Bonanza producer David Dortort guided the western television classic through the early years, then used most of his energy pushing the series High Chaparral to success.
Dortort also continued to work with Michael Landon, who played Little Joe, the youngest Cartwright son on Bonanza. Lorne Greene played Ben Cartwright, the family patriarch. Pernell Roberts was the oldest son, Adam, while Dan Blocker was the middle child, Hoss.
And when discussing Landon during an interview with the Archive of American Television, Dortort got emotional.
Dortort said: “Michael came from a family that was not functional. It was a dysfunctional family. And he bore the scars of that. He was a wonderful, handsome young man, a great athlete, mind you, but he had been wounded, he had been scarred.
“And the most marvelous thing in the world to watch were scenes between him and Lorne Green.. The compassion and the understanding and the love. …. The crew has seen everything in the world, yet they were struck silent by the relationship that had developed between these two. Michael had found his father.”
Bonanza started in 1959. And the show was Landon’s first significant role. He grew up in New Jersey, the only son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. The parents raised their kids Jewish in a mostly protestant town. Landon did have a tough family life. His mother tried to kill herself at least once. Landon rescued her from drowning. Reportedly, Landon, as a child, was a bed wetter. And his mother used to humiliate him by hanging the wet sheets in the yard for everyone to see.
As the Bonanza producer said, Landon was a terrific athlete. He ran track for his high school and was a star in the field sports, particularly the javelin. During his senior year, Landon sported the longest javelin throw of any high schooler in the country. Landon accepted a scholarship at Southern California to compete in the javelin for the Trojan track team. But his athletic career came to an end when he tore ligaments in his shoulder.
He decided to try acting. And his agent suggested Landon change his name. His given name was Eugene Maurice Morowitz. Landon chose a random name out of the phone book. That’s how he became Michael Landon.
Landon was only 22 when he auditioned and won the part of Little Joe on Bonanza. And the rest was TV history.
Landon died of pancreatic cancer when he was only 54.
Meanwhile, remember the opening credits of Bonanza? You see the map of Nevada, then it burns away to show the Cartwright men riding on horseback towards the camera. Dortort was so proud of Bonanza that he hung the giant Nevada map from the opening credits in his home. When Dortort died in 2010, the family donated the map to the Autry Museum of the American West. It’s located in Los Angeles.
You can check out the rest of Dortort’s interview below.