Best recalled as the eldest son and first member of the "Bonanza" Cartwright clan to permanently leave the Ponderosa in the hopes of greener acting pastures, dark, deep-voiced and durably handsome Pernell Roberts' native roots lay in Georgia. Born Pernell Elvin Roberts, Jr. on May 18, 1928, in Waycross, he was singing in local USO shows while still in high school (where he appeared in plays and played the horn). He attended both Georgia Tech and the University of Maryland but flunked out of both colleges, with a two-year stint as a Marine stuck somewhere in between. He eventually decided to give acting a chance and supported himself as a butcher, forest ranger, and railroad riveter during the lean years while pursuing his craft.
On stage from the early 1950s, he gained experience in such productions as "The Adding Machine," "The Firebrand" and "Faith of Our Fathers" before spending a couple of years performing the classics with the renowned Arena Stage Company in Washington, DC. Productions there included "The Taming of the Shrew" (as Petruchio), "The Playboy of the Western Word," "The Glass Menagerie," "The Importance of Being Earnest," and "Twelfth Night." He made his Broadway debut in 1955 with "Tonight in Samarkind" and that same year won the "Best Actor" Drama Desk Award for his off-Broadway performance as "Macbeth," which was immediately followed by "Romeo and Juliet" as Mercutio. Other Broadway plays include "The Lovers" (1956) with Joanne Woodward, "A Clearing in the Woods" (1957) with Kim Stanley, a return to Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" (1957) and "The Duchess of Malfi" (1957). He returned to Broadway fifteen years later as the title role opposite Ingrid Bergman in "Captain Brassbound's Conversion" (1972).
Pernell then headed for Hollywood and found minor roles in films before landing the pivotal role of Ben Cartwright's oldest and best-educated son Adam in the "Bonanza" (1959) series in 1959. The series made Roberts a bona fide TV star, while the program itself became the second longest-running TV western (after "Gunsmoke") and first to be filmed in color. At the peak of his and the TV show's popularity, Pernell, displeased with the writing and direction of the show, suddenly elected not to renew his contract and left at the end of the 1964-1965 season to the utter dismay of his fans. The show continued successfully without him, but a gap was always felt in the Cartwright family by this abrupt departure. The story line continued to leave open the possibility of a return if desired, but Pernell never did.
With his newfound freedom, Roberts focused on singing and the musical stage. One solo album was filled with folks songs entitled "Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies." Besides such standard roles in "Camelot" and "The King and I," he starred as Rhett Butler to Lesley Ann Warren's Scarlett O'Hara in a musical version of "Gone with the Wind" that did not fare well, and appeared in another misguided musical production based on the life of "Mata Hari." During this period he became an avid civil rights activist and joined other stalwarts such as Dick Gregory, Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte who took part in civil rights demonstrations during the 60s, including the Selma March.
The following years were rocky. He never found a solid footing in films with roles in rugged, foreign films such as The Kashmiri Run (1970) [The Kashmiri Run], Four Rode Out (1970), making little impression. He maintained a viable presence in TV, however, with parts in large-scale mini-series and guest shots on TV helping to keep some momentum. In 1979 he finally won another long-running series role (and an Emmy nomination) as "Trapper John, M.D." (1979) in which he recreated the Wayne Rogers TV "M*A*S*H" (1972) role. Pernell was now heavier, bearded and pretty close to bald at this juncture (he was already wearing a toupee during his early "Bonanza" years), but still quite virile and attractive. The medical drama co-starring Gregory Harrison ran seven seasons.
The natural-born Georgia rebel was a heavily principled man and spent a life-time of work fighting racism, segregation, and sexism, notably on TV. He was constantly at odds with the "Bonanza" series writers of his concerns regarding equality. He also kept his private life private. Married and divorced three times, he had one son, Jonathan Christopher, by first wife Vera. Jonathan was killed in a motorcycle crash in 1989. In the 1990s, Pernell starred in his last series as host of "FBI: The Untold Stories" (1991). It had a short life-span.
Retiring in the late 1990s, Roberts was diagnosed with cancer in 2007 and died about two years later at age 81 on January 24, 2010, survived by fourth wife Eleanor Criswell. As such, the rugged actor, who never regretted leaving the "Bonanza" series, managed to outlive the entire Cartwright clan (Dan Blocker died in 1972; Lorne Greene in 1987); and Michael Landon in 1991).
|Eleanor Criswell||(1999 - 24 January 2010) (his death)|
|Kara Knack||(1 June 1972 - 1996) (divorced)|
|Judith Roberts||(19 October 1962 - 1971) (divorced)|
|Vera Mowry||(4 January 1951 - 1959) (divorced) 1 child|
Several of his roles were doctors that served compassion to others.
