Too Soon The Final Curtain For A Gentle Giant . . .
by Sylvia Conrad
Friends and fans join Dan's distraught family in mourning his untimely death.
"I'm gonna live to be an old man and build my grandchildren houses..."
Those were Dan Blocker's words to good friend Lorne Greene after his gall bladder operation. There were other dreams Dan Blocker had: There was a boat that was being built for him to use on the Thames in England, and as soon as possible after his gall bladder operation, he planned to take his wife Dolphia and daughter Debbie to join their three other kids in Europe, and to sail that big boat southward toward Portofino where it's so warm and sunny. Life was going to be a paradise on earth. Instead, 12 days later, Dan Blocker lay dead. The newspaper statement said, "Death was attributed to a blood clot in the lung."
"I still can't believe that Dan is gone," a stunned Lorne Greene told me the day after his tragic death. Everything seemed to be going so well for Dan. He was able to get out of bed and take a few steps a few hours after the surgery. His doctors, confident, said that he'd be out of the hospital in a week. Then suddenly an infection set in. Still, he and his family weren't frightened; for the doctors said this kind of infection wasn't uncommon and they were convinced everything would be okay.
"Instead of getting out of the hospital in a week, he was there for two weeks, but even that didn't seem too awful. He came home on Friday." Lorne's voice dropped to a whisper, as if he were struggling with an emotion he couldn't control. "The morning after he came home from the hospital he told Dolphia, 'I can't catch my breath! I'm afraid I'm having a heart attack.'"
The big fellow had always been afraid of heart trouble, because at 300 pounds he was frightfully overweight. He'd been proud of the fact that he'd been able to reduce his weight 30 pounds before the surgery. It gave him a better chance; the doctors said it reduced the risk. This was the least he'd weighed since he'd been a sergeant in the Korean War. Instead of that dreamed-of sail down the Thames, he was rushed writhing in pain, with sirens screeching, to a hospital, Dolphia trembling at his side, holding hand in hers. At the hospital doctors discovered that he was suffering from a massive blood clot in the lung. After treatments Dolphia Blocker was told, "Dan has passed the worst part of the crisis. He has a 90 percent chance of being perfectly okay." Dolphia sat in the waiting room quietly outside the intensive care room, when all of a sudden everything broke loose.
"Everyone was rushing around like crazy, dashing in and out of the intensive care room," Lorne went on. "They worked on Dan for hours but finally saw there was no hope. Perhaps it was for the best," he said his voice breaking again, "If they had pulled him through after that crisis he might have been tragically stricken for God knows how long. And Dan, always active, would have hated that."
It was a stricken family that heard the news that Dan was dead. Once Dolphia had said of him, "Whenever there is trouble, he is a mountain of strength to our children and me." Now their mountain of strength is gone. The day after he died, the Blocker home was filled with children from the neighborhood, all crying because they'd lost a cherished friend. Dolphia sat there numbly; unable to believe her Dan was gone.
"She's a helluva girl," said Lorne. "Every so often she broke down, there were tears, then she regained her strength but was still unable to talk with anyone."
Only a short time before they had invested in a beautiful new home on Lake Washington in Seattle where he planned to moor his 74 foot yacht, which he had named the 'Dolphia' for her. Now her only comfort was in her children. Debbie, 18, one of the Blocker's twin daughters, had rushed through her exams at the University of Hawaii to be with her dad immediately after the gall bladder surgery. Danna, the other twin, had flown to Switzerland to be with her brothers David, 17 and Dirk, 15. Now they were all gathered together to fly to Texas for the very private burial for the family and Dan's closets friends. Lorne could remember the delightful story Dan and Dolphia had told him about their romance.
It had begun when they were both students at Sul Ross, a little college in the small West Texas town of Alpine, with a population of 5000. Dan was active in school dramatics, in football and political science. Contrary to his image of a blundering, semi-stupid guy, he was brilliant. But from early childhood, on, he had been the butt of schoolmate's jokes and jeers because of his enormous size---6'4" as an adult---and weight. He pretended not to mind the jibes but he did. Underneath his rough-hewn exterior he was very sensitive.
"I was fed up with people who made fun of my size," he once told Lorne. "Dolph never seemed to take too much notice of my size; she seemed more interested in what was inside of me."
It was Dolphia who first realized the seriousness of his interest in acting and who persuaded him to change from his physical education major to theatre arts. Dolphia had told Lorne, "Dan was the leader in just about everything a group of us would do when we got together." After he graduated Dan went in to summer stock with a close friend. Later he was drafted into the Army in the Korean War, and became a first sergeant. One day he was pinned down on a hill by enemy fire for ten hours; several members of his patrol were killed. For the first time Dan realized that he was destructible. But that disappeared from his mind after he got out of the Army. During the time he and Dolphia were parted, he had continued to feel that she was the only woman he cared about or would ever care about. After his release from the Army they were married. He got a teaching certificate, and enjoyed his experiences as a teacher. While he was teaching in New Mexico he also studied acting. When he and Dolphia decided to go to California, it was supposedly so he could study for an advanced degree at UCLA. But perhaps he had chosen California because acting was always in the back of his mind. At any rate, Dolphia was behind him---just as she had been behind him when he sold insurance or taught or did anything else that would help him earn a living. As Dolphia once said, "Our first few months in California were pretty lean at times. Acting jobs were sometimes scarce, but Dan would pay the rent with checks he got for substitute teaching. He didn't really mind that. He loved teaching."
