Pernell Roberts was born in Waycross, Georgia, on May 18, 1928 to P.E. and Betty Roberts. An only child in a southern family, he had an experience as a youth in church that led to his life-long work against racism. He describes it like this:
"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."
Roberts had many jobs as a young man, including a short stint with the Marines. He started university three times in the late 1940's, but his fascination with acting led to him flunking out. He did, however, fall in love with a professor, and was married for the first time in 1951. In October of that year Pernell and Vera Mowry Roberts had a son, Jonathan Christopher.
Roberts headed to New York and began to get small roles in plays. In the following years he worked on stage and, starting in 1957, in movies and on television. In his first two years in Hollywood he won parts in three movies - Desire Under the Elms, The Sheepman and Ride Lonesome, and had some small television roles. Then, in 1959, he began a role that would have a major effect on the rest of his life - Bonanza's Adam Cartwright.
|Behind the scenes, there were soon problems on the set. Pernell Roberts was concerned that the show was sexist, racist and violent. Producer David Dortort and others were equally, and understandably, worried about making changes to a show that was proving to be so successful. Six years into the show Roberts' contract was up, and refused to sign another. Adam Cartwright was written out of the show, his fate left uncertain in case Roberts ever decided to return. He didn't.|
Pernell Roberts remained active on stage, and on both large and small screen after leaving Bonanza. Shortly after taking off his gun belt the actor, sporting a new beard, was on stage playing King Arthur in Camelot, to excellent reviews. Over the next few years he appeared in numerous other plays, and several big-screen movies, including Four Rode Out and The Kashmiri Run. He could also be seen on television as a guest-star on dozens of shows. Roberts' appearance varied over the years. He was seen with a mustache or beard much of the time, and both with and without the toupé that had been standard on Bonanza. Still, fourteen years after leaving the show, much of the viewing public still equated Pernell Roberts with Adam Cartwright.
In 1979 another television series introduced a new generation of viewers to Roberts in a very different way. In the title role of Trapper John, M.D. Roberts played an older version of the M*A*S*H character, now head of a major American hospital. The show was primarily a drama, but included some great comedy and romance. The middle-aged, bearded doctor bore little resemblence to Adam Cartwright, and helped Roberts to be accepted by the public in different parts.
While Trapper John, M.D. did not have quite the long run of Bonanza, it was an international hit for seven years. The show dropped in ratings and was finally cancelled, however, after the loss of actor Gregory Harrison, who played Dr. "Gonzo" Gates.
In the early 1990's Pernell Roberts starred in his third, and so far his last, television series. He was the host of the short-lived FBI: The Untold Stories. The show had a controversial beginning, featuring in its first episode the story of Woody Harrelson's imprisoned father. It never really caught on, though, and was soon replaced.
Now more than 80 years old, Pernell Roberts is basically retired, although he occasionally shows up as a guest star when an especially good script comes along. His most recent television appearance was in March, 1999, narrating a programme for the History Channel called Mountain Men. He expresses no regrets at leaving the fame and money of Bonanza behind. He was divorced from his third wife, Kara, in 1995 and, sadly, his only child, 37-year-old Christopher, died in 1989.
Especially for my friend Margie - a photo of Pernell in a wet Speedo from Battle of the Network Stars.
The background music on this page is an old English folk song called "Early One
Morning". Pernell Roberts sang this song in a Bonanza episode called "The
Wooing of Abigail Jones" and also on the Ponderosa Party Time album.
Pernell also put out one solo album in 1963, a collection of folk songs entitled Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies. If you would like to hear him sing, download this clip from the album.
The Water is Wide
The two Bonanza cast albums, as well as Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies, are available in a four-CD set from Bear Family Records entitled Ponderosa Party Time.
Web page copyright © 1997-2009 by Karen Millard.