Class of 1936
David Dortort was a pioneering writer and producer who created one of the longest running shows in television history by daring to defy tradition. The show was “Bonanza,” which ran for 14 years starting in 1959 and from 1964 to 1967 was the nation’s most-watched program. It was unlike the conventional television western in several important ways. Instead of focusing on shoot-’em-ups between heroes in white hats and good teeth and villains in black hats and droopy moustaches, it was about a close-knit family — a father and three sons — and the way they interacted. The stars were Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright, the patriarch; Pernell Roberts as Adam, the eldest and wisest son; Dan Blocker as Hoss, the largest and gentlest son; and Michael Landon as Little Joe, the youngest and most impetuous Cartwright. Their roles in “Bonanza” were the ones for which they are generally best remembered.
|The Cartwrights of “Bonanza”: Hoss,
Ben, Adam and Little Joe
The series also addressed themes not often encountered in TV westerns at that time, themes such as racial and religious prejudice. Further, sensing that the growth of color TV was imminent, Dortort insisted that “Bonanza” be shot that way, making it the first hour-long western in color.
Dortort was also one of television drama’s earliest writer-producers, first filling both roles in 1958 in a half-hour series for NBC called “The Restless Gun.” It starred John Payne and was a traditional western. When the network’s executives saw the series, they asked Dortort to develop another. He decided to write something that would be antithetical to what he described as “the myth of the lone gunfighter.” In an interview with the Archive of American Television in 2002, Dortort said, “The gunfighter played a small, inconsequential role in the story of the West. The true history of the West is about family, pioneers.” If the show had a message, Dortort said, it was “love.”
|Dortort in Tucson, Ariz., scouting
locations for “The High Chaparral”
A subsequent western series that Dortort created, “The High Chaparral,” was another groundbreaking effort. It is often regarded as the first primetime series to feature Latino characters in starring roles and to depict ethnic minorities in non-stereotypical roles.
Dortort was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 23, 1916. After attending Boys High, he entered CCNY, studying American history — something he said was instrumental in his understanding of the American west — and becoming a writing seminar colleague of Alfred Kazin. Following Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of World War II, Dortort spent three years in the Army, wrote a couple of novels — “Burial of the Fruit” in 1947 and “The Post of Honor” in 1949 — then began writing for the movies, notably “The Lusty Men,” a 1952 western, and “A Cry in the Night,” a 1956 police melodrama. His early television work ranged from episodes of “Racket Squad” to Lassie” and he was a co-writer on the TV version of “The Ox-Bow Incident.”
Dortort was at various times, president of the Television-Radio branch of the Writers Guild of America, chairman of the Caucus of Producers, Writers and Directors, and president of the Producers Guild of America. He was honored by CCNY in 2001, when he was awarded a Townsend Harris Medal. A year later, he established the David Dortort Endowed Scholarship in Creative Writing at the College, and followed that up with the David Dortort Endowed Lectureship in Writing for the Dramatic Arts: Stage, Film and Television.
He died on Sept. 5, 2010, at the age of 93.