Courtesy PAX TV

Just one picture, but I've got lots of details about the new PAX TV series The Ponderosa

Unless you've been clicking on the site without reading, The Ponderosa is the prequel to the legendary TV Single Dad series Bonanza.

In my five years of writing this site, I've never received so much mail about one show - especially a show that hasn't aired yet. There's quite a devoted gaggle of fans of Bonanza's Original Series (hereafter referred to as BOS), and the devotion spans the gamut between excitement over new episodes and dismay over character fundamentals.

The first wave of dismay seems to have originated from an on-air promo spot by PAX TV, using original Bonanza footage re-dubbed with modern copy. In the promo, Ben and the boys are discussing their anticipation of the new series, then expressing dismay over not being able to watch the show. 

"Why can't we watch?" asks one of the boys. 

"Because we're dead," answers Ben.

"I'm not!" replies Adam (played by the still-living Pernell Roberts). The Cartwright family laughs and the Ponderosa logo appears.

Considering that Michael Landon suffered a rather protracted and public bout with cancer, this commercial is about as tasteful as having Christa McAuliffe doing promos for the new Enterprise series. 

Show Basics

Since there's so much interest in the show, I'm going to post a lot of the basics of the series that I've learned from PAX TV.

FAIR WARNING: The following text contains a LOT of potential SPOILERS. If you do NOT want to read more about the show, STOP HERE. Okay?

Here we go -  - 

Cast of Characters

The characters are the same five principals (Ben, Hoss, Adam, Little Joe, and Hop Sing), plus quite a few more. Here's what PAX says about the cast:

So, that's 16 characters to track now. This show is definitely going to need a roadmap to track all the developing storylines.

It's obvious that the 2-hour premiere is going to have to cover a lot of ground introducing most of these characters. Again, here's PAX's take on their plot strategy:

The Cartwright family is introduced along with the Greene family-Margaret, the matriarch and her daughter, Tess soon to be the love interests of Ben (Daniel Hugh Kelly) and “Hoss” Cartwright (Drew Powell).  Eli and Ruth Orowitz, who own the Trading Post, are Ben and Marie Cartwright’s best friends (Ben has been widowed twice, and Marie is his third wife and the mother of “Little Joe”).  The Cartwrights live in the upstairs apartment of the Trading Post.  “Frenchy” Devereaux (Brad Dourif), the owner of the Outpost and his faithful sidekick “Big Dan,” are not quite honest in their pursuit of the American dream and the almighty buck.  Sterrett’s Saloon is owned and operated by Shelby Sterrett, an Annie Oakley type character.  Shelby, along with “Snake Eye” Jack, try their best to get the fools of the town to part with their money through cards or drink-or both if possible.  After the introduction of this ensemble cast, an unethical land dealer tries to buy the Orowitz’s land so he can strip it of all its value and then leave Eagle Station to suffer the consequences.

Busy, busy, busy. PAX's stated goal for the pilot episode is to answer the following questions:

Here's the problem - fans of BOS already know the answers to several of those questions, and apparently the old answers are going to -change-. Yikes. This is treading on Sacred Ground, and the hue and cry I'm hearing in the e-mails is evidencing buckets of chagrin with a lot of Bonanza fans.

Looking forward, here's PAX TV's peek some upcoming episodes. (WARNING:  MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD. SKIP TO "THE PROMISE" SECTION TO AVOID)...

In future episodes: Adam murders a man and suffer the consequences; “Hoss” takes matters into his own hands when wild animals are used to fight until their death for local entertainment; Margaret offers to take in Isabella after she stands trial for killing a man who raped her; Hop Sing saves the Ponderosa ranch from a mystery illness; Shelby faces difficult decisions when she finds she is pregnant by her ex-husband, Jack; Sam’s freedom is threatened when a slave catcher arrives determined to take him into custody; the local children learn a valuable lesson about greed when “Hoss” is given a map to “hidden gold;” Ben reveals the dishonesty of a traveling faith healer; and Adam and “Hoss” compete for the attention of the same girl at a local dance.

The Press Conference

During the Television Critics' Association press tour in the middle of July, PAX TV corralled the cast and creative people behind the new series to talk about the production and the direction of the show. Jeff Sagansky, the CEO of PAX TV, introduced The Ponderosa folks thusly:

"This is our 9 o'clock show every Sunday. And this show really has remarkable creative auspices. It's being produced by Beth Sullivan, whose last foray into the western genre was the hugely successful Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and then, the director on the pilot is Simon Wincer, who probably directed the best western ever on television, and that is, of course, the original miniseries of Lonesome Dove. He's the director on the pilot."

