Pernell Elven Roberts, Jr. (May 18, 1928 – January 24, 2010)
was an American stage, film and television actor, as well as a singer.
In addition to guest-starring in over 60 television series, he was
best known for his roles as Ben Cartwright's eldest son Adam
Cartwright on the Western television series
Bonanza (1959–1965), and
as chief surgeon Dr. John McIntyre, the title character on Trapper
John, M.D. (1979–1986).
Roberts was also known for his lifelong activism, which included
participation in the
Selma to Montgomery marches
Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 and
NBC to refrain from hiring whites to portray minority
1 Early life
3 After Bonanza
4 Personal life and death
7 External links
Roberts was born in 1928 in Waycross, Georgia, the only child of
Pernell Elven Roberts, Sr. (1907–1980), a
Dr Pepper salesman, and
Minnie (Betty) Myrtle Morgan Roberts (1910–1988). During his
high-school years, Pernell played the horn, acted in school and church
plays, and sang in local
USO shows. He attended, but did not graduate
from, Georgia Tech. Enlisting in 1946, he served for two years in the
United States Marine Corps. He played the tuba and horn in the Marine
Corps Band, and he was also skilled at playing the sousaphone and
percussion. He later attended, also without graduating, the
University of Maryland, where he had his first exposure to acting in
classical theatre. He appeared in four productions while a student,
Othello and Antigone, but left school to act in summer
In 1949, he made his professional stage debut with
Moss Hart and Kitty
The Man Who Came to Dinner
The Man Who Came to Dinner at the
Olney Theatre in Olney,
Maryland. Later, he spent eight weeks at the
Bryn Mawr College
Bryn Mawr College Theatre
in Philadelphia, portraying Dan in Emlyn Williams'
Night Must Fall
Night Must Fall and
Alfred Doolittle in Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion.
Roberts moved to Washington, D.C., in 1950 and supported himself with
a variety of jobs while performing with the
Arena Stage Theater for
two years. He performed in numerous productions, including Steinbeck's
Burning Bright, The Adding Machine, The Firebrand, The Deletable
Judge, The Taming of the Shrew ("Petruchio"), Playboy of the Western
World, Children of Darkness, School for Wives, The Inspector General,
The Glass Menagerie, Mr. Arcularis, Twelfth Night, The Scarecrow, The
Importance of Being Earnest, Julius Caesar, She Stoops to Conquer,
School for Scandal, Three Men on a Horse, Faith of Our Fathers
(Sesquicentennial Amphitheatre) and Dark of the Moon.
Roberts performed with the Port Players, in Milwaukee, in the comedy
To Dorothy a Son, and other productions. "Roberts again is master of
all situations, as he has been in the 9 previous productions of the
season". He performed as well with the Brattle Theatre's production
Othello and Henry IV Part I, which was later brought to the New
York City Center (Playbill, January 1957) and later, Guys and Dolls
with the Cohassett Music Circus.
In 1952, Roberts moved to New York, where he appeared first
off-Broadway in one-act operas and ballets with the North American
Lyric Theatre, with the Shakespearewrights, at the Equity Library
Theatre, and later on Broadway with performances in Tonight in
Samarkand (also in Washington, DC), The Lovers opposite Joanne
Woodward, and A Clearing in the Woods with
Robert Culp and Kim
Stanley. He won a Drama Desk Award in 1955 for his performance in an
off-Broadway rendition of Macbeth, which was followed by the role of
Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. He performed in Twelfth Night, Merchant
of Venice, Dr. Faustus, and The Taming of the Shrew at the American
Shakespeare Festival, and later on Broadway. He performed in St. Joan
(1954, Cleveland), Down in the Valley (at the Provincetown Playhouse),
The Duchess of Malfi, Measure for Measure, and King John. .
In 1956, Roberts returned to the Olney Theatre, starring opposite Jan
Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing with the Players, Inc. group. The
same year, Roberts made his television debut in the "Shadow of
Suspicion" episode of Kraft Television Theater, followed by
guest-starring roles in Whirlybirds, Gunsmoke, Cimarron City,
Buckskin, Sugarfoot, and Cheyenne.
