Pernell Roberts biography

Date of Birth: 18 May 1928, Waycross, Georgia, USA
Date of Death: 24 January 2010, Malibu, California, USA from pancreatic cancer

Only child of Pernell Elvin Roberts, Sr. (1907–1980) and Minnie (Betty) Myrtle Morgan Roberts (1910–1988)
Birth Name Pernell Elvin Roberts Jr.
Nickname The Liberal Cartwright Height 6' 1" (1.85 m)

Pernell Elvin Roberts, Jr. was born on May 18, 1928, in Waycross, as the only child of Pernell and Betty Roberts. Mr. Roberts, Sr. worked for the Dr. Pepper Bottling Company. They were members of the Waycross First Trinity Methodist Church, where Pernell sang in the church choir. During his High School years he sang in the local Glee Club and played French horn and tuba in the high school band. He played basketball and was a good swimmer.

After graduating from Waycross High School in 1945 he attended both Georgia Technological Institute in Atlanta (Engineering major) and the University of Maryland but flunked out of both colleges, joining the Marine Corps. three years before entering the University of Maryland. At the University of Maryland he got his first exposure to acting in classical theatre. On stage as from the early 1950s, he gained experience in such productions as "The Adding Machine"; "The Firebrand" and "Faith of Our Fathers" before spending a couple of years performing the classics with the renowned Arena Stage Company in Washington, DC.

He supported himself as a butcher, forest ranger, and railroad riveter while performing with the beforementioned Arena Stage Company. Productions there included "The Taming of the Shrew" (as Petruchio), "The Playboy of the Western Word," "The Glass Menagerie," "The Importance of Being Earnest," and "Twelfth Night." Two years later, he relocated to New York and appeared off-Broadway before graduating to the Great White Way. He made his Broadway debut in 1955 with "Tonight in Samarkind" and that same year won the "Best Actor" Drama Desk Award for his off-Broadway performance as "Macbeth," which was immediately followed by "Romeo and Juliet" as Mercutio.

Other Broadway plays include "The Lovers" (1956) with Joanne Woodward, "A Clearing in the Woods" (1957) with Kim Stanley, a return to Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" (1957) and "The Duchess of Malfi" (1957). He returned to Broadway fifteen years later as the title role opposite Ingrid Bergman in "Captain Brassbound's Conversion" (1972).

In 1955 he moved to Los Angeles to try his hand in motion pictures and signed a contract with Columbia in 1957. He made his film debut a year later as one of Burl Ives’ contentious sons in “Desire Under the Elms” (1958).

He got the role of Ben Cartwright's oldest and best-educated son Adam in the "Bonanza" (1959) series in 1959. The series became the second longest-running TV western (after "Gunsmoke") and the first to be filmed in color. At the peak of his and the TV show's popularity, Pernell, displeased with the writing and direction of the show, suddenly elected not to renew his contract and left at the end of the 1964-1965 season to the utter dismay of his fans. The show continued successfully without him, but a gap was always felt in the Cartwright family by this abrupt departure. The story line continued to leave open the possibility of a return if desired, but Pernell never did.

With his newfound freedom, he focused on singing and the musical stage. One solo album was filled with folks songs entitled "Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies." He returned to the stage on numerous occasions, including the 1973 Los Angeles production of “Scarlett,” and landed a terrific showcase for his vocal abilities in a 1967 television production of “Carousel.” Besides such standard roles in "Camelot" and "The King and I," he starred as Rhett Butler to Lesley Ann Warren's Scarlett O'Hara in a musical version of "Gone with the Wind", and appeared in another musical production that was based on the life of "Mata Hari."

During this period he was also an avid civil rights activist and joined others such as Dick Gregory, Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte and took part in civil rights demonstrations during the 60s, including the Selma Montgomery March in 1965. The following years were rocky. He never found a solid footing in films with roles in rugged, foreign films such as Tibetana (1970) [The Kashmiri Run], Four Rode Out (1970), making little impression.

