The death of a show's character has become fairly commonplace nowadays, but it wasn't always that way. Let's take a look at the first time a TV show dealt with the actual death of not only a character, but a beloved friend.
The Death of Dan Blocker
After 13 seasons of playing Hoss Cartwright, the easy-going, "gentle giant" brother on Bonanza, actor Dan Blocker died unexpectedly, shortly before filming was to begin for the final season (1972-1973). Only 43 at the time of his death, Blocker died on May 13, 1972, of a pulmonary embolism (a post-op blood clot to the lungs) following a "routine" gall bladder surgery.
Blocker was universally loved by cast and crew alike. According to Mitch Vogel, who played Jamie in the last few seasons of Bonanza, "Dan Blocker was easy to get to know—the kind of guy you could go and have a beer with."
"After Dan's death," said Lorne Green (who starred as Ben Cartwright, father to Hoss), "I didn't see how the show could continue. I said to my wife, 'That's it. It's finished.'"
After Blocker's unexpected death, it was decided that his character Hoss would be killed in an accident in an episode of the show. This was to be the first time in television history that a show had dealt with, or even mentioned, the death of one of its characters. "Just as we personally suffered a loss," explained Bonanza producer Richard Collins, "so the audience suffered one, too."
The episode, titled "Forever," was originally written to include Blocker as Hoss and, in fact, to showcase his acting talent. The two-part episode was written by Michael Landon, who also starred as Hoss' brother "Little Joe" Cartwright. In it, Hoss was to fall deeply in love with Alice Harper (played by Bonnie Bedelia).
Instead, Landon took the starring role, and the episode sees him falling in love with, getting engaged to, and marrying Alice Harper. Unfortunately, Alice has a ne'er-do-well brother heavily in debt to a ruthless gambler named Sloan, who pays a visit to Alice. When she refuses to cooperate with Sloan and his men, one of Sloan's henchmen ruthlessly beats to death the new Mrs. Cartwright (who was pregnant at the time). To cover up their crime, Sloan's men burn down the cabin.
The rest of the episode deals with Little Joe's loss and the family's grief, before Little Joe tracks down Sloan and his gang.
The Lack of Hoss
While "Forever" never directly dealt with the actual circumstances of Hoss' (or Blocker's) death, many scenes were obvious references. Said Landon about the episode: "We try to mention Hoss' death very simply, in passing... it might not please everybody. I'm sure that some people would rather have a whole hour memorial to Dan, but we just couldn't do that." He added, "We tried to do what we thought he would have wanted us to do."
Though intended to be slightly subtle, the oblique references to Hoss/Blocker were almost all too clear. In one scene, after taking her to see a location, Joe says to his bride, "My big brother and I used to call this 'the happy place,'" to which she replies, "You must have loved him very much." His realistically wistful reaction tells her the truth.
In another scene, Ben Cartwright states, "I know what it's like to lose a son;" he's later seen looking longingly at a picture of Hoss. Another touching scene involves Joe kneeling at his deceased wife's grave, saying, "I love you." But by far the most emotional scene is when Ben and Joe visit the burnt remains of the cabin where Joe's wife and unborn son were killed. In the scene, Landon collapses into Greene's arms and the two are seen shaking and crying. It was plainly obvious to the entire cast and crew that these were not fake or "crocodile" tears; the two stars were weeping for real, for their beloved friend and co-star. (After the director yelled "Cut!", many of the cast and crew joined the two stars in their open grief and wept.)
Throughout that final season of the show, Ben Cartwright speaks of the loss of his beloved son Hoss, though exactly how Hoss died is never explained. It wasn't revealed until years later, in the syndicated follow-up series Bonanza: The Next Generation (1988), that Hoss drowned trying to save another man's life.
Filming While Grieving
The episode was actually cathartic for the show's stars, as well as the crew. As soon as shooting began, the cast and crew were reminiscing about "when Dan did this" and "the joke Dan played" and "remember when Dan..."
According to Landon, who also directed the episode in addition to writing and starring in it, the first scene they had to film was the worst. The scene took place in the Cartwright dining room; "dining room scenes" were always the dullest, deadest scenes of any Bonanza episode, usually just an excuse for exposition of the episode's plot. Lorne Greene and Landon kept recalling the many laughs they had shared with Blocker in the Cartwright dining room. (Somehow, because the dining room scenes were usually so serious, they had always shared the most laughs while filming them.)
Although "Forever" did garner huge ratings for the show, Bonanza was clearly on its last legs, despite its lingering popularity. A perennial top ten show, it had fallen out of the top ten for the first time during the previous season. The show had also been switched from its famous "Sunday night at 9 o'clock" time slot to Tuesdays at 8. Every TV show that gets cancelled has "reasons" to explain its demise; in Bonanza's case, there were the stories of how, in its new time slot, it was "put up against popular TV 'Movies of the Week,' including Ben-Hur and Cleopatra. But the fact of the matter is that no one really cared to watch the show any more after the passing of the beloved Hoss. Somehow it just wasn't the same.
The show fulfilled its dismal final season of 1972-1973, then went off into rerun and syndication heaven, the final resting place of even the greatest of TV shows. The final season of Bonanza, the "season without Hoss," is by far the least popular and least requested season in the show's rerun package.