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Bonanza: The TV-Movies

Bonanza: The Next Generation-1988

Written by: Paul Savage
Directed by: William F. Claxton
Produced by: David Dortort
Airdate: April 20, 1988

       Fourteen years after Bonanza was cancelled, millions were yearning to see a "real" Bonanza reunion, which was never destined to be, even if David Dortort was among the millions.  The announcment many were waiting to hear since January 1973 came during the summer of 1987: David Dortort had written a reunion movie to be syndicated to stations before year's end.  Rumors circulated that Michael Landon would be included in the cast, but in truth, only Lorne Greene had agreed to return to the Ponderosa.  Fate had other plans.

       On August 19, 1987, Lorne Greene had to get surgery for an abdominal hernia and later in the month, there were physical health issues that he was suffering from when he had the post-surgery checkup by his doctors. They conducted tests and diagnosed him with prostate cancer and the outlook didn't look good.

       In early September, he was hospitalized again in Santa Monica and his condition was deteriorating. He succumed to the cancer on September 11, 1987-- just one day before 'Bonanza's' 28th anniversary. Lorne and his family were devastated by this and it was not made public, nor was the real cause of death at the time. In the ensuing two years that followed, the news leaked out that the prostate cancer and its complications that afflicted him were the real cause of his death.

       Both Michael and Pernell had visited with him, during his last days and they were both devastated.  Michael said: "He was Ben Cartwright to the end".  "I took his hand in mine and held it.  He looked at me and we started to arm wrestle like we used to.  Then he broke into a smile and nodded.  And everything was okay, I think he wanted me to know everything was okay".  Dortort had done some re-writes with a reduced role for Lorne, but it was too late.

       Production of "Bonanza: The Next Generation" commenced on October 24th, 1987 at Lake Tahoe, and filming was made on both the California and Nevada sides of the basin.  Starring as Ben Cartwright's brother Aaron was John Ireland, who had a guest role in season nine's "Judgement at Red Creek" in 1967.  Also in the cast were Robert Fuller (a regular on both "Laramie" and "Wagon Train"), as the Ponderosa foreman, Charlie Poke.  John Amos ("Good Times"), as the cook, and Barbara Anderson ("Ironside"), as Joe Cartwright's wife, Annebelle.  Dortort denied reports that Michael Landon was going to appear, and had changed his mind when Lorne died.  "This was just more than likely the wishful thinking on the part of the hopeful viewers", he said.

       Michael Landon, Jr., however, was introduced as Joe's son, Benjamin, complete with a pinto as his mount of choice.  The younger Landon's acting work had only been brief, as an extra in "Little House On The Prairie", and his lack of skill was obvious, nor did he inherit the the skills which his father possessed so naturally.  A good-looking kid, he nevertheless resembled a blonde Jerry Seinfeld more than Michael Landon.  To be fair, his true passion was working behind the cameras, and the 1991 documentary he produced about his father was excellent.

       Gillian Greene, Lorne's daughter had a small part as the granddaughter of Virginia City's banker ("Bonanza" and "Little House" veteran Dabbs Greer), and she did do a capable job during her few screen moments.  In addition to Dabbs Greer, other guests from "Bonanza's" past included Peter-Mark Richman and Kevin Hagen, familiar to "Little House" fans as Doc Baker.

       Some purists were not pleased to learn Hoss had a bastard son, Josh (Brian A. Smith), and the revelation that Hoss had been the best man at Joe and Annabelle's wedding, totally conflicted with "Forever", in which Joe marries Alice after the death of Hoss.  Not as confusing was the character of Aaron Cartwright, a former sailer who had spent most of his life in the South Seas.  In the series, Ben had said his brother's name was John, and that he lived in Ohio.  One can only presume Ben son's had more than one paternal uncle.

       With a story by Dortort, script by Paul Savage (a writer for the classic series), and "Bonanza's" most profilic director, William F. Claxton, in command, one might logically have expected "Bonanza: The Next Generation", to be a nostalgic trip through Tahoe's towering pines, but the experience was a decidedly bittersweet one.  Thematically, the movie was pure "Bonanza", as the Cartwright heirs battle to save the Ponderosa, circa 1905, from the ravages of hydraulic mining.  But the original cast members were sorely missed, their absence emphasized by an oil portrait of Ben, a photograph of Hoss, and a visit to their graves.  The return of David Canary as Candy, if possible, would have helped fill the void considerably.