In fact there were times later on, after he'd become famous as Hoss on Bonanza, when he would get so exasperated at the loss of privacy caused by his fame that he'd say fretfully, "I'd like to go back to teaching right now."
"I think he is just letting off steam," Dolphia would explain to friends. "He loves acting, but he's fed up with being unable to go anywhere without being mobbed."
Dan loved his work; he loved his friends, but most of all he loved his wife and family. When the kids were younger, he once told a friend, "My biggest problem is privacy for my family and me. I would love to take my boys to a football game and let them enjoy themselves the way I did when I was a kid, but the only way my sons can enjoy a big sporting event is if they go with someone else. When I take them to a game it turns into a shambles. That's because it isn't me sitting in the stands---it's Hoss Cartwright. I love being Hoss on TV, but in private life, I want to soak up the joy of my children and forget all about Ben's middle son."
It was a difficult problem for Dan to solve. As Hoss he was making about $300,000 a year. He and Michael Landon and Lorne Greene had tremendous business interests in the multi-million dollar class. Their joint enterprises included apartment buildings, office buildings, land, oil and gas. In addition he owned a fertilizer plant and had far spread business interests all over the country. He was in tremendous demand for personal appearances everywhere. But some of the spirit of a small town Texas boy remained in him. Whenever he was close to the town in which he was brought up---O'Donnell, Texas---he'd visit with chums there. Once while offers of thousands of dollars for personal appearances were pouring in he took time out to make a free one in O'Donnell, just to please old friends. The place was jammed; there was standing room only. But all that wasn't making it possible for him to spend more time with his family. Once, when his youngest son was stricken with appendicitis, he was in a distant town and his wife had to call him on the phone. Over the phone, he made arrangements for an ambulance, found a doctor, found a fine surgeon, and saw to it that everything went well for his son. But it wasn't until several days after the surgery that he could return home.
Dan wanted to be close to his family at all times. So far as he was concerned, nothing else could compensate for the loss of precious months of their lives. But he also saw something else in California that troubled him. In many of the schools in California, academic standards were going down, and worse still, pushers were pushing marijuana and hard drugs on young children. He had enough faith in his kids to believe that they would never be tempted, but he hated to see them exposed to that kind of environment. Loving his children so much, he decided to send them to Switzerland, where he felt the schools were much better than in the United States. For a time the rumor flew around Hollywood that he had moved to Switzerland in order to avoid taxes.
"That's a lie," he told a friend. "First of all, I'm not trying to avoid taxes, secondly, I haven't moved there. My wife and I lease a home in Switzerland, but we still live in the United States. The children will get the benefit of a year in Switzerland. After that, I hope to send them to school in England, where there are also very fine schools."
In recent years, the season for most TV shows, including Bonanza, has been arranged so that it isn't necessary for any actor in a series to make as many episodes as previously. That meant that each year Dan would have about five months away from work. That thrilled him.
"More time to spend with my family," he'd say jubilantly.
Even when he was working, he would take advantage of every slight hiatus or holiday to fly to Switzerland to be with his children.
"It takes only about 14 hours," he'd say, "so I commute there whenever I can." Every succeeding year brought greater togetherness for them all. But when interviewers tried to get Dan to tell the secret of all his years of happy married life, he'd just shake his head.
"It's just the way it is," Dolphia would smile happily and say, "I don't know what the children and I would do without him." She didn't dream at 43 he would be dead. Dan would say, "I enjoy portraying Hoss, and I hope to be doing it for many years to come, but I always keep in mind that Dan Blocker is a man, too, and the two have different ways of doing things."
While Hoss' family consisted of a father and two brothers, who all spend their time together, Dan's real-life father is dead, and after his death, his mother had come to live with Dolphia and Dan for a while. But she is a fiercely independent lady, and though she loved visiting with them, she decided to go back to her home in Texas. She was there when Dan died. Any wife or widow can understand what the loss of such a man means to Dolphia. And the loss to his children is even more poignant. Had the funeral been public, thousands of fans and well-wishers would have gone to it. In New Mexico where Dan taught, and in O'Donnell, Texas where he had been brought up, there were many tear stained faces. A boyhood friend said of Dan, "There is not a soul in O'Donnell who wasn't proud of what Dan made of himself. As a kid he turned over his fair share of outhouses, made many trips to the principals office for throwing erasers around the room, and once ran through the plate glass window of a downtown merchant. But the merchant forgave him. Anybody who knew him would forgive him; there wasn't a mean bone in his body, and everyone who met him realized that. He was a great boxer and used to take on any toughs who came to town hungering for a fight. He could have been a champion heavy weight, but he was too kind hearted; he hated to hurt people physically or any other way."
At the private burial services in DeKalb, Texas, where he had been born, friends and family wept for the loss of this man they had loved so much. As to whether Bonanza would continue, Lorne Greene's answer was "who cares?" his voice husky with unhappiness. "Right now they plan to have the show resume without him, but it is as if it had lost its heart. He was a very special person. He has great warmth on the screen---he touched people. They'll miss him terribly. People laughed or cried with him week after week. Nobody gave him an Emmy. He didn't care. He didn't care about awards or rewards." Lorne's voice broke. Perhaps now Dan had gone to a greater reward than any he could ever have received on earth---and that is the only consolation there can be for the woman and three children he left behind.