"Finally, we've got David Dortort, who is the original creator and producer of all 400 and - how many? It's 479 or 436 episodes of Bonanza. He was there for all 14 years. And this is in the days when there was just an executive producer, David Dortort, and a story editor, and they were doing 36 to 39 episodes every year. So we have really sought his counsel every step of the way here and he's been very involved and he's here in the audience"

Jeff introduced the Beth Sullivan, the producer, who was on a satellite link with cast members Daniel Hugh Kelly (Ben), Matthew Carmody (Adam), Drew Powell (Hoss),   Jared Daperis (Little Joe), and newcomer Fernando Carrillo, who plays the adopted son, Carlos.

Here's how the Q&A went:

Question: Were you looking to sell - - were you looking for a new use for the rights of Bonanza at this point or did the networks first approach you or did you actively seek a new venue for the show?

David Dotort: This experience, believe it or not, is somewhat new for me. Making the film is not. No, I wanted very much to bring back what I feel is an important voice that the American people want to hear, and that's the story about - or the American story, actually, about good people, kind people, loving people, compassionate, considerate people, and we will be the only voice on the air once again. There will be a new voice following the tradition of Bonanza that will be saying these things again to the people who can respond to that image, that self-esteem about themselves, the positive aspects of living in this country and the look, the look of beauty, the look of nature...

We picked the fairest part of Australia and, you know, with a wonderful script written by Beth Sullivan and a major director such as Simon Wincer and the people in charge, Mr. Sagansky at PAX and Jim Romonovich and all the other executives at Associated Television fully fupportive and understanding our purpose, our motivation in this thing.  It makes us feel that this is the only way to go, to bring it back to life, younger, fresher, still very much in keeping with the history of the times. Our motto is, "Educate While you Entertain," and we've been very scrupulous about that in the past and hope to continue that way in the future.

Question: I have a question for Ms. Sullivan - - you're the only woman sitting there right now and I know Bonanza has a tradition, but are you going to find any way to work any females into this show? And is it a necessity that anyone who gets involved with one of the boys dies before the episode is over? [Laughter]

Beth Sullivan: I promise you and the world that none of the boys will die before this show is over. However, we have some wonderful female characters worked in. I think that what David said is really important: that this is inspired by - - it was his idea to do a prequel and inspired by the fact that Bonanza existed. But we have to pay homage to that and also create a new show that is going to sustain the same kind of values but also provide a new level of entertainment and meaning to people. That necessitated, you know, not just servicing the original four characters - - five characters, the Cartwrights and Hop Sing, they are the only four characters who appear in the new series that were in the original. Of course, they're younger, they're different, they have different problems and they are facing a different era of their life, 10 years earlier, to the wealthy position that they were in the Bonanza series. But there are also 12 other regular characters that are brand-new. It's a new - - 10 years before Bonanza began, there was no Virginia City, there was no Silver Strike, there was no Carson City. There was a little place called Eagle Station that was a trading post where Carson City now is. And so 12 new characters, a new setting, very different kinds of problems, very different kinds of issues, the family in a very different position. I think that that's the key to the fact that we are taking great inspiration and paying great homage to the original creation which is a legend, an icon for everyone in television, but we're also very much working to create a new experience so that people aren't getting a re-make, but a new series altogether. 

Question: Beth, I have a question with regards to Ben Cartwright as it pertains to any love interest and the mother of the boys, if you're taking it 10 years back.

Beth Sullivan: Yes. The mother of Little Joe is still alive in the pilot. Oh, gosh, I'm probably giving it away for a while! [laughter]

But, you know, we have to account for the fact that all three brothers did lose their mothers and Ben is a three time widower. I know there are a lot of jokes like "Don't marry Ben Cartwright, " but, you know, we're playing it very much to the heart and we're finding out how that came to be. And as far as love interests for the future, you know, as of the pilot, Ben is not prepared for that, but there are some wonderful female characters. There are four very, very strong wonderful female characters within the series. And I heard one of the boys behind me say "and beautiful." Yes, they are all beautiful in not only spirit but appearance, as all of these fellows are, as well. But very strong characters, too. We have a ranch woman that plays a very major role who I think, you know, is certainly  - - she's certainly a love interest on her side eventually for Ben. There's a Calamity Jane kind of character who owns a saloon, and basically a variety of women who at that time had to do what they had to do to get by and to be independent and strong women in that era.

Question: And as a follow-up to that, how are you going to deal with the cowboys-and-Indians aspect that was in the original Bonanza?

