|Born||Pernell Elvin Roberts, Jr.
May 18, 1928
Waycross, Georgia, U.S.
|Died||January 24, 2010 (aged 81)
Malibu, California, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Vera Mowry (1951–1959)
Judith Anna LeBreque (1962–1971)
Kara Knack (1972–1996)
Eleanor Criswell (1996–2010)
Pernell Elvin Roberts, Jr. (May 18, 1928 – January 24, 2010) was an American stage, movie and television actor as well as singer. In addition to guest starring in over 60 television series, he was widely known for his roles as Ben Cartwright's eldest son, Adam Cartwright, on the western series Bonanza, a role he played from 1959 to 1965 — and as chief surgeon Dr. John McIntyre, the title character on Trapper John, M.D. (1979–1986).
He was also widely known for his life-long activism, which included participation in the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 and pressuring NBC to refrain from hiring whites to portray minority characters.
Roberts was born in 1928 in Waycross, Georgia, the only child of Pernell Elvin Roberts, Sr. (1907–1980, Dr. Pepper salesman) and Minnie (Betty) Myrtle Morgan Roberts (1910–1988). 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. He attended, but did not graduate from, Georgia Tech. While serving for two years in the United States Marine Corps, he participated in the Marine Corps Band. He subsequently attended the University of Maryland, also without graduating.
Roberts moved to Washington D.C. in 1950, supporting himself in a variety of jobs while performing with the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.. In 1952 he relocated to New York City, appearing first off-Broadway and later on Broadway with performances in “Tonight in Samark”, “The Lovers” opposite Joanne Woodward and “A Clearing in the Woods”. He won a Drama Desk Award in 1955 for his performance in an off-Broadway rendition of Macbeth. Roberts then moved to Los Angeles and signed a contract with Columbia Pictures in 1957.
In 1958, Roberts guest-starred as Captain Jacques Chavez on the NBC adventure series Northwest Passage based on the life of Major Robert Rogers in the French and Indian War. He appeared with fellow guest star Fay Spain in the 1958 episode "Pick up the Gun" of Tombstone Territory. In 1958 he played the lead villain in the 31st episode of Have Gun - Will Travel, portraying a killer boss exploiter of Chinese Coolie laborers entitled "Hey Boy's Revenge". The episode drew critical acclaim for shedding some light on the contribution of indentured Chinese workers in building the U.S. west. In 1959, he co-starred in the film Ride Lonesome, the same year he was cast in Bonanza.
Roberts played Ben Cartwright's eldest son, Adam, in the Western television series Bonanza — an architectural engineer with a university education, unlike his brothers. Adam has been variously described as urbane, intense, introspective, quiet, sullen and serious.
Roberts not only disliked his character, a grown man deferring to his widowed father, but also the series itself — calling it "junk" television and accusing NBC of "perpetuating banality and contributing to the dehumanization of the industry." In a 1965 interview, Roberts said "my being part of ‘Bonanza’ was like Isaac Stern sitting in with Lawrence Welk." Bonanza's producer, David Dortort, described Roberts as "Aloof, rebellious and outspoken." Despite the show’s success, Roberts departed the series — having disagreements with the writers, displeased with the implausibility of his adult character's continually addressing his father as "Pa", having asked unsuccessfully that he be able to stop wearing his toupee, and wanting to return to theater. Roberts at one point even threatened to walk off the series, breaking his contract. He was told "...go ahead, if you never want to work again as an actor. Anywhere. Ever." He stayed through the run of his contract.
Roberts fulfilled but did not extend his six-year contract for Bonanza, and when he left the series his character was eliminated with the explanation that Adam had "moved away." Later episodes suggested variously that Adam was "at sea", had moved to Europe, or was on the East Coast, running that end of the family business. The last episode Pernell Roberts worked on was "Dead and Gone", air date April 4, 1965. He appeared in the next two that aired which were filmed prior to "Dead and Gone" — "A Good Night's Rest", air date April 11, 1965 and "To Own The World", air date April 18, 1965.
Roberts was the only accomplished singer of the original cast, though David Canary who joined Bonanza in 1967, had a background in voice and performed on Broadway. During Roberts' Bonanza years, he recorded Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies, a folk music album which Allmusic calls "...the softer, lyrical side of folk music — pleasant and not challenging, but quite rewarding in its unassuming way." The album, released by RCA Victor and arranged by Dick Rosmini, is available on compact disc only as part of the fourth disc of the Bonanza 4-CD boxed set on Bear Family Records.
On the Bonanza box set albums, Roberts also sings "Early One Morning", "In the Pines", "The New Born King", "The Bold Soldier", "Mary Ann", "They Call the Wind Mariah", "Sylvie", "Lily of the West", "The Water is Wide", "Rake and a Ramblin Boy", "A Quiet Girl", "Shady Grove", "Alberta", and "Empty Pocket Blues".
After Bonanza, Roberts played the straw hat circuit and made guest appearances on TV shows including The Big Valley, Mission: Impossible, The Wild Wild West, Gunsmoke, Mannix, The Odd Couple, Hawaii Five-O, The Love Boat and The Hardy Boys. He played Jigger in an ABC television presentation of Carousel and Rhett Butler in the Los Angeles stage production of Scarlett.
In the early 1980s Roberts starred in the television series Trapper John, M.D. (1979–86), receiving an Emmy nomination in 1981 — and playing the character almost twice as long as Wayne Rogers had (1972–1975) on the CBS M*A*S*H series. Roberts told TV Guide in 1979 that he chose to return to weekly television after watching his father age, and realizing that it was a vulnerable time to be without financial security.
In 1983, Roberts was a team captain on, Battle Of The Network Stars, playing the game Simon Says. In 1988, Roberts co-starred with Milla Jovovich in the TV movie The Night Train to Kathmandu. A guest appearance as Hezekiah Horn in the Young Riders episode "Requiem for a Hero" won a Western Heritage Award for Roberts in 1991.
In the 1980s and 1990s, playing off his Trapper John M.D. persona, Roberts acted as TV spokesman for Ecotrin, a brand of analgesic tablets. Recent roles included Donor (thriller, 1990) with Melissa Gilbert and Checkered Flag (action, 1990). He made his last TV appearance in 2001 on an episode of Diagnosis Murder, updating a Mannix character he had portrayed decades before.
|Photo of Pernell Roberts with his parents and his son Chris|
|Pernell Roberts with son Chris on the Mike Douglas Show, c. 1966|
|Pernell Roberts with 2nd wife, Judith LeBreque (photo: Charles Moore from his book Powerful Days: The civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore)|
|Pernell and Kara Roberts|
Roberts married four times.