Yesterday morning, at around eight o’clock, my daughter was watching an episode of Little House of the Prairie. The story revolved around Mrs. Ingalls, who briefly took over as the schoolhouse teacher. One of her students was a big kid named Abel Makay—nice boy, sort of quiet, couldn’t read. As Casey and I watched, I wondered, aloud, “What ever happened to that guy?”
Moments later, I Googled “Little House” and “Abel Makay.” The name Dirk Blocker popped up. I then typed “Dirk Blocker” into Facebook, and—Bam!—there he was. I fired off a message, he responded a couple of hours later and, hey, here we are.
Turns out Dirk is a fascinating guy—not merely a fictional illiterate mountain boy, but a seasoned and accomplished character actor whose father, the late Dan Blocker, starred as “Hoss Cartwright” on Bonanza. Here, Dirk talks about working with Michael Landon; about joyfully jumping from show to show; about the highs and lows of acting and what it feels like to be called “one ugly motherfucker.”
Dirk Blocker—to hell with friggin’ Mrs. Oleson. Welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Dirk, before I get into your life and career, I’ll start with the reason you’re here: Earlier today the kids were watching the Little House on the Prairie episode where Caroline teaches school. There’s an illiterate older student named Abel Makay who learns to read under her guidance. Namely—you.
Dirk, I know this aired nearly 40 years ago, but what do you recall of your Little House experience? How did you land the part? What was it like? How big was it for you as a young actor?
DIRK BLOCKER: I’d just begun acting professionally—I had worked for director Leo Penn, who recommended me to Michael Landon when he heard they were trying to cast this role.
It was both a great joy—Michael’s company consisted of top pros—and a tad painful, as many of the crew were from Bonanza. My dad had only been gone for a few years.
The publicity associated with my working with Michael, coupled with the show’s strong ratings certainly opened many doors for me … kind of announced my entry into the biz.
J.P.: I’ve mainly covered sports in my career, and always find journeymen ballplayers (guys who jump from one team to another) fascinating. In a way, you’ve been a journeyman actor—lots of work through the years on tons upon tons of different shows. Has this been a good thing? A bad thing? Has there long been a desire for stability, or do you prefer the myriad experiences?
D.B.: I’ve used this very analogy many times. Being a guest performer, or taking on a small character role in a film, is akin (I imagine) to being a utility player/pinch hitter. You’ve got to be ready when called.
Growing up with a famous father stripped me of any desire for fame—my pop could hardly go anywhere without being mobbed by fans. So the life of a character actor/supporting player has always appealed to me. I’ve done a couple of series but neither of them lasted very long. No regrets—many fine things have happened in my life that would not have had the shows become successful.
J.P.: Your father is the late Dan Blocker, who famously played Hoss Cartwright in Bonanza before dying, at age 43, of a pulmonary embolism. I’m wondering two things: Dirk, you were only 14 when your dad passed. I’m wondering what you remember about him—not as an actor, but as a father and a person. How did losing him at such a young age impact your life? And are you an actor because he, too, was one?
D.B.: I’ve had many years to ponder this loss. It was overwhelming. I did a pretty good job of denying the impact his death had on me. The reality of his passing was just too much. So I led a pretty wild and untamed private life, avoiding pain as much as possible, and carried on a professional demeanor in public, avoiding reality through the world of make believe/acting.
My dad was my closest ally in the world. I loved him dearly. Over the years I’ve come to see him as a man of complexity. He cared ardently for the underrepresented in society, was liberal, generous, lived large in many ways and loved to laugh. On the other hand, he did not suffer fools and his temper could get the better of him in an instant. But he was quick to offer meaningful apologies when it became apparent that he’d crossed a line or misjudged a situation. Accepting responsibility for one’s actions, and aiming for living the golden rule, were the biggest traits I carry from him.
I suppose I was bitten by the acting bug at an early age while going to work with my dad. His schedule was such that this was one of the only ways to spend a lot of time with him. As a result, I’d watch as he and his cohorts would be chatting amiably about current events one minute, and then watch them transform themselves into someone else when called to the set—a kind of learning through osmosis. That, and that he enjoyed his work so much likely carried over for me.
