Dan Blocker and “Bonanza”

Dan Blocker (1928-1972) was probably my first celebrity death. The sad and unexpected event was nothing in scale like the death of Elvis five years later, but it did cause more of a stir than you might assume (particularly if you’re of a generation that never heard of him).

As Hoss, the middle son on the long-running western TV show, Bonanza, Blocker was universally beloved. 6’4″, 300+ lbs, Hoss was a lovable lummox, providing the show’s comic relief but also a lot of the pathos. “Hoss” is of course, “Horse”, a teasing but affectionate nickname about his size: “Big as a hoss”. Blocker was so convincing in the part that most people probably assumed he WAS Hoss. But he wasn’t. Hoss was kind of dumb; Blocker had a Master’s Degree in theatre, and worked for several years as a schoolteacher. But one thing he had in common with the character was a big heart. Blocker was both strongly religious (a Free Methodist) and politically liberal (supported Eugene McCarthy). And yet he wasn’t TOO soft. The real Blocker was a decorated Korean War vet; and Hoss could get tough (and scary, no doubt) when he had to. Kids, in particular, loved Hoss. There was nothing complicated or sophisticated to understand about him. He was simply all heart.

And naturally, Blocker’s size was a huge asset to him in the casting department. He’d only been acting in television for two years when he was cast on Bonanza when it launched in 1959. Even so, he’d already racked up dozens of credits, mostly in westerns. He’d been in a couple of Gunsmoke episodes, for example, and had a recurring role on Cimarron City. One of his first roles had been in the Three Stooges short Outer Space Jitters (1957)!

Blocker’s place in the Bonanza firmament seemed ordained. Created by David Dortort (who also created The High Chaparral), Bonanza told the story of widowed millionaire rancher Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene), who owned the half-million acre Ponderosa near Silver City, Nevada. Set in the 1860s, Nevada is experiencing a silver boom at the time, although the Cartwrights deal in lumber and cattle, not mining. Each of Ben’s sons had a different mother (H’m maybe there’s something we don’t know about this Ben Cartwright.) Consequently, each of the sons has a completely different personality and is a little competitive with his brothers, although the bonds of family ultimately supersede everything else. In addition to Hoss, there was Adam, the oldest (Pernell Roberts, later of Trapper John, M.D.), a brooding and over-serious guy who’d designed the Ponderosa ranch house. And there was Little Joe, the youngest (played by Michael Landon, later of Little House on the Prairie) who loved the ladies and tended to get in fights. It occurred to me this morning that this trichotomy of humors is not unlike the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion in The Wizard of Oz!

In 1965, Roberts left the show to return to performing in live theatre. For a time Guy Williams (formerly of Zorro, but later best known in Lost in Space) was tried on the show as Ben’s nephew. Other characters on the show included Victor Sen Yung as the family’s Chinese cook Hop Sing, a characterization that’s frankly a bit tough to take nowadays; and Ray Teal as Sheriff Coffee. Unlike a lot of westerns, Bonanza was not violence-driven; it was more about dramatic stories, although violence sometimes came into it. Most often, the sons got into trouble, and they went to their father for sage counsel, and the family worked it out together. The formula worked — Bonanza was TV’s second longest running western after Gunsmoke. 

But it could not withstand the loss of Hoss. When Blocker died in 1972 following a gall bladder operation, the show limped on for one more season. Young Tim Matheson (later of Animal House) was added to the cast as a troubled youth who’s adopted by the family, but it was hardly adequate. The Ponderosa was shuttered up for good in 1973. But remained in syndication in perpetuity thereafter!