Becoming an Authorized Bonanza Novelist

Timing & Miscommunication:

David Dortort, who created the Bonanza TV series, passed away Sunday, September 5, 2010.  He was 93, and the last time I saw him, previous to the 2009 convention, he was living in an assisted living facility. After the convention, they were honoring him at the Los Angeles Autry Museum of the American West, but I had not been invited. 

Dortort personally hand-picked the four Cartwright actors, and had survived them all. Pernell Roberts (Adam) died early that year. When we talked about this, he told me they had mended a few fences not long before that. Though he created another, High Chaparral, Bonanza was always his first love. He kept it going after Roberts left the series in 1965 and was dismayed when NBC pulled the plug after Dan Blocker died during the 14th season.  NBC felt it was done. David never did.

He kept returning to his Bonanza Legacy, trying to revive the magic that had been.  (I recommend you get David Greenland’s book. He gets a few things wrong, but it’s as close to David’s memories as you can get. )

The first TV movie was meant to be a series spin-off for Lorne Greene and the grandchildren of Hoss and Joe, but Lorne Greene died before it could be filmed.  In 1993 came the first of two more TV movies with grandchildren, this time including Adam’s son, also with the hope that there’d be a TV spinoff series.  

That’s where I got lucky with timing. I started writing Bonanza fanfic in 1992, after having found some free markets for them. I loved writing them. I used to write them as a kid, but only in my head to get to sleep at night. Putting them on paper felt so real to me. That first story (#8 in Cartwright Saga) also helped me kick the smoking habit for good, but by that time I was down to four a day, anyway. I remember telling husband Joe, I enjoy this so much I might never write anything else. I wanted to find a way to get them authorized for publication on a larger scale. I read some of the Stephen Calder books and thought mine were better, because I knew the characters so well.

My lucky break came through timing … and miscommunication. I got Dortort’s attention in 1993 because he was filming the movie and Retrospect and I had, the year before, started an online Prodigy board for Bonanza fans. I found a TV bulletin board dedicated to old TV series and none yet for Bonanza. So I created one. That was one market he wanted to tap. 

When I saw that the TV movie Bonanza the Return was coming out, I did two things: bought our first big screen TV and wrote to David, telling him about the Bonanza board and about my short stories. I asked if I could send him one to read. I saw photos of the cast, heard the storyline, and then I wrote a script of my own that I also offered him, one based on characters I’d not yet seen on the screen.

In my second letter, I sent a few pages of the script. I also told him how Pernell leaving the show might have saved my life after my dad died two years later. And how I inadvertently married a Joe and had sons named Adam and Bennett. My daughter, though, wouldn’t let us call her Hoss. And I told him I raised my children “the Ben Cartwright way;” that is, without favoritism, the way I was raised. I also told him writing Bonanza stories helped me quit smoking, and talked about my sister Diane, too, who died shortly after the series began to air. I loved how the Cartwrights never died.

A few weeks later, I got a post email from Dan Sarnoff, associate producer of the movie, telling me that David Dortort would be in touch shortly. Sarnoff stayed in touch with us on the Bonanza Board because, as I had (slyly) mentioned to Dortort, ours was the biggest fan base on the internet. Well, I thought it was at the time. We had an incredibly active fan base. This fan base became increasingly angry that the new Bonanza offerings would not be featuring Jamie or Candy.

Sarnoff asked for our feedback for the Bonanza Retrospect that was to air previous to this new movie. The gang had lots of fun giving him our favorite scenes. Mine was included — Adam throwing his hat down in “The Savage.” He also told me that Pernell had been offered the hosting job of the Retrospect, that he sounded interested … but that he asked too much money.

And I got David’s first letter, where he told me that while he appreciated my offer, Stephen Calder had exclusive rights to publish Bonanza novels through 1994. He has teeny handwriting, and I was amazed at his talent to fit everything he wanted to say perfectly on one page.

I gave him my idea for another TV movie, having Adam come back to the Ponderosa to die. I told Dortort I just knew Roberts would love a script like that, to finally get closure to that character. Dortort’s responses were sporadic, so I also sent the script to Sarnoff, to NBC, to whatever agent or cable station I could find.

The 1993 movie did well in its time slot, as did the Retrospect, but the second movie, Bonanza Under Attack, the following year didn’t do as well. In part, this was because they had to replace the actor who play Adam’s son; in my mind, they didn’t do a good job with that. He looked too much like Landon Jr. Were Australians that hard to find?