Roberts signed a contract with
Columbia Pictures in 1957 and made his
film debut a year later as one of Burl Ives' contentious sons in
Desire Under the Elms (1958). The film was nominated for a Best
Cinematography Academy Award. He also landed a character role in The
Sheepman (1958), opposite
Glenn Ford and Shirley MacLaine, and
continued to guest-star on television shows such as episodes of
Shirley Temple Storybook Theater ("The Emperor's New Clothes",
"Rumplestiltskin", "The Sleeping Beauty", and "Hiawatha"), the
live-broadcast Matinee Theater, where he starred again in
Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, and in The Heart's Desire. This
was followed by appearances in Trackdown, Buckskin, and episodes of
Zane Grey Theater. Roberts guest-starred as Captain Jacques Chavez on
NBC adventure series Northwest Passage (1958), 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 and played the lead villain in the 31st episode
("Hey Boy's Revenge") of Have Gun – Will Travel, portraying a killer
boss exploiter of Chinese coolie laborers.
In 1959, Roberts guest-starred in episodes of General Electric
Theater, Cimarron City, Sugarfoot, Lawman, One Step Beyond, Bronco, 77
Sunset Strip, The Detectives, and House Call. Also in 1959, he
co-starred in the film Ride Lonesome. "If Roberts felt typecast by
Westerns, they also provided his finest role in this film, arguably
the greatest of the B-films, starring
Randolph Scott and directed by
Budd Boetticher. Roberts recognized the film's classic structure; his
engaging outlaw, Sam Boone, counterpoints Scott's granite-faced Ben
Brigade, maintaining the tension of whether they will work together or
clash. He similarly played off James Coburn, who was making his film
debut as Boone's quiet sidekick, Whit." The same year, he was cast
As Adam in the opening credits
Roberts played Ben Cartwright's urbane eldest son Adam, in the Western
television series Bonanza. Unlike his brothers, Adam was a
university-educated architectural engineer.
Roberts, having largely been "a stage actor, accustomed as he was to a
rigorous diet of the classics" and to freely move about from part
to part, found the "transition to a television series", playing the
same character, "without costume changes," a difficult one. "It was
perhaps not surprising that, despite enormous success, he left Bonanza
after the 1964–65 season, criticizing the show's simple-minded
content and lack of minority actors...". It particularly
distressed him that his character, a man in his 30s, had to defer
continually to the wishes of his widowed father, and he reportedly
disliked the series itself, calling it "junk" television and
NBC of "perpetuating banality and contributing to the
dehumanization of the industry." The equally self-critical Roberts
("I guess I'll never be satisfied with my own work"), "had long
disdained the medium's commercialization of his craft and its mass
production, assembly-line mindset." Frustrated with
angry, he told a reporter in 1965, "I feel I'm an aristocrat in my
field of endeavor. My being part of
Bonanza was like Isaac Stern
sitting in with Lawrence Welk".
In much later interviews, Roberts denied statements about Bonanza
attributed to him. "I did not enjoy
Bonanza anymore...but I never said
those things people said I said." He was, however, "too smart not
to recognize its weaknesses." In a 1963 interview, he asked a
reporter, "Isn't it a bit silly for three adult males to have to ask
father's permission for everything they do?" "They told me the
four characters (Lorne Greene, patriarch Ben,
Dan Blocker and Michael
Landon as his brothers) would be carefully defined and the scripts
carefully prepared; none of it ever happened," he complained to The
Associated Press in 1964. He objected to how Bonanza
portrayed the relationship between the "father" and adult "sons,"
describing it as adolescent, lacking in "truth" and lacking in
Roberts acknowledged reasons for Bonanza's appeal, but pointed to his
personal need for story lines with greater social relevance, adult
themes and dialogue. He wanted
Bonanza to be "a little more grown up,"
(Mike Douglas Show, 1966). He also noted that he was not suited to the
"procedural" and "confining aspect" of series television, another
reason for his dissatisfaction, while on the show (Mike Douglas Show,
As Adam in "The Hopefuls" (1960)
Roberts had high hopes for what he could contribute to
Bonanza and was
disappointed with the direction of the show, the limitations imposed
Bonanza character and on his acting range. In a newspaper
interview, he said, "I haven't grown at all since the series began...I
have an impotent role. Wherever I turn there's the father image." 
