Remembering Hoss Cartwright, The Big Man of Bonanza
Today — May 13, 2002, — marks the 30th year since the passing of Dan Blocker (Hoss Cartwright) of “Bonanza.”
Blocker was literally the biggest star of the Cartwright clan, at 6-foot-four and 275 pounds. His presence on those early color TV screens of the 1960s commanded an imposing figure on the Ponderosa.
Every Sunday night for almost 14 years, millions of viewers would tune into NBC and see Hoss and the Cartwright clan dish out a healthy dose of frontier justice, be it fist or firearm.
As many an unlucky villain found out, messin’ with Hoss could drastically improve your chances of reaching an early retirement. But in reality, Dan Blocker was just like the gentle giant he portrayed in his television counterpart.
The world will always remember Blocker as Hoss Cartwright, but he was a multi-dimensional actor. He studied theater at Sul Ross State College in Alpine, Texas, where he became a seasoned thespian, excelling in Shakespeare. Would you believe Hoss Cartwright as Othello? It’s true, and you can see the photographs at Sul Ross State College.
In 1950, Blocker was drafted and spent two years in Korea, where he became a first sergeant with the 45th Oklahoma Division. After his discharge in 1952, he returned to Sul Ross to work on his master’s degree. In 1954, he began teaching school in Carlsbad, N.M., an assignment he held until transferring to UCLA in 1956 to work on his Ph.D.
While at UCLA, Blocker thought he could make a little pocket money doing some television work and nailed a role on “Gunsmoke,” a show that would become the No. 1 rated program a year later. Blocker didn’t know it yet, but he was on the verge of a career change that would dramatically alter his life and create a little television history in the process.
From 1956 through 1958, Blocker guest-starred in no less than two dozen Western television programs glutting the airways in the 1950s. Often playing the villain because of his size and rough demeanor, Blocker’s acting skills eventually came to the attention of a man who could see a lot more in his ability than playing TV thugs. His name was David Dortort.
A writer and producer, Dortort was hired by NBC to produce the first one-hour Western in color. Dortort was also in charge of casting the show, and when he saw Blocker he knew immediately who would play Hoss Cartwright in “Bonanza.”
“Bonanza” had one of the greatest rides in television history — 430 episodes in nearly 14 years made it second only to “Gunsmoke” in longevity for a TV Western. The show went on to hold the number-one spot in the Nielsen ratings for three seasons during the mid-1960s. Even when Adam (Pernell Roberts) left the show after the 1965 season, “Bonanza” still held the top position for another year. But when Blocker suddenly died of a blood clot on May 13, 1972, at the age of 44, nothing could save “Bonanza’s” fate.
Four months after Blocker’s death, “Bonanza” began its 14th season on Sept. 12, 1972, exactly 13 years to the day it premiered in 1959. But with only two Cartwrights remaining on the Ponderosa, the show was doomed. “Bonanza” aired only 15 shows that final season, broadcasting its last episode No. 430, on Jan. 16, 1973 before riding into history.
See the Cartwrights ride the Ponderosa daily on “Bonanza” reruns Monday through Friday on KREN, Channel 27, Reno.
Chic Di Francia is a huge “Bonanza” fan, a Virginia City resident and co-owner of the Comstock History Store and Virginia City Press.