Pernell Roberts, the actor best known for playing introspective, eldest son Adam Cartwright on the TV series Bonanza, passed Sunday at the age of 81. The cause was pancreatic cancer.
Pernell Roberts was born on May 18, 1928 in Waycross, Georgia. He attended Georgia Tech for a short time, before he joined the Marines. He was assigned to the Marine Corps Band due to his ability to play baritone horn, sousaphone, tuba and percussion. Following his service in the Marines, Roberts attended the University of Maryland for a time. It was there that he developed an interest in acting. He left school to work at the brand new Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
It was in 1952 that Pernell Roberts moved to New York City to pursue acting. He appeared in various off Broadway plays before making his debut on Broadway in Tonight in Samarkand in 1955. Over the next few years he appeared in several Broadway plays, including The Lovers (1956), A Clearing in the Woods (1957), a revival of The Taming of the Shrew, and The Duchess of Malfi (1957). He won a Drama Desk award for his performance in an off-Broadway revival of Macbeth in 1958.
In 1957 Pernell Roberts made his television debut in a guest appearance on Sugarfoot. The next few years he would guest star on Whirlybirds, Trackdown, Have Gun Will Travel, Northwest Passage, and General Electric Theatre. He his film debut in Desire Under the Elms in 1958. He also appeared in the films The Sheepman and Ride Lonesome (directed by Budd Boetticher).
It was in 1959 that Pernell Roberts was cast as Adam, Ben Cartwright's eldest son, on Bonanza. While the series would become one of the most successful shows of all time, Robert's tenure on Bonanza did not always run smoothly. He fought with producers to include more minority actors on the show and more minorities in the crew as well. He also complained about the quality of the scripts on the show, even referring to the show as "Junk TV." After six years with Bonanza, Roberts left the show. Adam was written out of the show as having left the Ponderosa. While the door was always left open for Adam's return, Pernell Roberts never returned to the show.
While Bonanza was still on the air, Pernell Roberts continued to appear elsewhere. He guest starred on The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor and appeared as himself in the movie The Errand Boy. After he have left the show, Roberts made several guest appearances, on such shows as The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, The Name of the Game, Hawaii Five-O, The Virginian, Alias Smith and Jones, Night Gallery, The Odd Couple, Mission: Impossible, The Odd Couple, Ironside, Baretta, The Rockford Files, The Man From Atlantis, and The Paper Chase. He also returned to the stage. He appeared on Broadway in the play Captain Brassbound's Conversion in 1972, Rhett Butler in a Los Angeles stage production of Scarlett, and in Welcome Home in Chicago. It was in 1979 that Pernell Roberts was cast in the title role in the M*A*S*H spinoff Trapper John M.D. The series proved to be a hit, running seven years.
Following Trapper John M.D., Pernell Roberts appeared in the mini-series Around the World in 80 Days. He guest starred in the shows The Young Riders and Diagnosis Murder. He also appeared in the television movies Desperado, Perry Mason: The Case of the All-Star Assassin, Night Train to Kathmandu, and Donor. He appeared in the film Checkered Flag.
Pernell Roberts was well known for his activism. Not only did he pressure the producers of Bonanza to hire more minorities, he also participated in the civil rights marches in both Selma and Montgomery.
Growing up I regularly watched Bonanza and it remains one of my favourite shows to this day. I must say that is much of the reason that Pernell Roberts' passing pains me so. Not only did he play Adam on the show, but he was the very last member of the cast to die. Not only are the actors who played the Cartwrights all gone now, but so are Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yung), Sheriff Roy Coffee (Ray Teal), and Deputy Clem Foster (Bing Russell, Kurt Russell's father). While I obviously disagree with Pernell Roberts' assessment of Bonanza, I still had enormous respect for the man. Although best known as Adam Cartwright, he was capable of playing a wide variety of roles. He was convincing as shady gunman Sam Boone in Ride Lonesome, and did very well playing a heavy in many Westerns. Pernell Roberts was also a man who believed in his convictions. He fought with the producers of Bonanza over the lack of minorities in that show's cast and crew, and participated in civil rights marches. Pernell Roberts was not simply a remarkable actor, he was also a remarkable man.