Finally, after disagreements with writers and producers over the
quality of the scripts, characterization, and Bonanza's refusal to
allow him to perform elsewhere while on contract, Roberts "turned his
back on Hollywood wisdom and well-meant advice," and left, largely to
return to legitimate theater (Washington Post, January 25, 2010; New
York Daily News January 26, 2010; Mike Douglas Show, 1965, 1966);
Henry Darrow Archival Interview; USA Today, January 25, 2010).
Dan Blocker, Michael Landon, Lorne Greene, and Roberts in Bonanza,
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
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. Adam
Cartwright was mentioned on occasion in the series (including a 1967
episode which did not air until April 4, 1971 ("Kingdom of Fear"). In
television interviews, Roberts said that he would have stayed with
Bonanza, had he been allowed to do so on a part-time basis to enable
him to return to theater.
David Dortort described
Roberts as "rebellious, outspoken... and aloof," but, as one who
"could make any scene he was in better...". In a later archive
interview, he regretted not having insisted on a "marriage for Adam"
and having Roberts continue on the show as a semiregular. He added, "I
must confess..I was too hard on him. I did not appreciate him. I knew
he was good, but I didn't realize he was that good...none better."
In the last two
Bonanza movies that aired on
NBC in the early 1990s,
the story line stated that Adam, now in Australia, had equaled his
father's success, dominating the engineering/construction business.
Roberts in Bonanza, 1961
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.
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 Maria", "Sylvie", "Lily of the West", "The Water
is Wide", "Rake and a Ramblin' Boy", "A Quiet Girl", "Shady Grove",
"Alberta", and "Empty Pocket Blues".
Roberts stated that he loved his co-stars and did not want to leave
them, but the money just was not that important to him at the time. He
felt he could do better elsewhere.
Pernell Roberts, 1965
After Bonanza, Roberts played summer stock theatre, regional theaters,
and episodic TV, which gave him the opportunity to play a wide variety
of roles. He toured with musicals such as The King and I, Kiss Me
Kate, Camelot, and The Music Man, and dramas such as Tiny Alice. He
played Jigger in an ABC television presentation of Carousel and was
featured in a
CBS Playhouse production, Dear Friends.
In 1967, Roberts starred in the lavish, but short-lived David Merrick
production of Mata Hari, directed by Vincente Minnelli. The show had a
much-publicized "chaotic" preview performance due to technical
problems stemming from lack of rehearsal time at the Kennedy Center,
Washington, DC, where the preview performance took place. "What was
offered the people of Washington was a dress rehearsal. David Merrick
spoke to the audience beforehand warning them of this." Problems
were corrected by the official opening night, when the show received
good reviews for Roberts, musical score and lyrics, stage design and
costumes, but poor reviews for its co-star and other aspects of the
production. The show, nevertheless, was thought to have the
potential to continue to Broadway. "Mata Hari was a show with a great
story, two fascinating characters, and some accessory mess that could
have easily been tidied up by anyone but Vincente Minnelli." But
Merrick, "instead of bringing someone to clean house closed the
production down" ("Opening A New Window: The Broadway Musical in the
1960s," p. 205 Ethan Morrden, October 29, 2002).
In 1972, Roberts returned to Broadway and toured with Ingrid Bergman
in Captain Brassbound's Conversion, in which he played the title
role. "Particularly helpful is
Pernell Roberts in the acted upon
title role... This actor is a sturdy, not unamusing leading-man type
and may his appearance as a Bergman costar be rewarded beyond
In 1973, Roberts was nominated for a
Joseph Jefferson Award for his
performance in Welcome Home at the Ivanhoe Theatre in Chicago.
The same year, Roberts starred as
Rhett Butler opposite Lesley Ann
Warren, in another major production, Gone with the Wind, at the
Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, again receiving good personal
reviews, amidst weak reviews for the rest of the show.
Additional stage credits after
Bonanza include Two for the Seesaw, A
Thousand Clowns, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Any Wednesday, and
The Sound of Music
The Sound of Music (as Captain von Trapp).
The Night of the Iguana while still playing in
Bonanza in 1963.
