Jewish Journal

Ponderosa Past

From "Bonanza" to his Program for the Arts, David Dortort infuses entertainment with Jewish American values.

by Michael Aushenker

Posted on Jan. 17, 2002 at 7:00 pm

In the 1940s, when Burt Lancaster and Harold Hecht formed their production company, Hecht-Lancaster, they optioned debut novels by two young Jewish writers: "The Naked and the Dead," by Norman Mailer and "Burial of the Fruit," by David Dortort. Dortort and Mailer were hired to adapt their books into screenplays.

"The fallacy in Hecht-Lancaster's logic was that neither Norman nor I knew anything about writing a screenplay," Dortort said. "The verdict came in: these were two of the worst screenplays ever written," he added, laughing in the comfort of his spacious Bel Air den. Dortort's screenplay mastery came later when the writer parlayed his love for American history into the phenomenon of a show he created in 1959 called "Bonanza."

Last year, he drew from his six-decade career to create the Dortort Program for the Arts at the University of Judaism's Department of Continuing Education. The program, which is open to the community, begins its second season this month with a three-part film series exploring immigration: "Three Stories" (Jan. 20); "Kosher Messiah" (Jan. 27); and "Island of Roses" (Feb. 4). "Undeclared" creator Judd Apatow (Feb. 17) and composer Elmer Bernstein (April 21) will also be spotlighted.

Today's industry talent may have programs such as Dortort's to draw creative nourishment from, but such enterprises didn't exist early in the writer's career. Dortort gave up writing novels for teleplays to support his family. He became the first writer-producer hyphenate after actor John Payne used his clout to land Dortort on "The Restless Gun" in 1957. At the time, a TV writer-producer was unheard of. Universal's head of production hated the idea ... until the Western topped the ratings.

"He became my biggest fan," said a smiling Dortort.

When Dortort's close friend, actor Raymond Burr, landed CBS's first in-house produced program, "Perry Mason," it planted CBS on top. Hoping to emulate the success of "Mason," NBC hired Dortort to produce its own in-house show. Dortort's idea: "Bonanza," a family-hearted Western about a rancher and his sons who lived near Virginia City, Nev., on the Ponderosa ranch.

"I had two Jewish guys playing cowboys ," said Dortort, referring to stars Lorne Greene and Michael Landon.

In a sense, Dortort not only created a popular series, but color television itself. When he agreed to produce "Bonanza," it was on the condition that the program be aired in full color. At the time, television was black and white. NBC execs balked. Dortort swayed the network only after agreeing to foot budget overages out of his pocket.

Technicolor had a reputation of being an elitist, expensive color lab, so Dortort found a willing ally in Sidney Solow, Jewish owner of Consolidated Film Lab. Unlike NBC, Solow saw the full potential of color television. Eager to keep the account, he gave Dortort a sweetheart deal. For three years, "Bonanza" was the lone color show on television. "Bonanza" enjoyed a successful 14-year run (1959-1973) and broke in talent such as Robert Altman ("M*A*S*H").

Anyone who believes "Bonanza" is a phenomenon of the past should examine PAX TV's freshman series "Ponderosa," starring Matt Carmody. Since its Sept. 9, 2001 debut, Dortort, a former three-term Writers Guild's TV division president, is a script consultant on the show -- the highest rated in PAX TV's history.

Dortort acknowledges a strong parallel between the Ponderosa and the State of Israel.

"The value of the land, the overcoming of obstacles, the planting of forests, preserving its very existence everyone on the land an antecedent," Dortort notes. "Essentially, my message is a very Jewish message: charity, community, respect for parents and children."

The Torah is as important to Dortort as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. "My love for America," Dortort said, "has permeated all of my work. Even as we teach beauty, wisdom of the Torah."

"He's just a wonderful source of wisdom," said Gail Leventhal, Dortort Program of the Arts coordinator. "A fine writer with a critical eye. His wife Rose has a background in music."

"Why not be proud of our American association?" Dortort asked. "As much as we support Israel, it should not be at the expense of an emphasis on America. As Jews, we should not be apologetic about our place in America. What we brought to the table, we can be proud of."

For information on Dortort Program for the Arts, contact Gail Leventhal at (310) 476-9777, ext. 546.

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