Dan Blocker was well known as an actor on the long running series, Bonanza. He was born Bobby Dan Davis Blocker to Ora and Mary Davis Blocker in DeKalb, Texas on December 10, 1928. He weighed 14 pounds at birth and is still believed to be the largest baby ever born in Bowie County, Texas. After suffering the effects of the Great Depression, in 1934, the family moved to O’Donnell in West Texas, where his father ran a mercantile store.
He received his education in public schools until after his freshman year. He enrolled at Texas Military Institute in San Antonio, from which he graduated in the class of 1946. While at TMI, he served as class president, played on the football team and played in the band. He was a good student and besides athletics, he was a member of the Junior Historians Club and Literary Society and was also a cadet officer. After TMI, he enrolled at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene and played football. After a semester or two, Dan transferred to Sul Ross University (then known as Sul Ross State Teacher’s College) in Alpine, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in speech and drama. Dan was always a good athlete and was drafted in the first round of the NFL draft, though not the spectacle it is today, by the Pittsburg Steelers.
Dan had also been an actor at Sul Ross after, not surprisingly, getting a role in Arsenic and Old Lace primarily because of his size and strength. Someone was needed in the production to carry the play’s “victims” and he was already 6’4″ and weighed about 250 pounds. This led Blocker to change his major from physical education. After earning his degree from Sul Ross, he tried his hand at acting in Boston, but this coincided with the acceleration of the hostilities in Korea. Dan was drafted in 1950 into the United States Army.
Dan served as a sergeant in the 45th Infantry Division. After his service, he returned to Sul Ross where he earned a Master’s degree and married his long time girlfriend, Dolphin Lee Parker in August, 1952. For the next few years, he briefly served as a high school teacher at Sonora, Texas and an elementary school teacher at Eddy Elementary in Carlsbad, New Mexico. In 1956, the family moved to California where Dan began a PhD program at UCLA, also substituting as a teacher in Glendale while accepting roles as an actor.
For two years beginning in 1957, Dan took roles mostly in tevision westerns, including Wagon Train, Cimarron City, Gunsmoke and Colt 45. He was then cast in a brand new production that gave him his landmark role as Hoss Cartwright in the long running series Bonanza.
(Image credit: New York Times. Left to right: Blocker, Greene, Roberts, Landon)
One of the first television series to be filmed in color, the NBC series Bonanza started out slowly, being slated on Saturday nights in 1959 against a Dick Clark music show on ABC and the long running crime drama Perry Mason on CBS. One of the reasons given for keeping the series after a less than stellar first year was that NBC’s parent company, RCA wanted it to help promote sales of its new line of color television sets. The series then moved to Sunday nights where it quickly became a top rated show. Blocker played the middle son of the Cartwright family and became one of the most popular characters on the show, appearing in 415 of the 431 episodes, second only to Lorne Greene and Michael Landon. The series initially co starred Lorne Greene as the father, Pernell Roberts as the older brother and Michael Landon as the younger brother. Other recurring characters included Victor Sen Yung as Hop Sing, the cook. Other regular characters were later added during the series run to take the place of departing characters or to appeal to younger viewers.
The series had 32 episodes in its first year, 33 or 34 episodes for the next eight years, tapered off to 26 episodes over the next four years and 16 episodes in its final year. It was the number one rated series from 1964 to 1967 and remained in the top five or top ten until late in its life in 1971 when it fell in ranking to number twenty.
Blocker went to the hospital in 1972 for what was supposed to be a routine gall bladder operation, but during the surgery, he suffered from a pulmonary embolism which led to his death. To account for the loss of this popular character Hoss, Michael Landon penned an episode in which the departure of Blocker’s character was addressed. Landon’s special two hour episode entitled “Forever” aired September 12, 1972 as the season premier. Initially, it was written to be centered around the marriage of Hoss, but due to Blocker’s death, it was rewritten where instead Landon’s character gets married. Hoss’ death is initially mentioned in passing by both Landon and Greene and later more directly referenced in the script. By this season, the series had already dropped out of the top ten in ratings, as noted above. The death of Blocker’s character seemed to be final blow, though the series has remained popular in syndication. Three “made for television” films have been made including a sequel aired with actors including Michael Landon, Jr. and Dirk Blocker, sons of the original cast members.
Blocker’s on screen image, that of a gentle but somewhat slow witted giant, was nothing like the reality of his off-screen life. Dan was well educated, a successful investor and at one time was part owner of the Bonanza Steak House chain. He was also involved in campaigning for political candidates, including unsuccessful presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. Blocker also was posthumously revealed to have been a generous though sometimes anonymous benefactor of charitable causes.
Blocker was buried in DeKalb, Texas in the family plot with his father, mother, sister and other relatives. His honors include being named Texan of the Year by the Texas Press Association, being inducted into the Hardin Simmons University Hall of Leaders and the family store in O’Donnell is now a museum.
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