Bobby Dan Davis Blocker was born in 1928 in De Kalb, Texas, to Ora “Shack” and Mary Arizona Blocker. He attended military school as a child and excelled at football. Blocker played ball in college as well. The fact that he was 6’4” and weighed 320 pounds didn’t hurt his gridiron prospects.
While in college Blocker parlayed his immense size into jobs as both a rodeo performer and a bouncer in a bar. Despite his intimidating habitus, friends described him as good-natured and soft-hearted. Upon his graduation from college in 1950 Blocker received a letter from Uncle Sam.
Bobby Blocker Goes to War
Bobby Blocker was drafted in 1951. He took his basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and was there molded into an infantryman. He spent another nine months honing his craft in Sapporo, Japan. In December of 1951, Blocker deployed to Korea with F Company, 2nd Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division—the Thunderbirds. He served in-country through August of 1952.
Blocker landed at Inchon and by Christmas was in the thick of the fighting. In short order, he found himself near Chorwon in what is today North Korea. The series of fortifications that Blocker’s regiment manned was called the Jamestown Line. He remained in combat for 209 days.
The Jamestown Line was a series of trench systems. Where much of World War 2 had been a war of mobility, Korea frequently devolved into a bloody stalemate fought in foxholes and static trenches more akin to those of the First World War. Add to this the bitter cold and penetrating wind and you had a recipe for misery on a scale most modern folk cannot imagine.
Opposing units seesawed back and forth assaulting hills and taking fortifications in a war where success was measured in yards. Allied troops designated the dominating terrain feature Old Baldy, a distinctive promontory that held a commanding vantage over the entire area. The most critical piece of dirt in the area became known as Pork Chop Hill.
Bobby Blocker’s part in this sordid bloody production was simply the opening act. The Thunderbirds seized Pork Chop Hill, so named because of its geometric similarity to the familiar porcine comestible, in May of 1952. A seriously bloody fight took place between Allied troops and the Chinese the following year.
In April and July of 1953, some 347 Americans died against an estimated 1,500 Chinese dead. The two major battles for Pork Chop Hill gained notoriety due to their apparent utter pointlessness. Men bled out to hold terrain that had little significance in the real world. This fight unfolded while the UN Command was negotiating with the leadership of China and North Korea over the Korean Armistice Agreement. Both sides wanted the hill as a bargaining tool. Of all the reasons a man might have to die in battle, this was a really crappy one.
Back when Bobby Blocker called this desolate scrap of real estate home things were still plenty horrible. Blocker was acting First Sergeant on May 25, 1952, when his company manned positions on Hill 200 near Outpost Eerie. In the frenetic combat that followed six Americans were killed and a further 21 were wounded. At the same time, 132 Chinese soldiers fell.
Gordon Abts, an American grunt who earned the Silver Star for gallantry in May of that year, served under Sergeant Blocker. He later said, “(Blocker) was a great guy. He was very strong. He could take a beer can between two fingers and crush it. He was very athletic. He was loud, but very friendly and got along with everybody. He was a great leader.”
SGT Blocker was wounded rescuing his men under fire. He was credited with saving the lives of several members of his unit during combat. At a time when most Chinese attacks occurred at night, Blocker and his men fought gallantly against the infiltrating Communist hordes.
Blocker’s 179th Infantry Regiment was taken off the line in July of 1952. Only then was SGT Blocker finally evacuated to a hospital. The Thunderbirds went into reserve, and by the end of the summer Blocker was headed home. When he left the Army he had been awarded the Purple Heart, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Service Medal with two bronze campaign stars, the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, the United Nations Service Medal, the Korean War Service Medal, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
When he returned to the US the gigantic combat veteran taught high school English and drama before taking over a sixth-grade classroom at Eddy Elementary School in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Now married to his new wife Dolphia, the couple eventually moved to Los Angeles.
Blocker had a Master’s degree in drama and began pursuing his doctorate at UCLA. Blocker was from Texas and typically dressed the part. At one point he was standing in a phone booth arrayed in his typical Texan attire when the casting director for a television western spotted him. Things got busy from there.
