In 1959, four little-known actors trotted onto America’s TV screens warbling a soon-to-be-famous melody: We got a right to pick a little fight-Bonanza! If anyone fights any one of us, he’s gotta fight with me! We’re not a one to saddle up and run-Bonanza! Any one of us who starts a little fuss knows he can count on me! The ultimate Western saddled up and ran for 14 years, followed by an average of 41 million Americans each week, plus another 309 million viewers abroad. ”In Japan, they really went berserk,” recalls Bonanza creator and executive producer David Dortort. Using color for the first time in a television Western helped-and dropping those song lyrics after the first episode probably didn’t hurt either. Ponderosa patriarch Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene), runty son Little Joe (Michael Landon), titanic son Hoss (Dan Blocker), and forgettable son Adam (Pernell Roberts) were No. 1 from 1964 to 1967, helping America get through an era when it had begun to doubt itself. This November, another pack of Cartwrights will romp the Ponderosa. The ’90s premise of Bonanza-The Return, produced by Dortort, Tom Sarnoff, and Tom Brinson on the show’s original Lake Tahoe location in Nevada (now a Bonanza theme park attracting a quarter-million visitors every year), is that the Ponderosa is being menaced by Dean Stockwell, a bad guy bent on strip- mining the place. Since Greene, Landon, and Blocker have passed away, and Roberts is reportedly reluctant to return to the ranch for this movie, it’s up to Michael Landon Jr., 29, to keep the TV bonanza alive. Portraying Little Joe’s son, Michael Jr. (along with the young Cartwright cousins, played by Emily Warfield, Brian Leckner, and Alistair MacDougall) must save the Ponderosa from Stockwell’s nefarious plot.
Landon will get help in the two-hour NBC TV movie from new Ponderosa manager Ben Johnson (a star of Shane), ranch hand Richard Roundtree (the star of Shaft), saloon owner Linda Gray of Dallas (”I went from the Southfork to the Ponderosa-I can’t seem to get off the farm”), and Dan Blocker’s less towering son Dirk Blocker, 35, playing a newspaper reporter inspired by the one in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. (Dortort thought he was too old to play Hoss’ son.) The offspring production employs many crewmen dating back to Bonanza’s first ride, 1959-1973, but the linchpin of The Return is Landon. ”Actually, it’s quite difficult to fill my dad’s shoes,” he deadpans. ”I wear a 91 2 and he wore a 9, so they crunch my toes right at the tip.” In fact, his father’s legacy came with real suffering: When the boy was 15, Landon Sr. abruptly left him and his mom, Lynn Noe, for a new wife. Father and son later reconciled, and Michael Jr. worked on his dad’s show Highway to Heaven. ”My father was a great director when he gave it his all, when he wasn’t in the weekly grind of coming to work and doing the job. I felt Highway to Heaven fell into that trap, but Little House was one of the greatest series ever. I learned 95 percent of my craft from him.” Associate producer Dan Sarnoff, son of Tom and grandson of the NBC and RCA patriarch, Gen. David Sarnoff, insists there’s no time like the present for a pine-scented blast from the past. ”There are 30,000 letters a year on the Prodigy computer network about the old shows,” he says. ”Westerns are huge- Unforgiven; City Slickers; Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” Hefty Brian Leckner, 26, whose resemblance to Dan Blocker earned him the nickname Hoss when he played high school football and the role of Hoss’ son on The Return, concurs. ”People say Bonanza is square, but it’s almost like coming home-and you can always go home. These grunge rockers, when they’re at home cracking an Old Milwaukee and lighting up a Lucky Strike, they’re probably watching Bonanza.” ”Yessir,” drawls leathery Ben Johnson, 75, ”this could be a big hit, as long as they keep it decent. But if they go to gettin’ trashy, why, it’ll go down like a one-egg puddin’.” That ain’t hardly likely: The new show could be titled Cartwright Family Values. ”Family is number one in my life,” intones Landon, whose wife, Sharee, and toddler daughter, Ashley, are on the set with him. ”God and family are the tops.” But out West, white hats need black hats to survive, and eerie Dean Stockwell, staying aloof from the rest of the cast, and snaggletoothed star Charles Gunning (Slacker) provide nasty relief from the upright Cartwrights. ”Without us,” says Gunning, ”they’d look like weenies. Where would Dorothy be in Oz with just Munchkins and no flying monkeys?” Maybe the truest echo of the old show is not its moral code, but the prevalence of practical jokes, a practice the cast calls ”Hossing it up.” When Alistair MacDougall, playing the kid of Adam Cartwright, was being interviewed by a TV crew, Emily Warfield (who plays Landon’s sister, Sara) snuck up, roped his chair, and made him bite the dust. Of course, the new cast has a ways to go to equal the originals. Blocker and Landon Sr. faked a fight the first time they met NBC’s horrified execs in 1959. Blocker once pranked young guest actor Tom Skerritt by hiding a transistor radio under his giant Hoss cowboy hat, blowing Skerritt’s scenes. According to Dirk Blocker, one night a policeman stopped the drunken cast in a car going 90. ”Lorne, in costume and in character, said, ‘I’ll take care of this, young man’-and puked all over the cop!” The dripping policeman took one look at the swaying Western legend and said, ”Just keep moving.” If The Return can approach the popularity of the old series, Bonanza will continue as three or four TV movies per year, a la Perry Mason. There’s also a Broadway musical version in the works and an hour-long Bonanza retrospective set for November. (Dortort hopes to have Roberts host, but ”he’s not the easiest man in the world to negotiate with.”) But the main event for Western nostalgia buffs will be that moment when a passel of Cartwrights gallop up, bumpa-da-bump, in sync with that irresistibly catchy theme song: One for four, four for one, this we guarantee! We got a right to pick a little fight, Bonanza! ”People wanna get out of these mean streets,” says Dortort. ”How about goin’ out West again?”