       In early December 1987, a brief news item stated, "Production for 'Bonanza: The Next Generation' has been completed, a syndicated TV-movie pilot that will air between March 7th and March 31st, 1988, in at least 90 percent of the United States".  The story went on to say that the character of Joe Cartwright "is missing in action", in the Spanish-American War.  If the new Bonanza becomes a series, Joe's whereabouts will be determined according to Michael Landon's interest in the project.

       Landon, deeply involved in the making of "Highway To Heaven", was not interested, nor apparently were very many others, as interest in reviving the series cooled for the next few years.  Following its run in syndication, "Bonanza: The Next Generation" was shown on The Disney Channel, then released on home video.

       Cast: John Ireland, Barbara Anderson, Michael Landon, Jr., Brian A. Smith, Peter-Mark-Richman, Gillian Greene, Robert Fuller, John Amos, Robert Hoy, Rex Lynn, Jack Lilley, Gary Reed, Richard Bergman, Jerry Gatlin, Robert Jauregui, Jeff Meyer, Dabbs Greer, William Benedict, Kevin Hagen, Jeffery Boudov, David Q. Combs, Patrick Joseph O' Neill, Bill Anderson, Joyce Anderson, Michael Dellafemina, Clayton Staggs, Lee McLaughlin, Lloyd Dewayne Collins, Sr., Buddy Wright, John D. "Zeke" Ward, Jeannette Tedler Knight, William James Anderson, Barbara Gulling-Goff, Dean Calkins, John E. O' Terry, Jennifer Watson.

       "Bonanza: The Next Generation" was filmed on location at: Lake Valley, on the California side of Lake Tahoe, and the Ponderosa Ranch and Wagon Camp and Spooner Lake, in the Incline Village area at Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

Bonanza: The Return-1993

Written by: Michael McGreevey, Michael Landon, Jr., Tom Brinson
Directed by: Jerry Jameson
Produced by: Gary Wohllenben, Kent McCray, David Dortort
Airdate: November 28, 1993

       Giving the passings of Lorne Greene and Michael Landon, as well as the total reluctance of Pernell Roberts to reprise the role as Adam, it appeared as though all prospects for reviving "Bonanza" were finally dead.  But early in 1992, a syndicated series based on "Bonanza: The Next Generation", was announced to begin production at Lake Tahoe in June.  Although Ben Johnson was scheduled to replace the late John Ireland as Aaron Cartwright, the role was changed to a character named Bronc Evans, a seasoned Ponderosa wrangler.  Some shooting was done, and Johnson even hosted a promotional film, but the series, "Bonanza: Legends of the Ponderosa" never got off the ground.  Budgets for syndicated programs are often based on the sale of broadcast rights to foreign markets, and funding of the updated Cartwright saga fell far short of the $1.1 million-per episode Dortort and his team required.

       However, in February of 1993 NBC, which had been first offered the series, had a change of heart, due largely to the recent ratings success of "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" on CBS.  While the network was not interested in a weekly series, they were willing to test the waters with a two-hour movie, by a Bonanza documentary of sorts.

       On November 28th, 1993, viewers were first treated to "Back To Bonanza", a one-hour hodgepodge of clips from the original series loosely structured around the 1963 episode "The Legacy".  Hosted by Dirk Blocker and Michael Landon, Jr., it was a nostalgic overview rather than a definitive retrospective, and it pretty much ignored the post-Adam year, or what is more popularly know as "Bonanza: The Lost Episodes".

       The movie, "Bonanza: The Return" was richer looking then "The Next Generation", and introduced Allistair MacDougall as Adam's son, A.C., and Brian Leckner (replacing Brian A. Smith) as Hoss' son, Josh, even though Dirk Blocker, a dead ringer for his late father, was among the cast.  Dortort felt he was too old for the part and gave him the role as a newspaperman instead.  ("That's the reality of our business", Blocker reacted).  Back as Benj, was Landon, Jr., (who co-wrote the story), but gone were Robert Fuller, Barbara Anderson, John Amos, and Gillian Greene.  Now supporting players included Richard Roundtree, Linda Gray, and Jack Elam.  And the Cartwright legend was further confused by the addition of Sara (Emily Warfield), Ben's granddaughter, and a change of dates on Hoss' gravestone.  In "The Next Generation", the years of his birth and death were 1848 and 1881, but in "The Return", they have been amended to 1842 and 1878.  The correct dates are on the Bonanza Chronology page to make amends for these oversights.  Viewers with good memories noted the fact that Ben Johnson's name was Jim Kelly in the 1971 episode "Top Hand" (which provides the first sepia-toned flashback used in"The Return"), and not Bronc Evans.