Publicity photo of Pernell Roberts, 1972
Roberts guest-starred in TV shows such as The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.,
The Virginian, The Big Valley, Lancer, Mission: Impossible, Have Gun
Will Travel, Marcus Welby, M.D., The Wild Wild West, Ironside, The
Rockford Files, Gunsmoke, Mannix, Vega$, The Odd Couple, Hawaii
Five-O, The Love Boat, Hotel, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, San
Francisco International Airport, Nakia, Night Gallery, The Bold Ones,
The Quest, Police Story, Most Wanted, Westside Medical, Man From
Atlantis, Jigsaw John, Sixth Sense,
Quincy, M.E. The Feather and
Father Gang, Hawkins, Men from Shiloh, Perry Mason, Wide World of
Mystery, and The Six Million Dollar Man, and appeared in miniseries,
including Captains and the Kings, Centennial,
The Immigrants and
Around the World in 80 Days. He starred in two cult films, Four Rode
Out (1971) and Kashmiri Run (1970), directed by the veteran TV
director John Peyser, and other feature films, including The Magic of
Lassie (1978). He co-starred or was featured in several TV movies,
including, The Adventures of Nick Carter, Dead Man on the Run,
Assignment: Munich, The Night Rider, The Silent Gun, The Lives of
Jenny Dolan, The Deadly Tower, Hot Rod, Desperado, The Bravos, and
High Noon, Part II: The Return of Will Kane.
In 1979, Roberts again achieved "superstar" status as the lead in
Trapper John, M.D. (1979–1986), receiving an
Emmy nomination in
1981; and playing the character twice as long as
Wayne Rogers had
(1972–1975) on CBS's M*A*S*H series. Roberts told
TV Guide (1979)
that he chose to return to weekly television after watching his father
age and realizing that it was a vulnerable time to be without
financial security. "The show allowed Roberts to both use his dramatic
range and address issues," wrote The Independent.
Of the period between series, Roberts said he enjoyed moving around
and playing different characters. During that time, he also toured
university campuses conducting seminars on play production, acting,
In 1980, Roberts reunited with his former
Bonanza co-star Lorne
Greene, for 2 episodes of Vega$.
In 1988, Roberts co-starred with
Milla Jovovich in the TV movie The
Night Train to Kathmandu.
He guest-starred as Hezekiah Horn in the powerful Young Riders
episode, "Requiem for a Hero", for which he won a Western Heritage
Award in 1991.
In interviews, Roberts had described television as a "director's and
film cutter's medium," but he himself was described as a "born
television actor........low key." 
In the 1980s and 1990s, playing off his Trapper John M.D. persona,
Roberts acted as TV spokesman for Ecotrin, a brand of analgesic
Roles since included Donor (1990) with
Melissa Gilbert and Checkered
He appeared as captain of the
CBS teams for Battle of the Network
Stars 11 and 12.
Trapper John, M.D.
He narrated documentaries, including the National Geographic episode,
"Alaska, The Great Land" in 1965, "In the Realm of the Alligator" in
1986, the TV special Code One about the work of paramedics in 1989,
and "The Mountain Men" episode of the History Channel, 1999.
From 1991 to 1993, in his last venture into series television, Roberts
lent his distinctive voice to host and narrate the TV anthology
series, FBI: The Untold Stories.
He made his last TV appearance in 1997 on an episode of Diagnosis:
Murder, updating a
Mannix character he had portrayed decades before.
In his later life, and after the death of all of his former Bonanza
co-stars, Roberts "jokingly referred to himself as, 'Pernell, the last
one, Roberts.'" He read
Bonanza Gold Magazine, which was like
looking at an old family album, he said, and watched reruns of Bonanza
when he wanted to see old friends.
Personal life and death
Roberts married four times, first in 1951 to Vera Mowry — a
professor of theatre history at
Washington State University
Washington State University and
subsequently Hunter College, as well as professor emerita of the Ph.D.
program in theatre at City University of New York — with whom he
had his only child (Jonathan Christopher "Chris" Roberts, b. October
1951). Pernell and his first wife later divorced. Chris
Roberts, who lived variously in California and New York, attended
Roberts married Judith Anna LeBrecque on October 15, 1962; they
divorced in 1971. He subsequently married Kara Knack in 1972,
divorcing in 1996.
At the time of his death from pancreatic cancer on January 24,
2010, Roberts was married to Eleanor Criswell.
