Mitch Vogel – Ben Cartwright’s Fourth Son
By Henry C. Parke
“If you look at some of the very first episodes with Little Joe, he’s the kid that was getting in trouble all the time. They wanted to have another younger character that could get in school fights and stuff like that. And watch him grow up in front of your eyes.” And that’s just what Mitch Vogel did as Jamie Cartwright, on the final four seasons of Bonanza.
And if his mother hadn’t been his Cub Scout Den leader, it might never have happened. She wanted to expose the troop to theater. “She ended up taking us to Peter Pan at Melody Land, a theater-in-the-round in Anaheim. Wires lifted the kids off the ground and made them look like they were flying.” That summer, she gave Mitch the choice of guitar lessons or acting classes, and while he loved the newly arrived Beatles, the idea of learning to fly won out. “So, we sat in on a class at Melody Land, and after it was over, a gentleman came up to us. I had thick, curly red hair, and I was covered in freckles. And he said, ‘We’re doing a play of Tom Sawyer.’ I hadn’t even joined yet, and they offered me the role of Tom Sawyer. So, I actually got the leading part, the first part that I ever did,” he recalls with an astonished laugh. He eventually got to do Peter Pan, and fly, playing John in the matinees and Nana the dog in the evenings.
When he was ten, “The very first thing I ever did professionally was Dundee and the Culhane.” The Western series was about a British and an American lawyer, and on his episode, Vogel held his own opposite John Mills and William Windom under the direction of Ida Lupino. His next performance was in the movie Yours, Mine, and Ours, the comedy about a widow with eight kids marrying a widower with ten, which starred Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda. “I sure had a big foot in the door, this curly red-haired kid with freckles, so I looked like I could have been Lucy’s kid. Henry Fonda wasn’t as outgoing as Lucille Ball, but I remember him being very nice and encouraging and kind of quiet. Lucy was so nice to all the kids on that movie.”
Mitch would be busy with episodes of The Virginian, Adam-12, and Death Valley Days, but his next feature would be one of the high-watermarks of his career. The Reivers (1969), a turn-of-the-century coming-of-age story based on William Faulkner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, would be directed by Mark Rydell and star Steve McQueen. The part of Lucius, the 11-year-old who goes off with two scalawags (McQueen and Rupert Crosse) in a “borrowed” car for four days of adventures, ending with the boy in a climactic horse-race was, to put it mildly, a coveted role. “That was probably the longest and most difficult audition I had ever done. I needed up going back 13 times for callbacks.” Rydell tried an unusual improvisation: he sent Mitch several offices away and told him to run up and try to convince Rydell that he had to leave, or his grandmother would be late for an appointment. “I was out of breath, and I was trying to talk, and I just started crying in the middle of it. And it’s weird because I’m crying now just telling you about it,” he noted with a laugh. “And I think that got me the part.”
McQueen was exceptionally welcoming, having Mitch for sleepovers with his kids and giving him motorcycle rides until the studio forbade it. Mitch had ridden horses on other Westerns, “but I had to learn how to ride English style for that show.” During one of those lessons, “the sprinklers came on. My horse darted to the right, and I went to the left, and I hit the ground.” He could barely lift his arm, and the nurse kept telling him to “push through the pain” until McQueen snapped, “the kid says he can’t move his arm!”
“So, he put me in his El Camino, and I’ll never forget the reaction of the nurses when Steve McQueen wheeled me into the hospital. Steve McQueen actually held my specimen jar for me! They told me my arm was broken, and I was gonna have a full body cast and be out for six weeks. I started crying, not because of my arm being broken, but because I thought they were gonna recast the part. And Mark Rydell came in, and he said, ‘Nope, we’re gonna wait for you. You just get better.’ I was very proud to be nominated for a supporting actor Golden Globe Award for that role.”
Mitch had guested on Bonanza two years before. When he was hired for Bonanza as Jamie, it was with no guarantee. “The first [episode] they did was ‘The Rainmaker.’ And they said if the show does well, they may want to make it a recurring role. They got a really good mail response; they brought me on for, like, five more shows. My character’s popularity really grew, and the next thing I know, they were saying, ‘We’re gonna make you a Cartwright,” and Ben adopted him.
“One of my favorite Bonanza [episodes] is ‘The Initiation,’ which Ronnie Howard guest-starred in. And he was talking to me in-between scenes, about wanting to direct.” Among his favorite guest stars, “Will Geer, I became close to during The Reivers. He was such a great actor. But he was a big hippie; he was so much fun. I enjoyed Neville Brand as well. Jack Elam,” he of the famously unsynchronized eyes, “used to crack us up. Michael made the joke about when you did a scene with Jack Elam, you couldn’t tell if he was looking at you or the guy next to you.”
As the years went on , Michael Landon had an ever-increasing role behind the camera as well as in front of it. “And anything Michael Landon did as well-written, well-directed. I just couldn’t say enough about how talented he was.” It was a great shock when Dan Blocker suddenly died. “There’s ‘Forever’, where Little Joe gets married. There was a scene he was doing after she dies. And he would ask for a minute, disappear in the makeup trailer. then he’d come back out and do the scene brilliantly. I remember thinking, why did he keep going in there? And I went in there, and he had a picture of Dan Blocker.
“I remember ‘First Love’ being one of the last ones I filmed before the show was canceled. It was mid-season when we went on hiatus. It was a weird feeling to get canceled and not be able to say goodbye properly.”
Mitch would appear on Here Come the Brides, several Gunsmoke episodes, and two very popular Little House on the Prairie episodes for Michael Landon his last on-screen work was in 1978’s action picture Texas Detour, co-starring with Patrick Wayne. By then, he’d gotten together with Bonanza’s assistant music editor and started a band. He’s currently playing guitar and singing with his church’s worship team.
INSP is a Proud Sponsor of Television WestFest.
Mitch Vogel is a guest speaker at the first annual WestFest in Tucson, Arizona, March 16 – 19. For info and tickets, click here.
About Henry C. Parke
Brooklyn-born, L.A.-based screenwriter and wanna-be cowboy Henry C. Parke has been Film Editor for True West since 2015 and has written Henry’s “Western Round-up,” the online report on Western film production, since 2010. His screenwriting credits include Speedtrap (1977) and Double Cross (1994). He’s the first writer welcomed into the Western Writers of America for his work in electronic media. He’s done audio commentary on a fistful of Spaghetti and domestic Westerns, and he’s got a saddle-bag full of Western scripts.