J.P.: You made your television debut in 1974, acting in an episode of “Marcus Welby, M.D.” What do you recall from the experience? What was it like, seeing yourself on TV for the very first time?
D.B.: I was scared shitless. James Brolin’s doctor character was supposed to be giving me a shot and the gag was that I, a large teenager, was afraid of needles —so my nervousness worked for me. As we prepared to shoot the scene Brolin, holding my arm and able to feel my pulse pound, announced: “We’d better hurry up and shoot this before this kid has a heart attack.”
I’ve never enjoyed watching myself, particularly in my earliest years. When my work has felt authentic I can stomach watching, but I tend to get caught up seeing all that’s wrong with it.
D.B.: That’s a tough one. It’s all about the moments. Usually when a director I admire takes me aside and thanks me, or puts an arm around me to let me know my work’s appreciated. But I’ve been so fortunate to work with so many excellent people that to choose one moment seems impossible.
I’ve been very lucky here too with few low points compared with the challenges most working folk have to endure. The business has been kind to me in large part, I suspect, because my father was very well liked, but I do recall a producer at an audition once saying that they needed someone good looking for the part, and, “No offense kid, but you’re one ugly motherfucker.” I laughed until I saw that he was absolutely serious, if, perhaps a bit too straight-forward … Ironically, he looked like a troll himself.
J.P.: In 1982 you played “Jeff Shaw” in the film Poltergeist. This is probably going to sound stupid, but, well, I’ve heard it mentioned a million times before—so I’ll ask. Was there a Poltergeist curse? The film’s star Heather O’Rourke, died tragically young. Dominique Dunne, another actor in the film, was strangled by her boyfriend in 1982, and Julian Beck, the grim preacher in Poltergeist II, died of cancer shortly after filming. Is this just really horrible coincidence? Is it something you ever thought of?
D.B.: I’m not superstitious, so no. Though tragic, I don’t believe in a curse.
J.P.: You graduated from Santa Monica High in 1975—then received a BA from Antioch University in 2010. Why the long wait? What was it that made you go back to school after so many years?
D.B.: It was from a seed planted by my father when I was young. He was big on education (had been working on his dissertation for his PhD in Theatre Arts at UCLA when he landed Bonanza) and he often said, ‘I don’t care what you do with your life, but you owe it to yourself to, at the very least, get a degree in liberal arts.’
My career took off once I’d graduated from SamoHigh, and I never looked back—until I approached the age my father had been when he passed. Any psych major could have predicted that someone with a background light on self-awareness and reflection like myself might develop the need for deeper introspection when facing such a milestone, and that’s what happened to me. I felt the need to take a closer look at myself—how uncomfortable quietude was for me, how and why my successes had come so easily, and was I beginning to take them for granted? Etc., etc. So I removed myself from the business, unplugged the phone, and with the support and patience of my wife, Danielle, began retracing the years since my dad’s passing. At one point she challenged me to follow up on this long-held regret she’d heard me describe about never having gone to college. My arguments about my age and the impossibility of my passing math requirements fell on deaf ears and I enrolled and once again took myself out of the business. Her support was one of the greater gifts, in a long line of them, she has bestowed upon me.
J.P.: What comes with being the son of a famous actor? What I mean is—it it great, because it opens doors? Is it awful, because his career loomed/looms over yours? Are there unfair expectations? Do you seek comparison, or shun it?
D.B.: It definitely opened doors—not just due to his fame but also, I believe, because he was so well-liked. I am very grateful for the kindnesses this tough business has shown me.
There have been times when comparisons were hard to bear. If I had a nickel for every meeting I walked into only to hear—“Sorry, we thought you were big like your father”—I’d have quite a few nickels. I used to shun comparisons—wanting desperately to earn approval based on my own merits, but I’ve softened. People wanted to keep his memory alive and on some level I’ve served that purpose. It has helped over time that some directors/producers have come to me after we commenced working together to tell me what a surprise it was to learn who my dad was, or more recently to ask about my dad since they were too young to know much about him.
J.P.: According to IMDB, your last TV credit came in 2009, as “Trent” on “Criminal Minds.” Are you done acting, or looking for gigs? And I’m wondering—as one gets older, does work become significantly harder to find? Is it a struggle now, where once it was relatively easy?
