The First Time a TV Show Addressed the Death of a Character

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

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.)

The Ratings

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.

25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Mary Owen wasn’t welcomed into the world until more than a decade after Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life made its premiere in 1946. But she grew up cherishing the film and getting the inside scoop on its making from its star, Donna Reed—who just so happens to be her mom. Though Reed passed away in 1986, Owen has stood as one of the film’s most dedicated historians, regularly introducing screenings of the ultimate holiday classic, including during its annual run at New York City’s IFC Center. She shared some of her mom’s memories with us to help reveal 25 things you might not have known about It’s a Wonderful Life.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHRISTMAS CARD.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for the holidays when he printed up 200 copies of the story and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, ended up getting a hold of it, and purchased the movie rights for $10,000.

2. CARY GRANT WAS SET TO STAR IN THE ADAPTATION.

When RKO purchased the rights, they did so with the plan of having Cary Grant in the lead. But, as happens so often in Hollywood, the project went through some ups and downs in the development process. In 1945, after a number of rewrites, RKO sold the movie rights to Frank Capra, who quickly recruited Jimmy Stewart to play George Bailey.

3. DOROTHY PARKER WORKED ON THE SCRIPT.


Getty Images

By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, the story was much different from Stern’s original tale. That’s because more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time—Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.

4. SCREENWRITERS FRANCES GOODRICH AND ALBERT HACKETT WALKED OUT.

Though they’re credited as the film’s screenwriters with Capra, the husband and wife writing duo were not pleased with the treatment they received from Capra. “Frank Capra could be condescending,” Hackett said in an interview, “and you just didn't address Frances as ‘my dear woman.’ When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you'll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We're finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.”

5. CAPRA DIDN’T DO THE BEST JOB OF SELLING THE FILM TO JIMMY STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Jimmy Stewart in a meeting, Capra realized that, “This really doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Stewart recalled in an interview. Stewart’s reply? “Frank: If you want me to be in a picture about a guy that wants to kill himself and an angel comes down named Clarence who can’t swim and I save him, when do we start?”

6. IT WAS DONNA REED’S FIRST STARRING ROLE.


Getty Images

Though Donna Reed was hardly a newcomer when It’s a Wonderful Life rolled around, having appeared in nearly 20 projects previously, the film did mark her first starring role. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role today, but Reed had some serious competition from Jean Arthur. “[Frank Capra] had seen mom in They Were Expendable and liked her,” Mary Owen told Mental Floss. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she'd be just right for Mary Bailey.”

7. MARY OWEN IS NOT NAMED AFTER MARY BAILEY.

Before you ask whether Owen was named after her mom’s much beloved It’s a Wonderful Life character, “The answer is no,” says Owen. “I was named after my great grandmother, Mary Mullenger.”

8. BEULAH BONDI WAS A PRO AT PLAYING STEWART’S MOM.

Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, didn’t need a lot of rehearsal to play Jimmy Stewart’s mom. She had done it three times previously—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts, and Vivacious Lady—and once later on The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis.

9. CAPRA, REED, AND STEWART HAVE ALL CALLED IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE THEIR FAVORITE MOVIE.


Liberty Films

Though their collective filmographies consist of a couple hundred movies, Capra, Reed, and Stewart have all cited It’s a Wonderful Life as their favorite movie. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra took that praise even one step further, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

10. THE MOVIE BOMBED AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.

11. A COPYRIGHT LAPSE AIDED THE FILM’S POPULARITY.

Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.

12. THE ROCK THAT BROKE THE WINDOW OF THE GRANVILLE HOUSE WAS ALL REAL.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though Capra had a stuntman at the ready in order to shoot out the window of the Granville House in a scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through it, it was all a waste of money. “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House,” Owen says. “On the first try.”

13. IT TOOK TWO MONTHS TO BUILD BEDFORD FALLS.

Shot on a budget of $3.7 million (which was a lot by mid-1940s standards), Bedford Falls—which covered a full four acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch—was one of the most elaborate movie sets ever built up to that time, with 75 stores and buildings, 20 fully-grown oak trees, factories, residential areas, and a 300-yard-long Main Street.

14. SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK IS “THE REAL BEDFORD FALLS.”

Though Bedford Falls is a fictitious place, the town of Seneca Falls, New York swears that it's the real-life inspiration for George Bailey’s charming hometown. And each year they program a full lineup of holiday-themed events to put locals (and yuletide visitors) into the holiday spirit.