Beth Sullivan: A little bit differently. We're, I think, going to try to portray the Washoe Indians, which were the local Indians, in a way that was a little more - - very much more like they were, they were hunter-gatherers. They didn't ride horses. They fished. But yet we have a couple of storylines even in the first 13 that are very charming and weave the different cultures in. I think that's very important. That was obviously, you know, what was going on at the time. It was at the very beginning. In 1849, which is when the series starts 10 years prior to the original Bonanza beginning, certain things - - the real horrors of relationships that, for instance, we explored in Dr. Quinn, were yet to really unfold. They were just beginning to. So, it's a little bit different picture. Of course, striving all the while to, as Mr. Dortort pointed out so well, that the values of us being - - of humanity that this is not just an American story, it's a story of people's coming together as immigrants, moving into a - - moving west in a country that very much like Australia was, an immigrant country, a young country, and has a western pioneer kind of background which we share with them and people of all backgrounds mixing together. There's very much that in the pilot and throughout the series. And the Indian, I think, are more just one facet of that in this and less so than they were in Medicine Woman, because that was a much more crucial and horrific time for the native Americans.

Question: Question for David Dortort - - NBC tried a couple of Bonanza movies over the past many years, and there was a two-hour syndicated movie. None of those went to series. Why do you think this one has a potential to be more successful than those previous efforts that never went to series?

David Dortort: I think the main reason for that has to do to a great extent to the history of California. The original Bonanza series basically covered the exciting time of the discovery of silver and the Comstock load of Nevada. Once that was accomplished in the 14 years of the run and we kept consistent with the changes in history and in actual time with each year of production, the West had become fairly quarried. It had become California. It had settled into somewhat of an agricultural state. The war with Mexico was over. California was now a state. The Indians for the most part, the Native Americans, had been removed to reservations. They were no longer on the war path in this part of the country. And I felt that to do the series in the future - - going beyond that period, let's say, into the 1880's or 1890's was not a very exciting time. On the contrary, the exciting time is what happened before the old Bonanza - - or the original Bonanza series began. That is the time, starting appropriately with the discovery of gold in California, which is 1848, and it gives us a dozen years of actual history, which was the most exciting decade on the American frontier, at least on this part of the frontier in the history of the thing. So we had an opportunity to do drama against important historical changes - - California became a state, and some of the great fortunes began to be made as a result of that. But there was struggle, there was conflict. And the most important kind of drama would be the story of a father, Ben Cartwright, who now has to cope, not only with the problems of a very active and alive frontier, but with the problem of raising three sons as well and trying to do as fine a job of that as possible. So I think that basic difference, that we have a more dramatic situation going in, we have more inviting people in the sense that they're younger, they have to cope with a multitude of problems, all which lends to the drama of the piece will almost insure that we'll have a better reception than the three Movies of the Week that we did. At least we vehemently hope so.

Question: For the three young people, how did you all prepare for your roles for the series that went off the air before you guys were even born?

Matt Carmody [Adam]: The first thing I did was take horse riding lessons. Because when you audition, you tell them, "Sure, I know how to ride a horse. " And you get home and you go, "I got the job. What am I going to do?" So, I started riding horses and doing some research and talking to Beth. I wasn't - - I mean, I knew the show, but I didn't grow up watching the series. So they gave us some episodes to watch and study. And so you get an idea of the show. But I don't think you necessarily need to be an expert on Bonanza as an actor to be able to play these roles. You get the script, you talk to the producers and the writers, and they let you know what you need to do. And you just go from there.

Drew Powell [Hoss]: That's right. As for me, I didn't have to do too much. All I had to do was talk to people about it. When they said, "What are you up to?" I said, "Doing a new show. It's a prequel to Bonanza" - I got my ear talked off for 30 minutes about how they used to watch that with their grandfather, their father, or they used to watch in on Sunday night. I had a minister friend tell me it killed Sunday evening services because everybody was at home watching Bonanza. And I've had people say, "I know where I was when Dan Blocker died. And I mean, he was my favorite. And Hoss was a favorite." So, I mean, just talking to people, that's all I really had to do. And it's fantastic. I mean, what a legacy.

Jared Daperis [Little Joe]: I think that it's the same as who's playing Hoss. I just talked to people, and everybody knew about Bonanza. Everybody that I talked to, my parents, my uncles, everyone. And I have to speak American. I have to. So I had to practice my American accent. And as well as riding horses and averything. And just to get into the character.

 Drew Powell [Hoss]: We're helping him with that, too.

Beth Sullivan: He's done a brilliant job. He really has.

Daniel Hugh Kelly [Ben]: As far as I'm concerned, it scared the hell out of me. I mean, I grew up - - I'm of the age - - I mean, this show was very important to me and my family. And we would sit down and watch it. I remember sitting there and seeing the color, the first time it was in color. I remember, there were kids in my class that had color TV sets, and I was very very jealous because they were always talking about these three guys riding up in Bonanza four guys and how beautiful it was in color. We are playing icons in many ways. And it's a challenge for all of us. At the same time, I would say this: I mean, I haven't felt this way since I did [HBO's] From the Earth to the Moon. The authenticity that they're bringing to the show is just overwhelming.  We did the wardrobe fittings in L.A. And I can't tell you how excited I got when I saw the direction they were going. When you walk up on the set, we don't have a studio. We're on location every day. The set that's there that they built for this is just extraordinary. I mean, you walk through ankle-deep mud up the street. It's really quite extraordinary.

