Ken Howard Explained The Emotions On The First Bonanza Episode Following Dan Blocker’s Death
Ken Howard, a prominent actor in the 1970s, was known for his lead roles in popular television shows such as “Adam’s Rib” and “The Manhunter.” However, he gained widespread recognition for his portrayal of an inspirational coach in the high-school basketball drama “The White Shadow.” Afterward, he appeared in shows like “Dynasty” and “Melrose Place” before eventually becoming the National President of the Screen Actors Guild.
In 1972, Howard began his television career with a unique opportunity. He was cast to play the American legend Mark Twain in an episode of the Western series “Bonanza” titled “The Twenty-Sixth Grave.” This wasn’t the first time the character of Twain had appeared on the show, as Howard Duff had previously portrayed him in a 1959 episode called “Enter Mark Twain.”
The production of “The Twenty-Sixth Grave” was far from ordinary. Despite being the eighth episode of the 14th season, it was actually the first one filmed for that final season. The set was shrouded in a somber atmosphere due to the recent death of Dan Blocker, who played the beloved character Hoss. Blocker, aged 43, had passed away from heart failure caused by a blood clot after undergoing gall bladder surgery. This news was a shock to both the cast and crew, as well as the show’s fans, considering “Bonanza” was still a highly rated series in its 13th season.
Michael Landon, who portrayed the popular character Little Joe and had become an influential figure in the show’s creative process, had initially planned a significant storyline for Hoss in the 14th season premiere. The script titled “Forever” revolved around Hoss falling in love, getting married, and seeking revenge for his wife’s murder. However, Blocker’s death forced Landon to revise the plot and assign the story to his own character, Little Joe. Thus, the production of the episode “The Twenty-Sixth Grave” commenced, with Nicholas Colasanto, later known as “Coach” on the sitcom “Cheers,” directing.
When Ken Howard arrived on set, he witnessed two contrasting sides of Michael Landon. On one hand, Landon maintained a lighthearted atmosphere, using humor to keep everyone’s spirits up. He playfully teased Howard about the mustache he was wearing for the role and made everyone laugh. However, once filming was completed, Landon addressed the deep sense of loss and sorrow in a heartfelt speech during the wrap-up.
According to Howard’s account in Douglas Snauffer’s book “The Show Must Go On: How the Deaths of Lead Actors Have Affected Television Series,” Landon’s speech was emotionally charged. He acknowledged that the absence of Dan Blocker had left a void, expressing that things would never be the same again. Landon’s voice broke as he struggled to maintain his composure, leaving a profound impact on the cast and crew. Howard felt like he was part of a significant moment in television history, albeit a tragic one.