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The Tragic Death of Dan Blocker Ended Bonanza

On May 13, 1972, after 13 seasons of playing Eric ‘Hoss’ Cartwright, the even-tempered, gentle-giant, second son of Ben Cartwright on NBC’s Bonanza, actor Dan Blocker suddenly and tragically died. His death complicated things because filming was just about to begin on the classic westerns final season.

Blocker was only 43 when he passed away – leaving behind friends, family, and hoards of fans who struggled to come to grips with his loss. No one saw it coming.

He was intensely loved by cast and crew alike. He was described as easy-going, straightforward and easy to get along with. Mitch Vogel, who played James in the last several seasons of Bonanza described him as extremely approachable – the kind of individual that you’d want to grab a few beers with at the end of a long day.

His death presented a major problem for producers. It was unclear how the show could continue to go on without him. His presence was essential for story arcs and without him around it was almost impossible to tie up some of the plots loose ends.

This video is not only going to attempt to pay our respects to the late great actor but we’re also going to see how his death impacted the conclusion of Bonanza and how the way it was addressed was absoltely unprecedented at the time.

Dealing with the death of a major character on a TV series may be commonplace these days, but it wasn’t always such an ordinary happening. Blocker’s death was historic and in many ways, the world of network television was never the same.

What Went Wrong?

In 1972, a year before his death, Blocker and his family moved to Switzerland because he had become very dissatisfied with US involvement in the Vietnam war. He would commute back and forth to LA to film Bonanza.

He had just arrived in the US and was about to start filming the final season when he started feeling sickly and feable. He went to the hospital and it was determined that he needed to have his gallbladder removed.

A cholecystectomy, as they are known in the medical world, is a pretty routine procedure. In the united states, 1.2 million peoples undergo the operation per year.

After going under the knife, Blocker felt like he was in the clear. After all, he had been experiencing the painful effects of gall stones for quite some time. It must have felt like a weight off his shoulders to know that he wouldn’t have to deal with that kind of pain anymore, and at first it certainly looked as if his surgery had gone as planned without a hitch, but while he was in recovery he suddenly developed a pulmonary embolism – a blockage of an artery in his lung – and died.

It all happened so quickly. One minute he was here. Smiling, optimistic, and hopeful for the future, and the next he was gone – in the blink of an eye.

His remains were taken to Woodmen Cemetery in his hometown of De Kalb, Texas where his family held a private funeral and laid him to rest beside his father, mother, and sister.

Lorne Green, who played Ben Cartwright, expressed great sorrow over Dan’s death. He was also the first to express doubt that Bonanza could go on without him. He didn’t see how the show could continue.

“That’s it,” he told his wife “It’s finished”.

But even though there is some truth in that statement, it wasn’t quite the end of Bonanza just yet.

Producers decided that the show still deserved one final season to say goodbye – to finish what it had started, and to accomplish this in Blocker’s absence they would have to take unprecedented steps that never in the history of television had been done before.

Little Joe and Alice Harper

It was decided that Blocker’s character, Hoss, would be killed off in the show as well. Audiences would be forced to feel the loss that the cast and crew felt. It was a difficult time for everyone.

For the two-part season opener ‘Forever’, writer Michael Landon had originally written the script with Dan Blocker in mind, but following his passing, he was forced to re-write the script swapping Hoss out for his little brother Joe.

In the heart-wrenching episode, Little Joe falls in love with a young lady named Alice Harper. They meet when he rescues her gambling brother John from a poker game gone awry. Alice and little Joe get married and are expecting a child when evil comes knocking at their door.

Alice’s brother John owes a large debt to a ruthless gambler named Sloane. When he and his henchmen come to Alice’s house to try and collect on her brother’s debt, she refuses to comply with their demands. Alice then is beaten to death, John is shot, and to cover up the crime, the house is set ablaze.

Joe returns home to see his life literally burning to the ground. The rest of the episode covers the aftermath of the horrific event.