And the third thing that's very exciting for me, as Bonanza was one of the first shows to be shown in color in the United States, they're shooting this picture, the pilot of the show, with these high definition cameras. It's just producing an extraordinary picture. I have never seen anything like it. It's somewhat odd to see cables strewn across the set, you know, going to these cameras. And I understand that they're the same cameras that Lucas used in Star Wars. But the picture on them - - look, you know, it's high-definition television. It's very expensive, but I'm buying one just to watch this.

Beth Sullivan: And we'll have surround sound as well.

Daniel Hugh Kelly [Ben]: Really? Oh cool.

Question: Beth, it seems like you might be playing with fire a bit by doing a new theme song for this show. The old one is probably the - -  one of the most familiar in TV history. Were the rights for that not available or did you just decide, you know, we have to start fresh completely? 

Beth Sullivan: No, in fact, the rights we did have, right from the beginning. And but Bruce Rowland, who is just a world-class composer, as you know, Phar Lap, The Man from Snowy River. I mean, he's pretty much the John WIlliams of Australia and the Olympics theme. I mean, he's such a world-class composer, that in his hands, you know, he has the opportunity to use that theme. And I think you're right, we cannot - - as I have done in the pilot and you will see when you see it, I have paid tremendous homage to the origins, how did Little Joe get his name? How did Hoss get his name? How did this happen? How did that happen? Why did the map burn? And things like that. Some wonderful things that you need to start out and really begin and take off from. Likewise, I think the music has to have that spirit. And if anyone can take the spirit of something and perhaps that theme at some point, I believe, will be integrated at the proper moment, it's Bruce. I mean, he's a genius and he will create a score that is, I believe, every bit the spirit of what the Bonanza scroll was and then some. So our goal is to truly try to live up to it and to also take that next step. I mean, I think that that's -- David has been inspiring that in all of us from the beginning. And he's been a great, you know, guide, consultant, you know, fellow executive producer on this. And he's really helped to make sure that the essence of the things he was talking about, the value system, the kind of intent that is behind this show is there. And I think that the music will reflect that. And if anyone can invoke it, it's Bruce.

Jeff Sagansky: But we do have rights to the theme. We do have rights to the original theme.

Beth Sullivan: Yes, we do. Absolutely - - Absolutely, absolutely, yes.

Question: Beth, just a question: Who has been cast as Hop Sing? There's no name in the -- 

Beth Sullivan: A wonderful - - a wonderful Australian actor, young actor named Gareth Yuen. And he is just a real find, a very very buoyant, terrific personality, very charming, very good-looking young Chinese-Australian - - I guess if that's the term -- fellow. And he is a real find. We came here and really, we were really - - we were incredibly pleased, not just with the talent pool behind the camera but also with the acting pool that we had to draw from. We -- there was not one moment of hesitation in casting any of the Australian roles of which there is -- two-thirds of the cast is Australian, and wonderful people to choose from. And Gareth was one of them.

Jeff Sagansky: We have time for one more question.

Question: And also, since this is Fernando's first U.S. series and he just got into Australia, he has not met any of the other actors?

Matt Carmody [Adam]: We met him yesterday. Briefly yesterday.

Beth Sullivan: Yeah. He was on the set yesterday. And he's - - he's also a very, I think, relaxed, very charming fellow, as all these fellows are and everyone. It's a very -- everyone always says this but, you know, I'm telling the truth. It's a very happy set. There's a lot of camaraderie, there's a lot of family ties in the family of the actors and between the actors and the crew. It's interesting, because I think in the United State, that invariably develops on a -- well, anywhere in the world, on a production anywhere. But here in Melbourne, there's a very very -- a very tight community of people who are involved in making film and television. And I think it enhanced even more the idea of a tight-knit group of people. And so that's been -- that's been very nice. And that family feeling, I believe, translates into the work and comes through the lens and into your home. And I'm a firm believer in that. I felt that way about Dr. Quinn. And I feel we have fortunately the same magic going on here.

Jeff Sagansky: Okay, thank you, Beth, you very much for being with us. 

Beth Sullivan: Thank you, Jeff.

Jeff Sagansky: You know, don't use that Survivor set.

Beth Sullivan: I promise I won't.

Jeff Sagansky: Okay.

The Promise

Look, it's a new, unaired series. It won't be exactly the same as the NBC series of 40 years ago. The folks working on the show have been involved in writing and directing shows like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and Lonesome Dove, so it's got a hopeful pedigree. I'd say, watch the pilot and the first couple of episodes and decide. If you're not liking it, you can still enjoy the original Bonanza at no cost. 

More info as I get it. Stay tuned.

All this is
©1996-2001 Jim O'Kane

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