Next stop on our current Bonanzarama is Hoss. Like all the lead actors on the show, Dan Blocker is almost entirely identified now as the second son of Ben Cartwright, and any photo of him will make you think of the amiable, shambling, oversized Hoss.
The character was supposed to be almost simple-minded, certainly slightly intellectually-challenged, let’s say, to contrast with the erudite and educated Adam. In fact, that wasn’t Dan Blocker at all. He was actually quite a clever fellow, and he moved to California first not to make it big in Hollywood but to pursue his PhD studies.
Blocker was born, in 1928, on a poor ranch in Texas, at 14 pounds said to be the largest baby ever in Bowie County. At the age of ten he worked side by side with grown men loading grain trucks. At twelve, he stood six feet tall and weighed 200 lbs (90 kilos). They called him “the big ‘un” and he liked fighting. But he put himself through college, going on to get both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. His first taste of acting was at college, and he switched majors from physical education to drama. He won praise for his Othello.
His career progressed as he moved to Boston, then New York. But he was drafted into the Korean War, and nearly killed on Christmas Eve 1951, developing a lifelong distaste for guns. After service he taught English, drama and politics in Texas and New Mexico high schools. In 1956 he relocated to California to study for his doctorate.
But it was never to be Dr Blocker. He was immediately offered a small part in a Gunsmoke episode, as an uncredited barman, and took it, to earn a crust. By now he was married and twin girls came along in 1953, then sons in 1955 and 1957. Money didn’t grow on trees.
In 1957 he got parts in two feature Westerns, Gunsight Ridge, with Joel McCrea, once again as an uncredited bartender, and Black Patch, a George Montgomery oater, as a blacksmith. In fact he’d be a blacksmith again.
That year too he got parts in episodes of Colt .45, Sheriff of Cochise, Tales of Wells Fargo, and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. In ’58 there was work on Wagon Train, Sugarfoot, Have Gun – Will Travel, Zane Grey Theatre, Cheyenne, Maverick and more. He was becoming quite a regular on Western TV shows.
He then got a nice recurring role in TV’s Cimarron City, but it was his part as sympathetic deaf-mute in The Restless Gun that persuaded producer David Dortort to cast Dan in Bonanza.
His real name on Bonanza was apparently Eric but he was only ever called Hoss. When asked why, Dan replied, “I suppose it was because of his great love of animals. He used to take better care of his horse than himself.” The famous hat he wore was a comically oversized one made for Bob Hope; one day Dan put it on as a joke and Dortort liked it so much it became a fixture.
Hoss was hardly the love interest. One’s sisters sighed over handsome Adam or cute Little Joe. None went for poor Hoss. He did fall in love in one, rather tender episode, though.
Dan did have a little bit of a non-Ponderosa career. He appeared in various comedy TV shows and in 1970 he took the lead in The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County, a comedy Western, in which he was, yes, a blacksmith. A friend of Frank Sinatra, he appeared in Come Blow Your Horn in 1963 and Lady in Cement in 1968. In the latter he played the hulking Gronsky, basically the Moose Malloy role from Farewell My Lovely. At one point in the movie Gronsky is hiding out in a massage parlor and switches on the TV to watch Bonanza.
But mostly it was Hoss. At Bonanza’s peak Dan was earning $20,000 an episode, and like Lorne Greene, he was a shrewd investor. Among his portfolio were the Bonanza Steakhouse chain and later the Ponderosa Steakhouses. He was a motor racing enthusiast, owning race cars, and would never miss the Indy 500.
In May 1972, Dan Blocker died in Los Angeles, aged only 43, of a pulmonary embolism following gallbladder surgery. Bonanza struggled on for another season but it was already suffering, even without the loss of Hoss, and it finally folded in January 1973.