This Bonanza episode had a nod to Lorne Greene's past — and a huge historical plot hole
Jean Lafitte is a colorful character from American history — and implausible.
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Bonanza loved to toss in an occasional historical figure. One of the Western's earliest episodes, "Enter Mark Twain," features a certain reporter named Samuel Clemens. Even British literary legend Charles Dickens strolls into the Ponderosa, played by none other than Jonathan Harris of Lost in Space.
"The Gentleman from New Orleans" centered around another name from American lore — the French pirate Jean Lafitte. In the annals of American history, Lafitte helped Andrew Jackson defend the Big Easy in the Battle of New Orleans. On Bonanza, he is a swashbuckling septuagenarian with a heavy accent and wonderful mustache played by John Dehner.
Hoss encounters an elder Frenchman calling himself Lafitte in the opening scene. The kindhearted Cartwright immediately tells his pa, Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene).
Ben tells his son he once met Lafitte himself in New Orleans, "When I was an apprentice seaman." The wise father reminds Hoss that Lafitte was reported dead "a long time ago." An eager Hoss replies, "Yeah, but those are reports. Now, if he were still alive, how old would he be?" Ben reckons he'd be about, oh, 70 years old.
Astute viewers might recognize a clever wink to Greene's film career in this exchange. You see, Lorne Greene did in fact meet Jean Lafitte. He was in a movie with him in 1958.
The Buccaneer starred Yul Brynner as Lafitte. Greene played Mercier, a vocal opponent of the dashing pirate, seen here.
But here's the problem — the Battle of New Orleans was part of the War of 1812. Bonanza took place in the 1860s. Oh, and Lafitte did indeed die in 1823.
The episode plays with the notion that this "Lafitte" might be an imposter. In fact, in the middle of the tale, the man sits in a jail cell and admits, "I am not Jean Lafitte. Let us say I am an old man who enjoys a little joke. I have lied to you often."
But the end of the episode suggests this curious character just might be the real Lafitte. After all, he gives Hoss a real diamond. Such is the magic of television. This also explains how the "70-year-old" (in reality, Dehner was slightly younger than Lorne Greene) can dodge bullets by swaying side to side… and then swing from a chandelier.
Sadly, in reality, Lafitte, if he somehow had faked his death, would have been into his 80s.