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Hoss’ Absence Was Heavily Felt

If you’re confused what all of that has to do with Hoss’s death, it becomes blatantly obvious when the characters are seen in their grieving process.

Sure, ‘Forever’ may not have directly addressed Blocker’s death but there were some obvious references to Hoss’ passing.

Landon explained that they wanted to mention Hoss’ death in passing, and although that approach might not have been the kind of memorial episode that some fans had hoped for, he believed that Dan would have wanted it that way – short and sweet and to the point.

In one scene, Joe takes Alice to see one of his favorite locations He says that he and his big brother used to call it their ‘happy place’. Alice replies by saying that he must have loved him very much. Joe’s anguished reaction to that statement speaks volumes.

In a later scene where Ben and Joe grieve the loss of Alice and her unborn child at their grave, Ben mentions that he knows what it’s like to lose a son. Not too long after that Ben is seen staring at a picture of Hoss on Joe’s dresser with immense sadness in his eyes.

The most emotional scene of the episode though is when Ben and Little Joe go visit the charred remains of the cabin that Alice and her baby were murdered in. Joe and Ben embrace each other and start crying in a very out-of-character fashion.

Everyone on set that day knew that the two actors weren’t simply method acting. Their pain was real and rooted in the anguish felt when loosing their cherished friend and co-star. After the scene had finished being filmed, the majority of the cast and crew joined Landon and Greene on set and cried with them.

For the rest of the season, Ben repeatedly makes mention of the loss of his son Hoss, although it’s never explicitly revealed how he died until many years later. In the reboot series Bonanza; The Next Generation, which premiered in 1988, it was revealed that Hoss had died while trying to save another person’s life. The cause of death: drowning.

Filming While In Mourning

As you can imagine, Dan’s passing was hard for the cast and crew of Bonanza to come to terms with. To many, it was like losing a member of the family.

But filming the ‘Forever’ episode, despite how emotionally pulling it was, was actually quite cathartic for everyone involved. As soon as the cameras started rolling and production commenced, everyone was sitting around sharing their favorite memories of Blocker. It was all ‘remember when Dan did X’ and ‘if only Dan was here right now to see Y’.

Still, the first scene that they shot after his death was the hardest. Although the dining room scenes typically were some of the most serious, Michael Landon recalled how many laughs were shared in the Cartwright’s dining room. Those memories now came with an extra dose of sadness.

Blocker had a sense of humor that was sorely missed when he was gone. Memories of the good-times became bitter-sweet in retrospect.

The End Of Bonanza

In truth, Bonanza was already on its last leg before the death of Dan Blocker – ratings had been dropping for quite some time – but the final nail in the show’s coffin came with Hoss’ absence.

Bonanza’s time-slot had been switched from it’s popular 9 pm Sunday night position to Tuesday nights at 8.

Although, that might not be as bad as the notorious ‘Friday night death slot’ but it still represented a major downturn in viewership.

In its new slot, it was pitted against the immensely popular “Movie of the Week’ on ABC which featured films like Brian’s Song, Ben-Hur and Michael Christon’s Pursuit.

At the end of the day, no one was really interested in watching the final season of Bonanza. Without Hoss, it simply wasn’t the same show that everyone knew and loved. Regardless, the cast and crew gave the last season their best shot, and in 1973 Bonanza wrapped up and its reruns went into syndication – a noble afterlife for any classic TV show.

You can watch Bonanza on MeTV, or on a number of streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu – although you should be warned – the last season,without Hoss, really is the least entertaining one. It’s clear that the show’s chemistry had taken a major hit that it couldn’t recover from.

Dan Blocker certainly contributed to a lot of the heart and soul of Bonanza. It’s not surprising that the show no longer resonated with audiences after his departure. That’s certainly not to say that the rest of the cast weren’t necessary additions as well. In fact, it’s hard to picture Bonanza without any of the Cartwrights.

Who was your favorite Cartwright brother, Little Joe, Adam or Hoss? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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