Sunday, May 1, 2016

THE FIRST WESTERN TELEVISION SERIES BASED ON A FAMILY AND ITS MOST UNFORGETTABLE, ICONIC, & BELOVED CHARACTER

By Ashley Kath-Bilsky

From the late 1950s to early 1970s, westerns were among the most highly rated, popular television shows. Audiences (young and old) gathered together to watch their favorite show and remained loyal viewers. Even after the show was cancelled, once re-released via syndication, longtime fans returned to watch them again.

Most westerns during the Golden Age of Television focused on a lead actor (or main character) of the series. Tall, handsome, usually fit or lanky, they were cast to portray the expected image of a hero. Whether it was Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) on Gunsmoke((1955-1975), a West Point educated gun for hire such as Paladin (Richard Boone) in Have Gun, Will Travel (1957-1963), or a Civil War Vet turned Bounty Hunter named Josh Randall, (Steve McQueen) in Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-1961), these characters were the main character upon whom the show revolved.

However, there was a new type of western on the horizon; a western titled BONANZA.

Not only was BONANZA a new show with new characters, the concept was new. Rather than a lead actor and supporting cast, or an ensemble cast of cowboys on a cattle drive, viewers met a close-knit family.

Additionally, every member within that family played an integral role and provided an important contribution to the whole. This ‘family-based’ concept also allowed for greater emotional depth and character development for each member within the family. Internal struggles, conflicts, strengths, weaknesses, and inter-relationships with one another and their relationships with their environment and community were addressed. In short, viewers not only got to truly believe they knew and understood each character, but often had a favorite character within the dynamic.

Set during and after the Civil War in Nevada, not far from Virginia City, on a 10,000 square mile ranch called the Ponderosa, each hour-long episode was filmed in color and transported viewers not only into the time and setting of the show, but somehow established a personal relationship with its audience.

With widower patriarch Ben Cartwright at the helm, (well, he was a former sea captain turned rancher), audiences were introduced to his three sons. Each son was born by a different mother who tragically died when they were far too young to know her.

Flashback episodes (also new to television) allowed viewers to learn about Ben’s past and each son’s mother. Whereas, many men with a young child remarried to provide a mother for their child, Ben Cartwright had fallen in love with each wife. In addition, his love for all three wives remained constant.

There were subtle attributes from each mother written into their child’s characterization. Whether by physical appearance, mannerisms, and/or personality traits, viewers were allowed to glean why each son was so different. At the same time, through skillful writing, directing, and portrayal by the talented actors, the audience recognized what Ben Cartwright (as the father) saw or felt when he looked upon his sons. Viewers never doubted for one moment his love and pride in his sons, or his understanding of how different they were—not only from one another but from him. At the same time, we never questioned how much the sons loved, respected, and honored their father in return.

And just like what happens when one reads a western novel and finds their attention intrigued by another member of a character’s family, viewers often developed a favorite character within BONANZA. And today I want to talk about my all-time favorite character among the Cartwright family. For many (including myself), despite the passing of years, he still remains not only the most beloved character on BONANZA, but an unforgettable hero who made us laugh and cry.

His name was Eric Cartwright, but everyone just called him Hoss.

As portrayed by Dan Blocker, Hoss Cartwright was the second child of Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene). In a award-winning, consistently top rated television series that ran from 12 September 1959 through 16 January 1973, for millions of fans Dan Blocker WAS Hoss.

He endeared himself to children and adults with his performance as the tender-hearted, sometimes silly, always hard-working, honest-to-the-core, strong-as-an-ox defender of innocents, compassionate caregiver for animals, and the relentlessly steadfast, protective and loyal son and brother.

For many, including the cast and crew of BONANZA, Dan Blocker'a performance as Hoss provided the heart and soul of BONANZA. And when Blocker tragically died after complications from gallbladder surgery in 1972, the cast, crew, and millions of fans were devastated.

Who could replace this man? The answer was simple. No one.

Instead, BONANZA set yet another precedent for television.

BONANZA became the first television program to combine the loss of their friend, coworker, and actor, with the loss of his beloved character. The real-life death of Dan Blocker was written into the fate of his television character.