       Quibbles aside, the movie was generally a more entertaining production than "The Next Generation".  A former Ponderosa ranch hand (Dean Stockwell, who appeared as a different character, Matthew Rush, in the 1969 episode "The Medal"), wants to acquire not only the Cartwright's land, but also Sara.  Of course he fails at both attempts, and eventually is run over by his own train.

       For sentimentalists, the highlights of "The Return",were a scene in which the younger Cartwrights come across an album containing photographs of the original cast, and clips from "Top Hand" (1971), "Ponderosa Explosion" (1967), and "The Philip Deideshiemer Story" (1959).

       Ben Johnson remarked that the original show, on which he appeared three times, "was always decent.  It was always something you could see with your family".  As for the elder Landon and Blocker might have felt about their son's new version of the old legend, Johnson said, "I think their fathers would be proud of us a-carryin' on in the tradition".

       "The Return" doubled as pilot for either a new series or more "Bonanza" movies, and despite a TV Guide preview calling it "a well-intentional, but pale sequel".

       Cast: Ben Johnson, Allistair McDougal, Brian Leckner, Michael Landon, Jr., Emily Warfield, Jack Elam, Dirk Blocker, Dean Stockwell, Linda Grey, David Sage, Stewart Moss, John Ingle, Richard Roundtree, Charles Gunning.

       "Bonanza: The Return" was filmed on location at: Ponderosa Ranch and Wagon Camp, Incline Village, Sand Harbor, Lake Tahoe-Nevada State Park, and Tahoe Meadows, Toiyabe National Forest, Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Segments filmed on location in Tuolumne County were at Red Hills, Chinese Camp and Cover's Apple Ranch, Tuolumne, California.

Bonanza: Under Attack-1995

Written by: Denne Bart Petitclerc
Directed by: Mark Tinker
Produced by: Thomas Sarnoff
Airdate: January 15, 1995

       A more engaging follow-up, originally entitled "The Ghosts", but changed to a more pedestrian "Under Attack", and aired on January 15, 1995.  This time Bronc and company defended the wounded Frank James (Leonard Nimoy), from renegade Pinkerton detectives, using an old cabin built by Ben Cartwright for cover.

       Perhaps the only deficiency of "Under Attack", was the casting of Jeff Phillips a Kevin Bacon lookalike, as Adam's son.  According to David Dortort, NBC had assigned Allistair MacDougall to another project without considering the fact that he would be needed for the next "Bonanza" film.  Phillips did a sufficiently job portraying A.C., but in the estimation of some critics, MacDougall was more believeable as the son of a character once played by Pernell Roberts.  Sonia Satra, an actress who would have been Bronc Evans' granddaughter, had the series taken off in 1992, was introduced as A.C.'s love interest.  But in the tradition of nearly all the Cartwright women, she leaves by the end of the film.

       Brian Leckner, again playing Josh, preferred "Under Attack" to "The Return", and hoped it would finally result in a a long-planned series.  "This one is a lot different.  It's got a good script and Mark Tinker directed it.  He's the one who did the 'ER' pilot."

       Despite respectable ratings, "Under Attack" remains the most recent television effort based on "Bonanza".  Ben Johnson, sadly, passed away in 1996, putting "the next generation" Cartwrights in limbo.  Although there were were serious preparations for a feature film at Universal Studios in 1996, the future of that project appeared cloudy and never materialized.

       Cast: Ben Johnson, Michael Landon, Jr., Brian Lecker, Leonard Nimoy, Dennis Farina, Richard Roundtree, Jeff Phillips, Emily Warfield, Jack Elam, James Karen, Sonja Satra, Dirk Blocker, J. Borden Indice, Ted Markland, Bill Yarbrough, Kenny Call, Don Collier, Eric Lawson, Cal Bartlett, Biff Maynard.

       "Bonanza: Under Attack" was filmed on location at: the Ponderosa Ranch and Wagon Camp, Spooner Lake, near Incline Village, Lake Tahoe, Nevada, and other portions made at the Bower's Mansion Park and Davis Creek Park, in Washoe Valley, Nevada.

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