15. THE GYM FLOOR-TURNED-SWIMMING POOL WAS REAL.

Though the bulk of the film was filmed on pre-built sets, the dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School. And the retractable floor was no set piece. Better known as the Swim Gym, the school is currently in the process of restoring the landmark filming location.

16. ALFALFA IS THE TEENAGER BEHIND THAT SWIMMING POOL PRANK.

Though he’s uncredited in the part, if Freddie Othello—the little prankster who pushes the button that opens the pool that swallows George and Mary up—looks familiar, that’s because he is played by Carl Switzer, a.k.a. Alfalfa of The Little Rascals.

17. DONNA REED WON $50 FROM LIONEL BARRYMORE ... FOR MILKING A COW.

Though she was a Hollywood icon, Donna Reed—born Donnabelle Mullenger—was a farm girl at heart who came to Los Angeles by way of Denison, Iowa. Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter) didn’t believe it. “So he bet $50 that she couldn't milk a cow,” recalls Owen. “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

18. THE FILM WAS SHOT DURING A HEAT WAVE.

It may be an iconic Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life was actually shot in the summer of 1946—in the midst of a heat wave, no less. At one point, Capra had to shut filming down for a day because of the sky-high temperatures—which also explains why Stewart is clearly sweating in key moments of the film.

19. CAPRA ENGINEERED A NEW KIND OF MOVIE SNOW.

Capra—who trained as an engineer—and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed a bit of an audio problem for Capra. So he and Shearman opted to mix foamite (the stuff you find in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water to create a less noisy option.

20. THE MOVIE WASN’T REQUIRED VIEWING IN REED’S HOUSEHOLD.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of many family holiday movie marathons, that wasn’t the case in Reed’s home. In fact, Owen herself didn’t see the film until three decades after its release. “I saw it in the late 1970s at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and loved it,” she says.

21. ZUZU DIDN’T SEE THE FILM UNTIL 1980.

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the film, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

22. THE FBI SAW THE FILM. THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”

23. THE MOVIE’S BERT AND ERNIE HAVE NO RELATION TO SESAME STREET.

Yes, the cop and cab driver in It’s a Wonderful Life are named Bert and Ernie, respectively. But Jim Henson’s longtime writing partner, Jerry Juhl, insists that it’s by coincidence only that they share their names with Sesame Street’s stripe-shirted buds.

“I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street,” Juhl told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cab driver.

"I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format," Juhl continued. "He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”

24. SOME PEOPLE ARE ANXIOUS FOR A SEQUEL.

Well, two people: Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth, who announced in 2013 that they would be continuing the story with a sequel, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, which they planned for a 2015 release. It didn’t take long for Paramount, which owns the copyright, to step in and assure furious fans of the original film that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights.”

25. THE FILM’S ENDURING LEGACY WAS SURPRISING TO CAPRA.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen," Capra said of the film’s classic status. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

Jason Momoa is Glad Game of Thrones's Khal Drogo Only Lasted One Season

Helen Sloan, HBO
Helen Sloan, HBO

Although Jason Momoa had a pretty minor role in the grand scheme of Westerosi things in Game of Thrones, fans of his character Khal Drogo will attest to him being an extremely important part of the series—particularly in how he helped to shape the character of Daenerys Targaryen. But the actor, who is currently starring in Aquaman, is happy his time on the series ended when it did.

Drogo met his untimely demise in Season 1, and Momoa has no regrets about it. “I’m actually really, really happy with how it all turned out because, you know, you just can’t keep that character alive,” Momoa told the New York Daily News. “Even when I watch it, it just wouldn’t fit. Khaleesi [Daenerys] … I feel like she inherits that strength and she has to be by herself and do it that way."

Momoa also commented on how popular a character Drogo still is, adding, “Even now, people just can’t stop ... they love Khal Drogo. It’s unbelievable. Like, one season. I don’t know any other character that’s done one season out of eight or nine that people just go [wild]. I didn’t know it was going to be that big.”

Even though Momoa hasn’t been on the show for years, he’s still a huge fan of the series. “It’s the greatest show on Earth,” he stated, sharing that he and his wife Lisa Bonet are devoted fans.

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