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A Look Back at the Heartbreaking Story Behind Hoss' Exit on 'Bonanza'

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It’s impossible to mention the classic television western Bonanza without name-dropping Hoss Cartwright

The middle son of ranch owner Ben Cartwright was seen as a gentle giant, and though his size was imposing (he weighed over 300 pounds), both Hoss and the actor who played him, Dan Blocker, had hearts of gold. Many fans believe that the character’s absence during the show’s final season led to its demise — but why was he MIA in the first place?

What happened to Hoss on 'Bonanza'?

One month after the Season 13 finale aired in 1972, Dan — who had been with the series since day one — died at the age of 43 from a post-operative pulmonary embolism following gall bladder surgery. 

Producers made the difficult decision to kill off Hoss after determining that no one else could possibly step into the role. Hoss’ off-screen death marked the first time in TV history that a major young male character had been killed off a show instead of just written off. 

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His cause of death wasn’t revealed until the 1988 made-for-television movie, Bonanza: The Next Generation, which didn’t star any of the original cast members. In the film, it was explained that Hoss had drowned trying to save a woman’s life. 

In Season 14, the writers attempted to fill the hole left by Dan’s death with a new character named Griff King, a parolee looking to reform his life on the Ponderosa Ranch, and the return of cowboy Candy Canaday, but the loss of Hoss caused Bonanza’s ratings to plummet.

Cast members said they knew the series wouldn’t survive without the affable actor. "After Dan's death, I didn't see how the show could continue," Lorne Greene, who played family patriarch Ben, admitted to TV Guide shortly after his co-star’s passing. "I said to my wife, 'That's it. It's finished.' I know Michael Landon felt the same way."

Michael, who became a ‘60s heartthrob thanks to his role as youngest Cartwright son Little Joe, recalled the pain of returning to set without Dan. "The first day we went back to work was just incredible, it was so bad," he shared.

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"Everybody was just trying to force good humor, because here we were, back in the same place again. Fortunately, we stayed out of the dining room that day," he added, noting, "We've had so many laughs in that dining room over the last 13 years… and that's where Dan and Lorne and I did most of our horsing around."

Dan seemed to agree that the cast is what made the series a success. "I think the show is popular basically because of the four characters, not because of the stories — which are sometimes terrible," he reportedly said in an interview.

Before the final season aired, Michael hinted that viewers might feel dissatisfied with the way Bonanza planned to address Hoss' absence. "We try to mention Hoss' death very simply, in passing... it might not please everybody," he confessed.

"I'm sure that some people would rather have a whole hour memorial to Dan, but we just couldn't do that. We tried to do what we thought he would have wanted us to do."

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