He maintained a presence in TV, however, with parts in large-scale mini-series and guest shots on TV helping to keep some momentum. In 1979 he got another long-running series role (and an Emmy nomination) as "Trapper John, M.D." (1979) in which he recreated the Wayne Rogers TV "M*A*S*H" (1972) role. Pernell was now heavier, bearded and pretty close to bald at this juncture, but still quite virile and attractive. The medical drama co-starring Gregory Harrison ran seven seasons.

The natural-born Georgia rebel was a heavily principled man and spent a life-time of work fighting racism, segregation, and sexism, notably on TV.

He also kept his private life private. Married and divorced three times, he had one son, Jonathan Christopher, by first wife Vera. Jonathan was killed at age 38 in a motorcycle accident in 1989.

In the 1990s, Pernell starred in his last series as host of "FBI: The Untold Stories" (1991). Retiring in the late 1990s, Roberts was diagnosed with cancer in 2007 and died about two years later at age 81 on January 24, 2010, survived by fourth wife Eleanor Criswell.

As such, the rugged actor, who never regretted leaving the "Bonanza" series, managed to outlive the entire Cartwright clan (Dan Blocker died in 1972; Michael Landon in 1991, and; Lorne Greene in 1987).

Kara Knack (1 June 1972 - 1996) (divorced)
Judith Roberts (19 October 1962 - 1971) (divorced)
Vera Mowry (4 January 1951 - 1959) (divorced) 1 child Johnathan Christopher Roberts (1951-1989)
Eleanor Criswell (? - 24 January 2010) (his death)

First wife Dr. Vera Mowry was a professor at Washington State University.

Had a talent for singing, and was especially fond of performing folk music. He sang in several episodes of "Bonanza" (1959) and appeared on 2 record albums with the "Bonanza" (1959) cast as well as 1 solo album. Recorded a solo album of folk songs on RCA Victor, "Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies," in 1962.

Often expressed regrets in his later years about leaving "Bonanza" (1959) when he did.

When he was interviewed after his career resurgence with "Trapper John, M.D." (1979) in the early 1980s, Roberts identified himself as very much a liberal.

Best known by the public for his role as Adam Cartwright on "Bonanza" (1959), and for his starring role as the title character in "Trapper John, M.D." (1979).

He was nominated for a 1973 Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Guest Artist for his performance in the play, "Welcome Home," at the Ivanhoe Theatre in Chicago, Illinois.

His fine baritone was put to use frequently on stage in a number of musicals including "The King and I," "The Music Man," 'Kiss Me Kate," "Camelot" and "The Sound of Music". He played Rhett Butler in a short-lived 1973 musical version of "Gone With the Wind".

Pernell Roberts was only 13 years, 3 months, 6 days younger than Lorne Greene (born February 12, 1915), who played his television father, Ben Cartwright, on "Bonanza" (1959).

Pernell Roberts was only 6 months, 22 days older than Dan Blocker (born December 10, 1928), who played his television middle brother, Hoss Cartright, on "Bonanza" (1959).

Had a penchant for martial arts; was known for giving demonstrations at the annual Circus of the Stars (1977) (TV), from the 1970s through the 1980s.

The singer appeared in one-act operas and ballets with the North American Lyric Theatre early in his career.

An avid political liberal, Roberts often complained about the mostly white complexion of the "Bonanza" cast, and the stereotypical ethnic roles that were displayed (in particularly, "Hop Sing", the house servant, played by Victor Sen Yung).

While serving for two years in the United States Marine Corps, he participated in the Marine Corps Band. Remained good friends with Gregory Harrison, during and after "Trapper John, M.D." (1979).

Was the spokesperson for Ecotrin Tablets between 1982 to 1990.

He had a lot of hobbies like golfing, swimming, reading literature, playing tennis, cooking and running. He also enjoyed singing in his spare time.  

Sources: IMBD and Fancast

Pernell Main






                       Return to Main