But I continued to write my novel, Felling of the Sons, and the scripts, and I went back to college. Finally, in 1996 I told Dortort I was coming to Los Angeles to visit my brother, in case he’d like to get together to talk about the script. He sent me his phone number and told me to call him when I got there. Between 1994 and 1996 I had gotten little response from him, so I can still remember my excitement at this. I booked my flight that same day.

When I finally got to his house in June 1996, after a few misadventures along the way, I learned the real reasons he met with me. The first question he asked me was “How welll do you know Pernell? Has he said he’ll do your script?” I wanted to shrivel up and blow away. I just meant I created the script to be the kind of a thing that would appeal to Pernell. I thought. After hearing this stumbled response. he then asked me what right I had to shop that script around. He wondered if I always did things the hard way.

“Well, I guess so, Mr. Dortort. But what’s the easy way? No one’s ever told me.”

That made him laugh. At the end of his life, he apologized that he hadn’t been able to help me. But he had to have known the honor I felt just sitting there, talking with him. I couldn’t talk notes about what he said. That would have felt disrespectful. We had a long and very friendly conversation, during which I told him I thought Bonanza was two different series – with Adam, and without. He understood, and even agreed, a little bit, that Pernell gave a lot to the show.

By this time I had left my Prodigy fan site to the fans of Jamie, Joe and Candy. I had taken about all the insults for leaving the show after Adam left that I could bear. I still remember my son Adam, age 13, getting on and defending me against them. Oh, I wish I’d have saved that. I wish I had made notes of all the things David told me, I wish I had tape-recorded every moment. But I didn’t even ask if I could. I was just too dadburned nervous.

Dortort and I kept up our correspondence, working together on the script idea, trying to get Pernell involved. But Pernell never once responded to me. Finally David insisted that Adam only be mentioned in it. And then he wanted to take it in a new direction. He asked me to write one for Dirk Blocker to play Hoss and Hoss’s son. Well, I just couldn’t. He was so good as Walter in the TV movies. Dortort felt bad that he didn’t cast Dirk as Hoss’s son in those movies and wanted to make it up to him.  (Oh, if only I’d tried!  But I was going for my BA in history at the time.)

David Dortort loved his fans. There’s the story about how he allowed Adam Cartwright to leave the show because the fans wrote in protest to the storyline of Adam getting married. At the time neither Dortort nor Roberts felt they’d be able to pull it off. “We have to watch the reaction of the audience very closely,” Dortort said in an interview in 1963. “We get more than 30,000 fan letters a month and they will tell us if they like the idea. If the reaction is negative, then we’ll have to write it out of the series.” 

Dortort told me in 1996 that, in hindsight, he should have let the marriage happen. But at the time, “It’s the most successful show that TV has ever seen, and I, for one, am going to make sure that nothing happens to it.” He and others believed (or hoped) that leaving Roberts’ exit “open-ended,” that he would see the ‘error of his ways’ and return. David hoped he’d be back. But no, he didn’t expect it. 

When I left LA in 1996 it was with the realization that this was a humble man who loved history and stumbled onto a formula that work. But I also knew he was as clever as they came, for all that he pulled together. He just didn’t have those airs about him. He was sweet, and he was humble. He was completely grateful to the fans for loving Bonanza.

After I left in 1996 I realized that I hadn’t gotten permission to publish Felling of the Sons, so I sent a postcard to him, asking him to fill in his percentage. He sent it back a short time after asking for 10%. He didn’t ask to read the novel. I got an agent because of him, but she was unable to sell publishers on the novel because the Calder books, they said, performed so poorly. I ended up in first edition with a small publisher in 1999 who only released email or floppy disk copies of the book.  

In 2001, Dortort gave the rights to Beth Sullivan for a prequel called Ponderosa that aired on cable’s Hallmark Channel. This featured the family at a younger age, before the Comstock Lode setting of the original series. We had some great conversations about it. He called their Lake Tahoe “a water puddle,” and how she wanted to cast a Japanese man to play Hop Sing. “There weren’t any Japanese in the country at the time!” He was proud of it, though, respected Sullivan’s work and encouraged me to submit scripts to her; which I did, through my daughter’s script agency.