Roles in Westerns
Parents: father, Pernell Elvin Sr.; mother, Betty Roberts.
Had one son, Jonathan Christopher Roberts (b. October 1951, d. 1989), with 1st wife Vera Mowry.
First wife Dr. Vera Mowry was a professor at Washington State University.
Had a talent for singing, and was especially fond of performing folk music.
Recorded a solo album of folk songs on RCA Victor, "Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies," in 1962.
When he was interviewed after his career resurgence with "Trapper John, M.D." (1979) in the early 1980s, Roberts identified himself as very much a liberal.
He was nominated for a 1973 Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Guest Artist for his performance in the play, "Welcome Home", at the Ivanhoe Theatre in Chicago, Illinois.
His fine baritone was put to use frequently on stage in a number of musicals including "The King and I," "The Music Man," 'Kiss Me Kate," "Camelot" and "The Sound of Music". He played Rhett Butler in a short-lived 1973 musical version of "Gone With the Wind".
Had a penchant for martial arts; was known for giving demonstrations at the annual Circus of the Stars (1977) (TV), from the 1970s through the 1980s.
The singer appeared in one-act operas and ballets with the North American Lyric Theatre early in his career.
An avid political liberal, Roberts often complained about the mostly white complexion of the "Bonanza" cast, and the stereotypical ethnic roles that were displayed (in particularly, "Hop Sing", the house servant, played by Victor Sen Yung).
While serving for two years in the United States Marine Corps, he participated in the Marine Corps Band.
Had attended but did not graduate from Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
Was the spokesperson for Ecotrin Tablets between 1982 to 1990.
During his high school years, he played the horn, acted in school and church plays, and sang in local USO shows - pursuing a wide range of occupations before pursuing acting.
Graduated from Waycross High School in Waycross, Georgia, in 1945.
Before he was a successful actor, he was a butcher, a forest ranger, and a railroad riveter.
He had seven hobbies: golfing, swimming, reading literature, playing tennis, cooking and running. He also enjoyed singing in his spare time.
Before he was an actor, he also worked briefly as an apprentice with the Atlantic Coastline Railroad after graduating from high school.
Had left his role on "Bonanza" (1959), at the end of the sixth season in 1965, were because of two things: He was very unhappy with the way his character was going and for refusing to renegotiate his contract, for the following eight seasons.
Friends with: Robert Young, Charles Siebert, Madge Sinclair, Barbara Stanwyck, Lee Majors, James Best, James Drury, Doug McClure, Aaron Spelling, Simon Scott, James Arness, Peter Graves, Jack Klugman, Rod Serling, Robert Stack, Raymond Burr, Henry Darrow, Bart Braverman, Clifton James, R.G. Armstrong, Burl Ives, Frank Price and Robert Vaughn.
The last surviving original "Bonanza" (1959) cast member to die.
Had appeared in each and every episode of "Trapper John, M.D." (1979), with the exception of 1.
After his guest-starring role on "Diagnosis Murder" (1993), he retired from acting at age 66.
His parents, Pernell Elvin Roberts Sr., was a Dr. Pepper salesman; died in 1980, and Minnie 'Betty' Myrtle Morgan, was a housewife; died 8 years later in 1988.
His son, Jonathan Christopher Roberts died in 1989 in a motorcycle accident.
Was also a lifelong activist, which included participation in the Selma to Montgomery Marches in 1965, and pressuring NBC to refrain from hiring whites to portray minority characters.
After he happily left his role on "Bonanza" (1959), he turned his back on Hollywood wisdom and well-meant advice, hence, he returned to stage acting. It would take 14 years for Roberts to revitalize his career with a comeback to television with "Trapper John, M.D." (1979).
Had always detested his role on "Bonanza" (1959), as well as the show itself.
When he won the role as Adam Cartwright on "Bonanza" (1959), he found the adjustment to a television show difficult.
Moved to Washington, D.C., in 1950, taking some odd jobs while performing with the Arena Stage Theater for two years.
Before he was a successful actor, he was a Sunday School teacher in church in his hometown of Waycross, Georgia.
Had a son, Jonathan Christopher, nearly a year after he wed Vera Mowry, his first wife.
Upon his death, he was cremated.
Was a spokesperson for the National Kidney Foundation in the 1980s.
Second-only to Robert Fuller, Roberts ranked second for guest-starring in a number of Western shows.
Had made over 40 guest appearances on television.
With his G.I. bill, he attended the University of Maryland, where he was drawn to acting, eventually leaving school to work for the stage.