D.B.: I’ve begun accepting work again. “Criminal Minds” came about when the actor cast in the role was hospitalized the night before shooting began and they needed a replacement. It felt good to know I could deliver on such short notice. In my time away from work I never lost my love of acting. I worked out with my coach, mentor and friend, Harry Mastrogeorge, until time requirements from school took precedence. It’s akin to riding a bike—the first day of rehearsal might feel a little wobbly, but soon enough experience and instincts take over and I’m like a kid returning to baseball in the spring.
J.P.: We always hear people like Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts talk about “getting into character.” Generally, though, their characters are fully developed individuals—stars of the show. You’ve been, among other things, a bartender on Beverly Hills 90210, “Mayor Gilmore” on X-Files, “Airport Security Man” on Larger Than Life. Dirk, do character actors have to also “get into the character”? Is there a process to becoming someone without myriad dimensions; someone in the background? Or do you just show up, put on a costume, memorize some lines and go?
D.B.: Actors have different ways of saying, ultimately, the same thing. To me, it’s about making sure that the circumstances, no matter how outrageous, or limited in scope, are real to you so that you behave intuitively. In many ways a smaller role can be challenging in that the writer hasn’t fully fleshed the role out leaving much open to interpretation, and, hopefully, collaboration with the director. On the other hand, being free to simply improvise a situation without too much dialogue (as with Bill Murray and Christopher Darga in Larger Than Life) can be tons of fun. Either way, I never just show up without some preparation—the more time I have the better. On set there’s little to no time for homework, and quite often not even time to rehearse, so you must show up ready, yet open to adjustment.
• Five greatest actors you’ve ever worked with?: Jack Nicholson, John Larroquette, Brian Kerwin, Jean Smart, Ben Johnson.
• Celine Dion calls and offers for $250,000 annually to move to Las Vegas and reprise your role of “Abel Makay” in her new nightly musical, “Celine Does Little House.” The only conditions are you have to wear a diaper and deliver all your lines in Korean. You in?: Wow —sounds like porn. I guess it would have to be for a paycheck like that. If you’ll write it—I’m in. (Could I smoke a cigar? I always wanted to play a cigar smoking diaper wearer.)
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? Details, please: Yes—flight to Dallas-Ft. Worth … thunderstorms and high winds. Pilot “parked” the bucking jet over New Mexico (literally nose up into headwinds—lights on ground below barely moving) for a good 45 minutes waiting for tornadoes in DFW area to disperse. Worst part—it was night and I had to drive upon arrival so no cocktails “on the house” that the crew was dispensing, and probably imbibing in as well.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Pat Haden, Good & Plenty, Coca Cola, Kwanza, Robert Redford, Red Foxx, patio sets, “Silver Spoons,” Huey Lewis and the News, 1987, dental floss: 1987 (my wife and I moved to our 1st and only home together), Red Foxx (funnnnnny man), Robert Redford, dental floss (a heavy hitter like me needs good tools), patio sets, Kwanza, Huey Lewis and the News, Good & Plenty, Pat Haden (no offense —know little about him), and a tie between Coke (not even with bourbon) and “Silver Spoons”
• In 1993 you were “Jerry” on “Doogie Hower, M.D.” Three things you can tell us about the experience: 1) Joan Tewkesbury directed —what a pleasure. She’s an under appreciated/underutilized craftswoman; 2) Co-starred with James Pickens, Jr.—loved working with him; 3. Neal Patrick Harris was just a kid—a very nice and incredibly polished one at that.
• More extensive gun control—Fan or foe?: Fan, absolutely.
• Would you rather be abducted by aliens and taken to Planet Zeebor or be forced to watched, for one year, an endless reel of the 21 Jump Street episode you appeared on?: Beam me up, Scottie.
• Three best television shows of all time?: The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Sopranos and Strangers With Candy
• Does KISS belong in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?: Seriously? Even I never got so stoned that they sounded good.
• Are you more concerned about cell phones causing cancer or emissions causing climate change?: We’d better start becoming concerned about climate change or cancer, whatever its cause, won’t matter much.