Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pernell Roberts: A Good Guy Who Wore Black

Actor Pernell Roberts, who became a household name as eldest son Adam Cartwright on the classic western series Bonanza and who made a comeback several years later as the title character on the hospital drama Trapper John, M.D., has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 81. Over the last few years, Bonanza has become one of my favorite shows and Roberts' portrayal of Adam was a primary reason. Although he was definitely a Cartwright, Adam wasn't your typical cowboy. Urbane and more serious than his younger brothers Hoss and Little Joe, Adam was equally comfortable reading a good book as he was working on the Cartwright's sprawling Ponderosa ranch.

In addition to my enjoying his work as an actor, I've long admired Pernell Roberts for being his own man. In what some felt was career hari kiri, he left Bonanza in 1965 after 6 seasons. At the time of his departure, Bonanza was the #1 show on television and would remain so for an additional 2 seasons. Pernell's motives for bolting from the hit show weren't because he had a Carusoesque desire to make movies or more money. He left because he wasn't happy with the quality of the scripts and felt that his role wasn't challenging. In an interview after his stint with Bonanza had ended, Pernell said the following:

"I had six seasons of playing the eldest son on that show. Six seasons of feeling like a damned idiot, going around 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."

Although I respect Pernell's reasons for leaving Bonanza, I wish that he and the producers were able to work out their differences so that he could have stayed on the show. Even though Bonanza remained successful after Pernell departed (it finally ended its run in 1973), his presence was missed. Watching the opening credits and seeing only 3 Cartwrights ride on horseback toward the camera just wasn't the same.

Last year, I was doing some research on Bonanza/Pernell Roberts and learned some details that made my respect for him grow even more. It turns out Pernell was an outspoken supporter of civil rights and marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, AL. He was also active in pressuring NBC (the network that aired Bonanza) to refrain from hiring whites to portray minority characters.

Pernell is survived by his fourth wife, Eleanor Criswell. He was preceded in death by a son from his first marriage, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1989 at age 38.

Below is a clip from the 1963 episode of Bonanza titled "My Brother's Keeper". In it, Adam considers leaving the untamed west and heading east after accidentally shooting Little Joe.


Richard @ The Bewildered Brit said...

I've learnt a lot about Pernell Roberts from this! I'm delighted to know he was a supporter of civil rights! That's fantastic.

I never liked Bonanza after he left, he was always my favourite character. He always looked so cool!

RIP, he'll be missed.

Hugh Jee From Jersey said...

That was sad news, but at 81, he did have a pretty long run.

Pancreatic cancer got him, just as it did his TV brother Michael Landon.

Candy Minx said...

Wow, what a great post Malcolm. I had no idea about this story of this actor and you wrote such great stuff about him. Love the video too, thanks!

Marvalus said...

Trapper John, M.D. is the sole reason that I fell in love with medical dramas...I used to have a thing with Pernell Roberts. Totally in love with Trapper John...

Barbara aka Layla said...

Now my two fave Bonanza brothers are both gone. He seems like he was a great guy, Interesting to learn he marched with MKL!!!!

Malcolm said...

Richard: I'm glad to hear you found this post educational. One of my favorite Pernell moments from "Bonanza" is an episode in which the Cartwrights were framed for a robbery/murder. When they were found guilty, Ben, Hoss, and Little Joe were vocally protesting the trumped up charges. However, Adam calmly sat back in his chair in silence because he knew that getting loud wasn't going to solve anything.

Hugh: I didn't make the pancreatic cancer connection between Pernell Roberts and Michael Landon until you mentioned it. Even now, the chances of surviving this form of cancer aren't all that good.

Candy: Thanks! When I found this info on Pernell in 2008 or 2009, it was very eye opening. Although I knew about the reasons he left "Bonanza", the civil rights angle was new to me.

Marvalus: Thanks for sharing your Trapper John M.D. story. I remember watching it on a fairly regular basis with my mother Sunday nights at 10. Instead of that reality B.S., TV Land should be running shows like "Trapper John, M.D.". Here is something to bring back memories for you:


Barbara: Who was your other favorite Cartwright brother... Dan Blocker or Michael Landon?

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