On my second visit to his house in 2001 I suggested that he host one of the Marathons being shown on Hallmark around the time of the airing of Ponderosa. He only laughed and said, “Who’d want to see an old fart like me?” Of his five favorite episodes, there was one I didn’t know, because it was a later episode. No surprise that Crucible was one of them. Others included The Gamble and Calamity over the Comstock. And yes, he did host a Bonanza marathon for Hallmark. He had just been teasing me. 

But that prequel couldn’t pick up a second season due to mismanagement of money, David told me. When it wasn’t picked up for a second season, his energy began to wane. Though they started in 1999, he never came to a convention, he said, because he couldn’t take the altitude anymore.

Dortort had convinced NBC executives to film his series in color by showing them Lake Tahoe: “Would you film that lake in black and white?” They decided to use it to sell the new color TV sets.  This is one reason Bonanza holds up so well today. It doesn’t appear ‘old’ or dated. In one of the obits I found online about David I noticed that they quoted him as being proud that a lot of color TV sets sold to watch Bonanza — again, a reflection of the man’s humility. He created something very special in that Cartwright family, and he knew it. 

It had reached #2 in its third season, and was number one for three continuous years, never falling below the #3 slot until its 12th season. See more at

Dortort once negotiated with some A-list screenwriters to write the script for a big screen movie version of Bonanza. When I met with him at his home in 2001, he said “80% of it is crap!”  I asked to see it, but he couldn’t let me. There’s a Hollywood rule against it. He should have used me. I would have written whatever he wanted (by then, even Dirk Blocker playing Hoss).

I bugged Dortort a lot to write his autobiography. We would have been fascinated by his first-hand look at filming the series. I told him to tape record it and I’d type it for him. Sadly, it never happened. First his eyesight went, and then his hearing. It was so gratifying to see the smile on his face when we talked in 2009. As I left, he said, loud and clear, “Thanks for visiting, darling.”

My life, as part of the Bonanza world, is one that I will always cherish, for having this man let me into his life, providing the one bright spot in my writing world I cling to yet today. He once apologized to me for being unable to help me. But he gave me the right to publish Mystic Fire because he said that my knowledge of the Civil War was nearly as great as his. One of his last cards to me he wrote, “I’ll never forget you nor the great pleasure I had in meeting and getting to know the very best Bonanza fan in the world.” What more could I need out of life than that? The rest, as they say, is gravy.

Gravy? Why did that expression come to me? It means everything after that in my life is easy in comparison. Well, to be honest, I was seriously nervous and frightened in all my communications with him. He even once made me cry … I had another fan writer ask me to put in a good word for her. She wanted to be a published Bonanza author, too. So I told David about Jenny, and that I was even willing to read it first to see … and he let me have it. Made it clear in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t give out authorized permission frivolously. Now that I think about it, I should have felt honored, but all I can remember, thinking back, was how I upset him.

It was a difficult relationship. I decided to go for my master’s in history and he said I shouldn’t. He didn’t think it would do me any good. I didn’t listen. I started in 2004, after my last hopes of getting a movie script accepted had ended. He gave permission for Mystic Fire in 2003 but while I was in college I got the contract from his lawyer that said I had two years to write it and get it published. Now, understand, the whole novel took me three months of dedicated work, and then only four edits to get it ready for the 2009 Bonanza convention. Felling of the Sons was edited more than a dozen times before I got a publisher. But I didn’t think I could dedicate the time it needed while I was away at college. So I asked David to please take that time limit out of the contract. He did, saying I could publish it whenever it was ready.

The other really hard part of the story is how I was treated by other Bonanza fans, at conventions and elsewhere. Even at the Mesa convention I wasn’t given a table for my books, and had to take most of them home. (Still have a lot, only $5 plus postage!) The worst treatment, and David never understood, was how he greeted me in one of the videos they shot of him talking to us to be shown at the convention. But they edited his greeting to me out. I was an outsider. I was kicked off my internet fan board because of how many Joe fans hated the fact that we had a hard time watching the show after Adam left.

Timing, miscommunication and how David recognized how well I lived the Cartwright ideal. There’s nothing else in my life that compares — except maybe the great times raising my own ‘Cartwright’ kids — the know-it-all oldest, the huggable middle, and the rascal and impish youngest.

Carrie & David, 2001 (she was working at a script agency in LA)







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