Former child actor Mitch Vogel may not be a household name in the 21st century, yet his exemplary work during the final three seasons of western Bonanza, by far the most popular television series of the 1960s and an unheralded impetus for NBC Universal’s domineering corporate conglomeration, earns deserved mention in an exclusive interview debuting in “Jeremy’s Classic Western Roundup” column.
Introduced to movie aficionados in Yours, Mine and Ours, a 1968 box office champion starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda, Vogel garnered the attention of Steve McQueen the following year when the King of Cool decided to confound critics and fans alike by tackling The Reivers, William Faulkner’s lighthearted depiction of the early 20th century American South.
As the red-headed actor prepared to depart for an appearance at the Bonanza Round Up 2 fan festival in Carson City, Nev., he clarified via telephone how he joined the Bonanza cast as orphaned rainmaker Jamie Hunter and ultimately became the adopted son of Ponderosa patriarch Ben Cartwright:
“I actually did a guest star part on Bonanza when I was 12 years old – two seasons before I officially joined the cast. The episode was called ‘The Real People of Muddy Creek’ [broadcast on Oct. 6, 1968 during season 10].
“I was a young, working child actor who had only appeared onscreen up to that point in Yours, Mine and Ours [Author’s Note: The popular family comedy was the top-grossing film of 1968 for United Artists. Vogel was Tommy, one of Lucille Ball’s eight children. Coincidentally, Tim Matheson, who joined Bonanza during its ill-fated final season as parolee turned ranch hand Griff King, portrayed the eldest of Henry Fonda’s 10 children] and an episode of the short-lived 1967 Western entitled Dundee and the Culhane [Author’s Note: Academy Award winner John Mills portrayed a British lawyer who teams up with a younger Irish-American lawyer – Sean Garrison – to practice law in the Wild West].
“I didn’t even have to audition for ‘The Real People of Muddy Creek.’ They just asked me to do it. Even though it was a small part, I had a great time being there. I remember being on the set for about two days.
“The thing that impressed me so much was that Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, and Dan Blocker were all so very nice to me. They brought me pictures – which I didn’t ask for – that they signed to me. They made me feel so special.
“Fast-forward a bit, and creator-executive producer David Dortort had apparently seen me in The Reivers with Steve McQueen [released on Christmas Day 1969]. I got a call from David saying he would like to use me in one of his shows. At that time he didn’t know if it was gonna be Bonanza or The High Chaparral [Author’s Note: Mark Slade, who played heartthrob Blue Boy Cannon, decided to exit the latter series at the conclusion of its third season].
“David decided to cast Rudy Ramos as a half-Pawnee, half-white youth named Wind, so he wrote the part of Jamie Hunter for Bonanza. The first appearance of Jamie was in ‘A Matter of Faith’ – the rainmaker episode [broadcast on Sept. 20, 1970; the second episode from season 12].
“David actually didn’t tell me that I was going to be a series regular. He kinda said, ‘You can come and stay with us.’ But it wasn’t a commitment at that point for a series. I guess David wanted to see how the character would resonate with people. Apparently it resonated well. He officially asked me to join the cast not long after. It was quite exciting to be asked to do something like that without having to audition or anything [laughs].”
Now that CBS/Paramount Home Entertainment is releasing complete seasons of Bonanza on DVD after decades of inactivity, would Vogel participate in a commentary track if asked? “I would love to do that,” admitted the soft-spoken gentleman. “However, since the seventh season—the first without Pernell Roberts—was released this month, it’s gonna be awhile before they get to me” [laughs]. As to what he would like to communicate to fans of the family-themed program, Vogel paused for a moment and replied, “I’m really grateful that Bonanza has touched people like it has. May God bless them.”
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! “Bonanza” is still going strong some 55 years after its uncertain debut on NBC as television’s first 60-minute western filmed in color. A new article, “50 Years and Counting: Revisiting Bonanza, TV’s Second Longest Running Western,” gives a detailed synopsis of the show and argues why Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Pernell Roberts, and Dan Blocker gained pop culture immortality for their definitive portrayal of America’s favorite frontier family.
To connect via social media with Jeremy Roberts, visit Twitter (@jeremylr) or Facebook.
Exclusive Interview: Kent McCray served as Michael Landon’s best man and proverbial right hand on three beloved television series –Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven. In a wide-ranging conversation commemorating Landon’s 76th birthday [“The Brother That He Never Had…”], McCray recalls their strained debut encounter, Landon’s burgeoning progress as a writer and director, a few memorable practical jokes, visiting a terminally ill teenager and ensuring her controversial last request happened, and what happened when the actor didn’t have a driver’s license at a major L.A. airport.
Further Reading: Dan Blocker was on the verge of becoming a successful film actor – maverick director Robert Altman wanted him for a key role in “The Long Goodbye” – when his life was tragically cut short at age 43 during a routine gall bladder operation. His final film, the 1970 comedy western “The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County”, found the gentle giant in the role of an unassuming blacksmith who sends away for a mail order bride who has shady plans of her own. To read about the film in greater detail, head on over to the above link.
Further Reading No. 2: Charles Bronson appeared in an impressive 160 television and film productions,including the outstanding 1964 “Bonanza” episode, “The Underdog”. He never received proper credit for his understated acting and screen presence. To read an extensive commemorative birthday profile detailing exactly who the star was behind his hardened tough guy persona, featuring anecdotes from costars such as James Coburn, James Garner, Tony Curtis, and Elvis Presley’s Memphis Mafia, head on over to the following link: “A Face Like An Eroded Cliff…”
- Exclusive Interview No. 2: Burly character actor Gregg Palmer appeared in five “Bonanza” episodes between 1964 and 1969, but he is best known for being a perennial member of John Wayne’s stock company. In “Big Jake”, the 6’4″, 300-pound Palmer memorably plays a vicious machete-brandishing villain who threatens Duke’s grandson with near deadly results. In a just released two-part interview entitled “The Man Who Killed John Wayne’s Dog…”, Palmer relives his friendship with Duke and remembers his 30-year career alongside some of the greatest actors in Hollywood.
Exclusive Interview No. 3: While worldwide fame inexplicably eluded character actress Lee Purcell, she nevertheless earned her dramatic acting chops in such ’70s cult films as “Big Wednesday”, “Almost Summer,” and “Dirty Little Billy.” One of the thespian’s first roles arrived in a 1970 episode of “Bonanza” entitled “The Weary Willies,” also starring a pre-Waltons Richard Thomas as an aimless Civil War misfit. In the two-part “To Jump Off the Cliff Into an Abyss: A Life’s Work with Emmy Nominee Lee Purcell,” the actress vividly recalls why the episode was extremely controversial for its era and what it was like working with the ultra-handsome Michael Landon. Don’t miss it!
*****For more high-profile interviews, thought-provoking features, and stunning photography delivered straight to your inbox, CLICK HERE to receive your free subscription to Jeremy Roberts’ pop culture column. And whether you enjoyed or disliked this article, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below to join the discussion. Thank you.
© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2014. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without first contacting the author. Do not copy or paste the article text—please share the URL instead. Headlines with links are also acceptable. Posting any links on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, or Google Plus is sincerely appreciated.