One of his first credited roles was as the Goon in the Three Stooges short Outer Space Jitters in 1957. He made the playbill as Don Blocker for reasons that have been lost to history. At the same time, he was cast as the blacksmith in two episodes of Gunsmoke. Small parts in Colt .45, The Restless Gun, The Sheriff of Cochise, Cheyenne, The Rifleman, Cimarron City, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, Wagon Train, and Have Gun Will Travel followed. This was the Golden Age of TV Westerns, and Bobby Blocker rode the wave. Throughout it all Blocker parlayed his impressive size into screen-filling characters alongside most of the major actors of the day.
In 1959 Bobby Blocker landed his dream job. He was cast as Eric “Hoss” Cartwright in the hit NBC Western series Bonanza. He by now marketed himself as Dan Blocker professionally. Blocker played the iconic role through 415 episodes.
When interviewed about the unique combination of power and compassion he poured into the character of Hoss Cartwright, Blocker said he tried to channel Stephen Grellet, the prominent 18th-century French-American Quaker missionary. Grellet once wrote, “We shall pass this way on Earth but once, if there is any kindness we can show, or good act we can do, let us do it now, for we will never pass this way again.” This was Hoss Cartwright’s mantra.
The Rest of the Story
While Hoss was by far Blocker’s most famous role, he logged a little time on the big screen as well. He starred alongside Frank Sinatra in the 1963 comedy Come Blow Your Horn and again five years later as a seasoned tough guy with Sinatra in Lady in Cement. Potentially his most thought-provoking Hollywood encounter involved the esteemed director Stanley Kubrick.
Kubrick was casting his bizarre anti-war film Dr. Strangelove and needed somebody large and menacing to play Major TJ “King” Kong. Peter Sellers carried the film playing multiple parts, but he felt that the role of Kong should be a standalone character. Blocker’s agent perused the script and refused to allow him to read for it. The iconic part subsequently went to Slim Pickens. Dr. Strangelove would have had an entirely different flavor had it been Hoss Cartwright riding that thermonuclear bomb while maniacally waving his cowboy hat.
Blocker worked regularly into the 1970s on projects as disparate as The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County and The Flip Wilson Show. Along the way, he was gifted partial ownership in several Bonanza Steakhouse restaurants in return for his service as the chain’s commercial spokesman while in character as Hoss.
Dan and his wife Dolphia had four children. One son, Dirk Blocker, became an actor of some renown in his own right. Dirk’s most familiar role was that of Marine pilot Jerry Bragg in the awesome 1970’s-era TV epic Black Sheep Squadron. Black Sheep Squadron was a staple of my childhood. Looking back on it I can see the family resemblance. Dan’s son David became an Emmy-winning TV producer. One of his twin daughters was a visual artist.
Dan Blocker was a great fan of high-performance automobiles. He maintained a 1965 Chevrolet Chevelle Z-16 as well as a 1965 Huffaker Genie Mk 10 racer he christened the Vinegaroon. The Vinegaroon raced for Chevrolet in 1965 and 1966 as part of the US Road Racing Championship series as well as the 1966 Can-Am championship.
In May of 1972 Blocker went into the Daniel Freeman Hospital in LA to have his gallbladder removed. A cholecystectomy is a common surgical procedure that should have been fairly routine. The hulking combat veteran who played the lovable Hoss Cartwright suffered a pulmonary embolus post-operatively and died both suddenly and unexpectedly. He was only 43.
In an unprecedented effort, the writers of Bonanza wrote Hoss Cartwright’s death into the show’s narrative. More commonly when a major character died during the production of a TV show the writers and producers would simply gloss over it. In the later series Bonanza: The Next Generation it is explained that Hoss drowned saving a man’s life.
Bonanza sputtered on for one more year without Hoss, but it never was quite the same. That 14thseason wrapped in January of 1973 and has been the least popular of the show’s protracted run. Dan Blocker–actor, war hero, father, and cowboy–is buried in the Woodmen Cemetery in De Kalb, Texas, alongside his father, mother, and sister. His is a fairly unassuming grave for a truly outsized guy.