Unlimited Access. Try it Today! Your First 10 Days Always $0.99

Pernell Roberts dies at 81; played eldest son on TV's 'Bonanza'

Pernell Roberts, a versatile actor best remembered for his portrayal of the handsome, eldest Cartwright son on the classic television western "Bonanza" and later as the lead character in the medical drama "Trapper John, M.D.," died at his Malibu home Sunday. He was 81.

His death after a two-year battle with cancer was confirmed by his wife, Eleanor Criswell.

Roberts became a star as Adam Cartwright, the heir apparent of the fictional Ponderosa ranch, a role he filled from the show's debut in 1959 until 1965, when he left the cast despite the series' immense popularity. "Bonanza" remained on the air for eight more years without him.

The longest-running TV western after "Gunsmoke" and the first to be broadcast in color, “Bonanza” broke the mold for its genre with its emphasis on character development over gunplay. The cast was headed by Lorne Greene, who played thrice-widowed patriarch Ben, and also featured Dan Blocker as the lovably oafish middle son, Hoss, and Michael Landon as the hot-headed youngest son, Little Joe.

Roberts was the well-educated and mature brother, who played Adam with a suave manner that won a legion of fans. He found the role unfulfilling, however, and left the show at its peak, a decision that caused him to be "scratched off by most of his contemporary fellow actors as some kind of a nut," Times critic Hal Humphrey wrote in 1967.

Roberts had several complaints, chief among which was the relationship between Ben Cartwright and his grown sons. "Isn't it just a bit silly for three adult males to get Father's permission for everything they do?" Roberts said in the Washington Post a few years before he departed the cast. "I have an impotent role. Everywhere I turn, there's the father image."

A political liberal who later took part in civil rights protests, he also chafed at the mostly white complexion of the cast. The notable exception was Victor Sen Yung, who played a stereotypical Chinese house servant.

Born May 18, 1928, in Waycross, Ga., Roberts grew up poor on the edge of the state's Okefenokee Swamp. In high school, he played the horn and acted in school and church plays.

He attended Georgia Tech and the University of Maryland but did not earn a degree from either institution, and he served in the Marine Corps band at Quantico, Va.

He began his theatrical career in 1950 at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C, where he performed in more than a dozen plays. In 1952 he moved to New York City and appeared in one-act operas and ballets with the North American Lyric Theater.

In 1955 he won a Drama Desk Award as the best off-Broadway actor for his performance in "Macbeth." On Broadway he appeared with Joanne Woodward in "The Lovers."

In 1957 he arrived in Hollywood and won roles in three movies, including "Desire Under the Elms" (1958), which starred Sophia Loren, Anthony Perkins and Burl Ives.

True stardom eluded him, however, until he landed the part of Cartwright's No. 1 son in NBC's "Bonanza."

He helped his TV family maintain the ranch and fight off desperadoes and other scoundrels for six years, during which he also was given the opportunity to show off his singing voice a number of times.

But he frequently clashed with the show's writers and producer "about the scripts, character development and other things" and grew so unhappy about "artistic compromises" that he became, as one headline described his decision, a "Bonanza Deserter." His character was written out of the show.

Some of Roberts' first television roles after leaving "Bonanza" were on rival westerns, including "Gunsmoke," "The Big Valley" and "The Virginian."

He also appeared on other leading series of the 1970s, such as "Hawaii Five-O" and "Marcus Welby, M.D."

His comeback role was Dr. John McIntyre in the CBS drama “Trapper John, M.D.” based on the character from the popular comedy "MASH."

His work in "Trapper John" earned Roberts an Emmy nomination for best dramatic actor in 1981.

After the show ended in 1986, he made guest appearances on other series and TV movies, narrated a documentary and hosted the short-lived "FBI: The Untold Stories" (1991). He retired in the late 1990s.

A son from his first marriage, Chris, died in 1989. He is survived by Criswell, his fourth wife. Services will be private.

Roberts said in several interviews that he harbored no regrets about abandoning "Bonanza," which he said he left "for my own good."

He outlived the other Cartwrights: Blocker died in 1972, Greene in 1987 and Landon in 1991.


Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Violence breaks out near Camden Yards during Freddie Gray protests
    Violence breaks out near Camden Yards during Freddie Gray protests

    A day of mostly peaceful rallies to protest the death of Freddie Gray turned confrontational as dark fell over Baltimore on Saturday with demonstrators smashing the windows on police cars, blocking traffic near the Inner Harbor and shouting, “Killers!” at officers dressed in riot gear.

  • Mayor, commissioner denounce work of agitators
    Mayor, commissioner denounce work of agitators

    Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called for calm late Saturday as more than 1,300 police officers worked to take control of the city after agitated protesters incited violence after a day of peaceful marches.

  • As protests continue, David Lough ends skid with walk-off homer in 5-4 win over Red Sox
    As protests continue, David Lough ends skid with walk-off homer in 5-4 win over Red Sox

    In what proved to be one of the strangest nights in Camden Yards’ 23-year history — a business-as-usual ballgame inside the stadium and a tumultuous environment outside it — the Orioles ultimately broke their five-game losing streak by beating the Boston Red Sox, 5-4, on a walk-off homer by David...

  • Dan Rodricks: The fragile dream of the Next Baltimore cracks
    Dan Rodricks: The fragile dream of the Next Baltimore cracks

    Saturday afternoon, when things were still peaceful and the Freddie Gray marchers first reached Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, that long asphalt barrier that separates some of the poorest neighborhoods of West Baltimore from the central part of the city, first boys on bicycles, then men with...

  • The 45-minute mystery of Freddie Gray's death
    The 45-minute mystery of Freddie Gray's death

    When Freddie Gray briefly locked eyes with police at 8:39 a.m. on a corner of an impoverished West Baltimore neighborhood two weeks ago, they seemed to recognize each other immediately. As three officers approached on bicycles along West North Avenue, the 25-year-old Gray was on the east corner...

  • Sociologist says mood of protests can change from block to block
    Sociologist says mood of protests can change from block to block

    Dana R. Fisher, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, said prior to Saturday's demonstrations in Baltimore that the tone of the protests will have a lot to do with the people organizing the crowds. More than 1,00 people gathered in Baltimore to protest the death of...