After a 14 year absence from television, he decided to comeback to do "Trapper John, M.D." (1979) for financial security.
Acting mentor and friend of Gregory Harrison.
Acting mentor was Lorne Greene.
I was teaching a Sunday school class at one of the churches in Waycross, Georgia, where I grew up. And the lesson dealt with equality and all of us being one under the eyes of God. All of a sudden it hit me!! This isn't true! The church was - is- the most segregated place one day a week there is in our country. And it's so ironical and so tragic that here's a philosophy which preaches and teaches human understanding and brotherly love and practices, in essence, the most vicious form of human relationship there is.
I had six seasons of playing the eldest son on that show. Six seasons of feeling like a damned idiot, going around -- me, like a middle-aged teenager, saying, 'Yes, Pa,' 'No, Pa' on cue. It was downright disgusting -- such dialogue for a grown man. I felt I wasn't being taken seriously as an actor, and that's like death to one's talent...Stuck as Adam Cartwright, I was only able to use about one-tenth of my ability. -- PR on why he left "Bonanza" (1959)
I'm never satisfied with my own work.
There are times when I think we almost manage to transcend our constant lack of good scripts, proper rehearsal and all the other things that bug a man in this business.... Everything on TV is that monster, compromise.... Let's face it, Bonanza could be really good if the powers-that-be cared enough to make it that way.
They told me the four characters [Lorne Greene, myself and Dan Blocker and Michael Landon as brothers] would be carefully defined and the scripts carefully prepared. None of it ever happened. - (In 1964 about the limitations he felt about his character given on-screen for "Bonanza" (1959).)
Isn't it just a bit silly for three adult males to get father's permission for everything they do? I haven't grown at all since the series began four years ago. I have an impotent role. Everywhere I turn, there's the father image. - In 1963 when "Bonanza" (1959) was too remote from reality.
In 1979: I've never been career oriented. Did I even want to be a star? What's a star? Is that something in the heavens? That's the only definition that comes to my mind. And the most important goals in my life have been to move gently to be at ease with the mystery of what it's all about.
As we get older, we become more political in terms of survival. We realize a certain amount of cunning is necessary and that you just end up in a victim when you are totally honest in an environment where those around you aren't. It's a matter of remaining true to yourself while continuing to move forward. It's also a matter of learning to keep control of one's balance.
When questioned if he was sorry for leaving his role on "Bonanza" (1959): God no! I'm just sorry I wasn't able to get out of my contract and leave sooner. So the other made millions. How much does one person need to live? I've never needed or wanted that much.
Of what led him to do "Trapper John, M.D." (1979), when he sounded subdued, almost resigned: I'm getting old. I just turned 51. I need to make a live. I hope that I can be totally responsible for my life till I die. Perhaps I won't have to worry in my later years.
Who never quite stomach it, who in turn never hid his feelings: There are times when I think we almost manage to transcend our constant lack of good scripts, proper rehearsal and all the other things that bug a man in this business ... Everything on TV is that monster, compromise ... Let's face it, "Bonanza" (1959) could be really good if the powers-that-be care enough to make it that way.
Why do a series? It's called paying the rent. It's called paying your dues. But so much depends on timing. Mine was a bit off when I quit "Bonanza" (1959).
In 1980: I've seen it all before. A hundred times before. Actors on their way up. Actors coasting. It was the same 20 years ago as today.
Who recounted casting for the lead role of "Trapper John, M.D." (1979): The beginning of this year, I got a call to come in and talk about the show. 3 weeks later, I was called back to do a screen test. And then, I waited again, until I finally got the word about a week before we shot the pilot that the network had approved me for the part.
Who proclaimed about leaving his role on "Bonanza" (1959), after he appeared in the show's 177 of the 430 episodes: I feel I am an aristocrat in my field of endeavor. My being part of "Bonanza" (1959) was like Isaac Stern sitting in with Lawrence Welk.
Who played the same character that Wayne Rogers had created, when he was on "M*A*S*H" (1972), except Roberts played his mellower than Rogers: I really don't know what the thrust of the series is. Sometimes it's drama, sometimes farce. I have absolutely no input. The actor is the last person the producers want to hear from.
On playing the same character that Wayne Rogers would've been famous for after "M*A*S*H" (1972), when he left in 1975: Time is moving along. I'm 51 and I say, 'Well, maybe I better hedge my bet a little and get into something more lucrative so I won't have to find food in the garbage vehicles of America, when I'm old.'
I distinguished myself by flunking out of college three times.
I just didn't enjoy "Bonanza" (1959) anymore. My contract was up and I left. It became joyless and boring and predictable and I had to get away. But I never said those things people said I said.
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