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 western final season.
Blocker is only 43 when he passes away – leaving behind friends, family, and fans who struggle with his loss. No one saw it coming.
He loves by cast and crew alike. He describes as easy-going, straightforward, and easy to get along with. Mitch Vogel, who plays James in the last seasons of Bonanza describes him as approachable. The kind of individual that you 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 is essential for story arcs and without him is impossible to tie up the plot’s loose ends.
This video is going to pay our respects to the actor and also to see how his death impacts us. The conclusion of Bonanza and how the way it addresses is absolutely uncommon at the time.
The death of a major character on a TV series may be commonplace these days, but it isn’t ordinary. 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 move to Switzerland because he didn’t like US involvement in the Vietnam war. He commutes back and forth to LA to film Bonanza.
Blocker arrives in the US to film the final season when he feels sickly and feeble. He goes to the hospital and it determines that he needs to have his gallbladder removed.
A cholecystectomy, as they are famous 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 relieves to know that he won’t have to deal with that kind of pain anymore. At first, it looks as if his surgery plans without a hitch. He is in recovery and develops a pulmonary embolism – a blockage of an artery in his lung – and dies.
It all happened so quickly. One minute he was here. Smiling, optimistic, and hopeful for the future, the next he is dead – in the blink of an eye.
His remains take to Woodmen Cemetery in his hometown of De Kalb, Texas where his family holds 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 decide that the show still deserves one final season to say goodbye – to finish what it begins, and to accomplish this in Blocker’s absence they will have to take uncommon steps that have never been in the history of television.
Little Joe and Alice Harper
It decides that Blocker’s character, Hoss, kills off in the show as well. Audiences pressure to feel the loss that the cast and crew felt. It is a difficult time for everyone.
For the two-part season opener ‘Forever’, writer Michael Landon writes the script with Dan Blocker in mind, but following his passing, he forces 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 Harper and little Joe marry 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 beats to death, John shoots, 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 Is Heavy Feels
If it confuses you about what all of that is to do with Hoss’s death, it becomes blatantly obvious when the characters are 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 blocker would have wanted it that way – short and sweet and to the point.
In one scene, Joe takes Alice harper to see one of his favorite locations He says that he and his big brother used to call it their ‘happy place’. Alice Harper 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 harper 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 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 char remains of the cabin where Alice harper and her baby are murdered. 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 losing their cherished friend and co-star. After the scene finishes, the majority of the cast and crew joined Landon and Greene on set and cried with them.
For the rest of the season, Ben makes mention of the loss of his son Hoss, although it’s never revealed how he died until many years later. The reboot series Bonanza; The Next Generation, which premieres in 1988, reveals that Hoss dies 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 is, is quite cathartic for everyone entails. 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 Blocker did X’ and ‘if only Dan Blocker 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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