And as his cast mates deeply mourned his absence on a personal level, so did the audience. Still, much as the writers, cast, and crew tried to persevere and continue for the fans, the Ponderosa and BONANZA would never be the same.

After a 14-year run, NBC (National Broadcasting Company) cancelled BONANZA.

Never underestimate the power of a character or the influence they have within a series or book.

Just as a book character comes alive and all but leaps off the page for a reader, the hard work and talent of an actor can make their portrayal of a character so seamless that millions of people find it difficult to separate the man from the character.

Despite the fact Hoss Cartwright and Dan Blocker somehow morphed into one larger than life legendary character, it is important to remember the man who breathed life into Hoss.

Born ‘Dan Davis Blocker’ on 10 Dec 1928 in DeKalb, Texas, he weighed 14 lbs and was the biggest baby born in Bowie County, Texas. And just like the meaning behind his character’s nickname of “Hoss”, Dan Blocker was destined to be big and friendly.

A year after Blocker’s birth, his family moved to O’Donnell, Texas (south of Lubbock) where his father operated a grocery store.

After attending Texas Military Academy, Blocker began his undergraduate studies in 1946 at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene. When a campus production of Arsenic and Old Lace needed a strong man to lift the play’s dead bodies poisoned and buried in the cellar by the spinster aunts, Blocker made his acting debut.

In 1947, Blocker transferred to Sul Ross Teacher’s College in Alpine, Texas. At Sul Ross, he obtained both his undergraduate degree and Master’s Degree. More importantly, he met the love of his life, Dolphia Lee Parker.

During the Korean War, Blocker was drafted into the United States Army. He served with distinction as an “Infantry Sergeant in F Company, 2nd Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division from December 1951 through August 1952”. Among his many awards and commendations, Blocker was awarded the Purple Heart.

After being discharged from the military, Blocker and Dolphia were married 25 Aug 1952. They would later become parents of two sons and twin daughters.

To support his family, Blocker taught English and Drama at a high school in Sonora, Texas. He later worked as a 6th grade teacher in Carlsbad, New Mexico. [Pictured: Dan Blocker with his two sons and twin daughters, circa 1960 - Public Domain]

Ultimately, what brought Blocker to California was not acting, but another teaching position and his desire to pursue a Ph.D. at UCLA.

However, not surprisingly, a 6’3”, 300 lb. Texan proved impossible not to notice, especially for Hollywood talent scouts. Dressed in true western attire from a cowboy hat to cowboy boots, Blocker was discovered making a call inside a telephone booth (remember when we had those?). Small parts on westerns such as Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, and Maverick soon followed.

Then, in 1959, Dan Blocker was cast in a role that would become one of the most beloved characters on any western television show – Eric ‘Hoss’ Cartwright.

The immediate success of BONANZA changed the lives of everyone involved. Although the demands of filming a long-running, weekly series can often have a detrimental effect on the personal lives of actors, such was not the case for Dan Blocker. He never lost his focus. Everything he did was for his family.

"Fame frightens me; it truly does, perhaps because I wasn't expecting it. I feel like I have a tiger by the tail. I'm in this business for the money. I need money, like anyone else, because I want to give to my wife and kids a good home and a good life. It's what any man wants to do for his family. Hell, man, I'm just an ordinary guy." ~ Dan Blocker

In a TV GUIDE interview dated 07 Aug 1993, Dirk Blocker (son of Dan Blocker) provided further insight into his father's love for his family. “My father devoted himself 100% to the family. He would rush home to be with us.”

Dirk further revealed that although his father loved portraying the sweet (but not too smart) Hoss, Dan Blocker was an intelligent academic – articulate and highly educated. He was a voracious reader, and conscientious citizen who supported the Civil Rights Movement. Blocker was also a savvy businessman. For those who didn’t know, in 1963 Blocker started the successful Ponderosa/Bonanza Steak House chain of restaurants, and remained one of its owners.

Dan Blocker and his wife, Dolphia, remained happily married until his death from a pulmonary embolism on 13 May 1972. His gravesite is the Blocker family plot in DeKalb, Texas.

Fortunately, episodes of BONANZA remain with us. Some episodes can be found on Youtube. In addition, cable channels such as TVLAND, METV and H&I (Heroes and Icons) feature the series on their regular programming schedules. One can also purchase boxed sets of the series on DVD for their home library.

