King, an ex-convict who comes to work on the Ponderosa against his will.

     If you note in all this a shifting emphasis to youth, you are correct.  At least part of the reason for the Chevrolet decision to transfer its corporate backing was the fear after 13 years the 'Bonanza' audience was getting too old, wasn't buying that ideal new car every two years.  "It was a hasty, unwise decision," Dortort comments, quickly adding (lest anyone accuse him of sour grapes) that the show is "100 per-cent sponsored" this year.  As for a shift to a new night and earlier hour, he is full of optimism.  "It's a very healthy change, it opens us up to an entirely new audience--in some respects a younger audience--which is why we've brought in a new character more in line with that audience."

     Michael Landon, who as Little Joe Cartwright--the youngest brother--had matured from a fresh-faced newcomer to a rugged, slightly graying, highly talented writer and director as well as an actor during his 'Bonanza' stint, feels the absence of Dan Blocker perhaps more deeply than anyone.  He tried to write about his memories of the man who played his older brother for so many years but found that his thoughts were too intensely personal to put on paper.

     "The first day we went back to work was just incredible, it was so bad," he remembers.  "Everybody was trying to force good humor, because here we were, back in the same place again.  Fortunately, we stayed out of the dining room that day.  We had so many laughs in that dining room over the past 13 years; they were always the deadly scenes--they were so terrible because they were exposition scenes so you could find out what was going to happen in the next act--and that's where Dan and Lorne and I did most of our horsing around.

     "But what's happened since that first day is that the whole crew is full of memories of only the good things.  Someone will say, 'Hey, do you remember the time you and Dan put that director on?'--because we used to torment the hell out of the new directors.  Moments like that are always happening."

     Landon wrote a script called "Forever", in which Hoss was to be married.  With some changes, it became the two-parter which opened this season on September 12, aired in a 2-hour time slot.  Little Joe now took his bride, played by actress Bonnie Bedelia, and she dies in the second half of the show.  "What I wanted to do," explains Michael, who also directed the episode, "was to try to make it a catharsis for everyone--not just the audience, but for us too--to try to incorporate a sense of loss.  We mention Hoss' death very simply, in passing, the way it happens in real life; there's no discussion of how or when because everyone knows how and when.  It might not please everybody.  I'm sure that some people would rather have a whole hour memorial to Dan, but we just couldn't do that.  We tried to do what we thought he would have wanted us to do."

     ("In one scene for 'Forever' that was filmed up on the Stanislaus River," recalls Lorne Greene, "Little Joe says to his bride, 'My big brother and I used to call this The Happy Place' And she says, 'You must have loved him very much' That is the kind of reference to Dan we are having; I say to another character, 'I know what it means to lose a son.'")

     The day to day problems of 'Bonanza's' existance are coped with by producer Richard Collins, a tweedy, comfortable man who has been with the program four years.  "Just as we personally suffered a loss, so the audience suffered one too," he says, "Whether they'll do what families do--what we've done--which is to close ranks and go on, remains to be seen.  Obviously, this year is a crucial one--and there's nobody who isn't curious to see if we can make it."

     The slippage in ratings last year, he believes, was largely attributed to the blockbuster movies which CBS and ABC put on against them on Sunday night--one week the competition was both "Ben-Hur" and "Cleopatra." "My belief is that nothing can do well against those big movies," Collins explains, "But when the shows were rerun this past summer, they were back in the Top 10 again--our audience came back to see the ones they'd missed."

     There will be no easy sledding on Tuesdays, either: they are now against CBS's heavily promoted 'Maude' at 8 (ET) and then 'Hawaii Five-O' at 8:30, while over at ABC the very successful 'Movie of the Week' begins at 'Bonanza's' half-time.  "But we've got lots of solid, contemporary, nontraditional stories," asserts Collins.  "There's a program about Mark Twain, who actually did visit Virginia City, and we're working on one about the drug problem which existed after the Civil War.  We also have an interesting ecology idea.  Ben backs a politician who is against hydraulic mining--Nevada was one of the few states that never allowed it, you know--and then finds out the guy's a louse in all other respects.

     "We can't do conventional Westerns any longer, since NBC owns the show, they apply the antiviolence thing especially strictly, and we're not very interested in doing shows like that anyway.  So we have to move farther afield, into unexplored areas.  All of which could help us get a new audience."

     David Canary, originally brought into the show as a character who could get away with some of the rougher, nastier things for which members of the Cartwright family might be criticized, left 'Bonanza' to try his hand at writing and directing his own films.  "I picked just about the worst time in history," he admits wryly.  "Two things happened just before I was asked to come back to 'Bonanza' that made up my mind.  First, a pilot called 'The Young Prosecutors'--which everybody said was sure bet at NBC didn't get sold; then I heard that one of the top independent filmmakers was having trouble raising money for his next picture.  If he couldn't do it, I sure as hell wasn't going to be able to.  So I came back."

     He hopes to be given the chance, like Michael Landon, to write and direct, and despite certain reservations about the network's judgment ("I think they seriously underestimate the intelligence of the audience; they want lots of action but no violence, while the younger audience wants something a bit more cerebral") he thinks 'Bonanza' will continue for three or four more years.  "It really has a tremendous following, which you only begin to get an idea of when you do public appearances; I was amazed that everybody I met knew who I was.  "

     Tim Matheson, the newest member of the show, isn't quite so sure about the show's future: "I don't think either 'Gunsmoke' or 'Bonanza' can last much longer; their formats are outdated, new concepts are coming up to take their place," he says.  He was 11 years old when 'Bonanza' started, and although he didn't watch the show much in his formative years, he still has a good idea of where he hopes to take his new character, Griff King.  "He's not very well delineated yet," he says, "but we're all working it out together.  They've sketched in a past for me, to show that Candy and I knew each other before; we save Ben Cartwright's life in a prison riot and I'm paroled in his custody to the Ponderosa.  But I'm sure Griff is not too pleased at being on the ranch, and will do everything he can to break loose."

     The brief history of television so far seems to indicate that what audiences really want is a certain amount of variety within a comfortably familiar format; as Micheal Landon says, "No matter who you put on the show, sooner or later they have to become good guys or Ben will kick them out."  So, 'Bonanza's' future would still seem to include that solid sense of family that has carried it for so long.

     Like any family that ages, its members appear to depend on it for support and substance less and less as the years go by--even though they all insist on its importance in their lives.  David Dortort hopes to make films and television programs that will give him to exercise hitherto unused muscles; he still smarts at the short shrift which NBC gave his 'High Chaparral' series some years back.  Lorne Greene does his television movies (like the highly rated "The Harness" last year), with increasing pleasure, although he insists that 'Bonanza' is a continuing great source of happiness.  Michael Landon, deeply committed to the show, can nevertheless envision a life of writing and directing outside it.

     Whatever happens, there will be 14 years of 'Bonanza' on film; 14 years of pioneeering in the use of color television, of breaking important new ground in getting the real medium outside into real locations and preserving an image of the disappearing American West.  And for 13 of those years there is the massive, vital presence of a man named Dan Blocker--which is far more immortality than most of us can hope for on this earth.

     ~By Dick Adler

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