Dan Blocker
Date of Birth
Dec 10, 1928
Birth Place:
Bowie County, TX

Biography

Big, burly Dan Blocker only did a handful of movies in his 17-year acting career, but he became one of the most beloved and popular television stars of the 1960s for his portrayal of Hoss Cartwright on the Western series Bonanza. Weighing 14 pounds at birth, Blocker was the largest baby ever born in Bowie County, TX. At 18, he stood 6'3" and weighed close to 300 pounds, and was legendary for his physical prowess. Blocker attended the Texas Military Institute and studied for his B.A. at Sul Ross State College, where he initially majored in athletics. His build accidentally led him to the drama department for a production of Arsenic and Old Lace -- a stage hand was needed who was big and strong enough to quickly remove the dummies representing corpses on the set, between acts. While working on the production, Blocker was bitten by the acting bug and switched his major to drama. He pursued his theatrical aspirations in earnest after graduation, working in one season of summer stock before he was drafted. Blocker served in combat during the Korean War, after which he earned a master's degree, married, moved to Los Angeles, and settled down to raise a family, earning his living as a high school teacher. It was his successful audition for the small role of a cavalry lieutenant on Gunsmoke during the 1956 season, in the episode "Alarm at Pleasant Valley," that rekindled Blocker's interest in an acting career. Over the next three years, he took any work that he could get, on programs like Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, Cheyenne, Tales of Wells Fargo, Zane Grey Theater, Wagon Train, Colt .45, Zorro, Maverick, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Blocker also got some movie work, portraying a bartender in the offbeat murder mystery The Girl in Black Stockings and an android in Outer Space Jitters, a very late Three Stooges short. His career took an upturn when he got a guest-starring role in an episode of the series The Restless Gun, starring John Payne, in 1958; his work was good enough to catch the attention of the producer, David Dortort. A year later, Dortort was putting together a new, hour-long Western series called Bonanza and cast Blocker in the role of "Hoss" Cartwright, the big-boned, good-natured middle son in a ranching family near Virginia City, NV, set in the mid- to late 19th century (the time frame of Bonanza was always vague, with stories shifting between the early 1860s to the 1870s and 1880s). Blocker's character's real name, incidentally, was Eric, but Hoss -- a nickname from his mother's Norwegian language that meant "friend" -- was what he was known as to everyone on the series and all viewers. Despite the weaknesses in the scripts during the early seasons, the role was a dream part for the actor, who got a chance to display his gentle, sensitive side as well as his gift for comedy, and also work in a serious dramatic context as well on many occasions, and show off his brute strength as well. It is arguable that Blocker was the most popular member of the cast during the 1960s; he was especially beloved of younger viewers, in part because his character was always very sympathetic to children. In contrast to the other stars of the series, Blocker's big-screen career wasn't halted by his work on Bonanza. He appeared in The Errand Boy, playing himself in an uncredited cameo, and played a role in the Frank Sinatra movie Come Blow Your Horn. Blocker got his first major movie part five years later in the Sinatra film Lady in Cement (1968), playing Waldo Gronsky, a burly, potentially murderous thug who hires private detective Tony Rome (played by Sinatra) to find his missing girlfriend. By the end of the 1960s, Blocker was taken seriously enough as an actor to star in two features, Something for a Lonely Man, a beautiful and poignant Western/comedy-drama, and the broader comedy The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County. Some of Blocker's television appearances separate from Bonanza also reflected his personal side -- his politics were essentially liberal Democratic (in sharp contrast to the conservative Republican sympathies of his co-stars Michael Landon and Lorne Greene), and he appeared in several public service announcements promoting brotherhood and racial tolerance, as well as on one television special that gently satirized American popular culture, starring Henry Fonda. He was also part of the liberal contingent in the 1971 John Wayne-hosted patriotic special Swing Out, Sweet Land. In 1972, Blocker was chosen for what could have been the breakthrough role to a major movie career, when he won the part of Roger Wade, the has-been author in Robert Altman's revisionist detective movie The Long Goodbye. In May of that year, however, he went into the hospital for routine gall bladder surgery, and during recovery he died suddenly of a blood clot in his lung. Sterling Hayden replaced Blocker in The Long Goodbye, which was dedicated to the actor's memory. Blocker's passing, immediately before the shooting for the 1972-1973 season of Bonanza was to begin, signed the death knell for the series. The cast and crew were genuinely shaken by his sudden death; scripts had to be hastily rewritten to explain the passing of Hoss Cartwright, and Blocker's absence and the reason behind it removed any element of lightheartedness that the series had displayed. The final season, despite the best efforts of surviving stars Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, and David Canary, was characterized by grim, downbeat stories and a dark mood that seemed to repel longtime viewers. Coupled with this change in tone, the NBC network moved Bonanza from its longtime Sunday nighttime slot to Tuesday nights, where it died a quick death, cancellation coming halfway through the 1972-1973 season. Blocker left behind a wife and four children, among them actor Dirk Blocker and director/producer David Blocker. He also left behind a legacy of good will that survives to this day, as Bonanza is in perpetual reruns on various cable channels, decades after its cancellation. Significantly, the final season, in which he did not appear, is the body of episodes that is shown (and requested) the least of its 14 years' worth of programs. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi

Provided by Rovi