For me, childhood memories of BONANZA remain strong. I have a vivid memory of how my little brother came running whenever the opening theme song began. We all watched the show. Together. As a family. I still watch the show today, with my family. The writing, the production value, and the performances of Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, Michael Landon, and Dan Blocker, as well as some wonderful guest stars, have made this series a much cherished, western classic.

In a time when it can be difficult to find wholesome, family value programming, it is comforting to know that one can still find BONANZA in syndication or available for purchase on DVD format. Today, I found the first episode of the first season on Youtube. If you have never seen it, or forgotten how each character was introduced to viewers, take a peek.

From the opening scene of Ben Cartwright with eldest son, Adam (Pernell Roberts), to the first scene with Hoss (Dan Blocker) then Little Joe (Michael Landon), the audience is clearly shown the different personalities in play as well as foreshadowing about the mothers of Adam and Little Joe. Of course, my favorite scene is when Ben and Hoss enter the house to find Adam and Little Joe having a knock down, drag out fight. At a loss for words--even after he tells them to stop fighting--Ben looks at Hoss.

There is always a peacemaker in the family, and how sweet-tempered Hoss handles the situation will make you smile.

To view the first episode of BONANZA (or at least the first 5 minutes for character introductions), here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAXxh7TwJV8

Thank you for stopping by today. I hope you enjoy the post and learning about DAN BLOCKER as well as BONANZA. ~ AKB

10 comments:

  1. I loved Bonanza. Hoss was my favorite character. Such a shame he died so young.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Caroline. I feel very bad still thinking about such an inconsolable loss for his wife and four childrren. So sad.

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  2. Thanks, Ashley, for giving us the opportunity to go down memory lane with Bonanza and to learn the personal side of the actor, Dan Blocker.

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    1. Thank you, Cheri. So happy you enjoyed this post.

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  3. I didn't get to see many episodes of Bonanza because it was back in the days when we didn't own a TV, but what episodes I did see on a neighbor's TV, I loved. I liked all the characters, but Adam, the learned, quiet one was my favorite.
    This was a great blog that took me down memory lane. I do remember when so many wonderful westerns were on TV. Now, there's hardly a mention of a western, except Hell On Wheels.

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    1. Thank you, Sarah J. The old western shows are hard to find on channels like ABC, NBC, and CBS. However, if you have satellite, Internet, or cable television, H&I (which stands for Heroes & Icons) has continuous western programs every day, and METV also features many on a daily basis, too.

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  4. Of course, we always watched Bonanza. It was the Treat of the Week, and a time we got to eat our supper in front of the tv. I learned to make a simple kind of pizza waaaaay back then, and that's what we had---my husband and our two young children.
    It holds very fond memories.
    I never cared for Pernell Robert's character, but I believe most audiences didn't either. But I loveed Michael Landon--like everyone else.
    But when Michael Landon played "Pa" on Little House on the Prairie, our young daughter did not like him. She said, "He just isn't "Pa.""
    Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Ashley.

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    1. Thanks, Celia. Your pizza, Bonsnza-watching family time sounds wonderful. Adam Cartwright was too opinionated and arrogant at times. Or, maybe Permell Roberts played him that way because he didn't want to be there. But Lorne Green, Michael Landon, and Dan Blocker wete Bonanza to me. Loved them all. :)

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  5. I first saw Bonanza as a 6 year old and loved it from the start. I am now 62, have every episode on DVD and watch it at least three times a week. Little Joe was, and still is, my favourite character, but his father and his two brothers are a close second. I am a member of several Bonanza groups online, write fanfic and have had the great pleasure of visiting Nevada on several occasions. Bonanza has brought me many friends from all over the world. Thanks for this great blog

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    1. Thank you very much for your comment, Lynne. I am so happy you enjoyed the post. I actually just watched an episode of Bonanza; it has become a daily ritual for me. It still touches the heart and provides great family entertainment with exciting storylines. How great you have the entire series on DVD. I love the relationship between Hoss and Little Joe. They were quite a team, and I sense that loving, brotherly relationship existed on camera and off. Thanks again! - AKB

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