Dan ‘Hoss’ Blocker’s final movie role — ‘The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County’
Dan Blocker was the undisputed glue that held the long-running NBC western series Bonanza together until his tragic passing of an unexpected pulmonary embolism following gall bladder surgery in 1972.
The larger than life actor transformed Hoss Cartwright, the middle son of stalwart Ponderosa patriarch Ben Cartwright [Lorne Greene], into a multifaceted character who was easygoing and lovable, awkward around pretty girls, occasionally gullible when Little Joe [Michael Landon] convinced him to partake in a crazy get rich quick scheme, yet always reliable to come to the aid of someone in distress with his massive frame.
Bonanza fans tend to forget that Blocker was indeed a great and talented actor who didn’t simply play himself. Only 43 years old when he suddenly passed away, the cowboy appeared in a handful of films in an attempt to move past the public’s perception of him after the iconic western program made him a household name. Interestingly, Landon and Greene did not attempt any theatrical films during the show’s extensive run.
The DeKalb, Texas native acted twice with Frank Sinatra— Come Blow Your Horn  and the detective potboiler Lady in Cement . While not a great film, Blocker’s gritty supporting role as tough hood Waldo Gronsky virtually usurped Sinatra’s performance in the latter.
Blocker’s next project was a made for TV western entitled Something for a Lonely Man , costarring such impressive names as Warren Oates and Susan Clark. According to positive fan reviews on IMDB, it is considered his best film work. Playing a blacksmith who becomes ostracized by a frontier town after he fails to convince a railroad line to go through it, the sentimental film is not available in any format besides bootleg DVDs copied from decades-ago TV reruns. Promisingly, Encore Westerns dusted it off for the first time in 2016.
The gentle giant’s final project arrived via Universal Studios with the 1970 theatrical release of The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County. Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, Blocker’s fans should still find the character driven romp worth their time.
Playing yet another town blacksmith, Blocker is Charley, a down on his luck soul who sends for a mail-order bride. When she doesn’t appear, the nosey townspeople convince a saloon gal, portrayed by Nanette Fabray, to impersonate her so Charley won’t leave the town in shame. No question about it, Charley is quite similar to Hoss.
The western spoof includes a number of recognizable character actors, namely Jack Elam, Henry Jones, Wally Cox, Don “Red” Barry, Jim Backus, and Noah Beery, Jr. In addition, Mickey Rooney, in the midst of a career slump at the time, appears in a small role. All except Backus and Rooney guest starred on Bonanza, too.
In the movie’s official poster, the cowboy is blatantly billed as “Dan Hoss Blocker”, with “star of Bonanza” appearing slightly underneath. It would be interesting to know whether Universal’s marketing ploy annoyed the actor.
The film sank at the box office, as the genre was fading away by the early ’70s. However, another comedy western released the previous year, James Garner’s Support Your Local Sheriff!, became a box office smash after Garner put up $10,000 of his own money and convinced United Artists to do the same in order to re-release it. Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles would further the public’s appetite for humorous westerns in 1974.
The Cockeyed Cowboys has been rarely seen in the USA since its original run. The western was never released on home video or DVD but occasionally airs on Encore Westerns. YouTube generously offers a fan upload of the complete movie…unless Universal decides to yet again yank the video due to copyright infringement. Watch it while you can.
It’s such a shame that Blocker didn’t live long enough to capitalize on other roles. Maverick MASH director Robert Altman, who started his career on Bonanza during its debut season, personally asked the star to appear in his well-regarded film noir, The Long Goodbye, but the actor’s untimely death prevented this from happening. As an alcoholic novelist suffering from intense writer’s block, this performance had the potential to truly cement a film career separate from his beloved Hoss persona.
Regardless, Blocker’s legacy is vast, and new fans are discovering his work every day thanks to syndication on TV Land, MeTV, and the INSP channel.
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