Desire Under the Elms (1958) - Peter Cabot
The Sheepman (1958) - Chocktaw Neal
Ride Lonesome (1959) - Sam Boone
One Step Beyond (1959) - Sgt. Vaill
The Errand Boy
The Errand Boy (1961) - Adam Cartwright - Cameo (uncredited)
Four Rode Out (1970) - U.S. Marshal Ross
The Kashmiri Run (1970)
Paco (1976) - Pompiho
The Magic of Lassie
The Magic of Lassie (1978) - Jamison
Checkered Flag (1991) - Andrew Valiant
Bonanza (1959–1965, TV) - Adam Cartwright
Cannon (1976) 5x18 The House Of Cards as Sid Cleary / Phil Denton
Trapper John, M.D. (1979–1986, TV) - Trapper John McIntyre
^ a b Dobuzinskis, Alex (January 25, 2010). ""Bonanza" Star Pernell
Roberts Dies At 81". Reuters. Reuters. Retrieved 2014-01-04.
^ a b "Pernell Roberts, 'Bonanza' and 'Trapper John' star, dies". CNN,
Alan Duke. January 26, 2010. Retrieved May 22, 2010.
^ "'Bonanza' star
Pernell Roberts dead at age 81". MSNBC, zap2it.com,
Jan. 25, 2010.
^ a b c d e Bruce Weber (January 26, 2010). "Pernell Roberts, Star of
TV's 'Bonanza,' Dies at 81". The New York Times. Retrieved May 22,
^ "Roberts Has Busy Time" Washington Post Sept. 24, 1950 Page L2
^ Christopher Matthew, "Players Give Comedy Well", The Milwaukee
Journal, 1953[page needed]
^ Adrian Slifka, "Pernel Roberts Set To Portray Surgeon in New Comedy
Drama", Youngstown Vindicator, June 19, 1979, Pg.16
^ Richard L. Coe, "Big Season On For Shakespeare", The Washington Post
and Times Herald; July 8, 1956, pg, H3
^ a b
^ Michael Carlson, "Pernell Roberts: Versatile actor best known as
Adam Cartwright of 'Bonanza'",
The Independent 1 February 2010 full
^ a b c "Pernell Roberts, Serious-Minded Actor of Stage and
Television, Dies at 81". Playbill.com, Robert Simonson, 26 Jan, 2010.
Archived from the original on 2010-01-29.
^ a b c "Pernell Roberts, TV actor". The
Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan
^ Wick Temple, "Bonanza's Adam Now in Camelot," Chicago Tribune August
19, 1965, p.A2
^ Jeff Prince, "
Pernell Roberts Ghost Rides In Sky", Fort Worth Weekly
January 26, 2010 full text
^ "Ponderosa Gold Under A Painted Sky," Joanne Stang, p. 305 in
"Popular Culture," by David Manning, 1975
^ Holsopple, Barbara (8 July 1979). "Trapper John: 30 Years After
'MASH'". The Pittsburgh Press. p. 134.
^ Whitney, Dwight (30 October 1982). "What makes
Pernell Roberts so
angry?". TV Guide. p. 37.
^ Washington Post, January 25, 2010
^ Mike Douglas Show, 1966[when?]
^ "TV doc flunked college 3 times". Weekly World News. 4 August 1981.
Retrieved 28 May 2017.
^ (This Time Pernell Won't Need a Tuba, Washington Post, May 1, 1963,
^ (Mike Douglas Show, 1966).
^ (Archive Interview 2002; Bonanza, The Official First Season, Volume
1, Feature, CBS/Paramount, 2009)
^ Allmusic entry for Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies. Accessed
October 28, 2008.
^ Bear Family boxed set Accessed November 7, 2008
^ Vincente Minnelli; Hector Arce (1974). I Remember It Well. Garden
City, NY: Doubleday. p. 378. ISBN 978-0-385-09522-8.
^ "Old Fashioned Mata Hari Opens". Washington Post, Times Herald.
November 22, 1967. p. B6.
^ John Beaufort (March 17, 1972). "Miss Bergman on Stage". Christian
Science Monitor. p. 4.
^ Richard L. Coe (March 14, 1972). "Dated 'Captain Brassbound'". The
Washington Post. p. B1.
^ Dan Lewis (August 30, 1973). "The Confederacy Falls At the
Pavilion". Los Angeles Times.
^ TV Guide, 1982
^ Dan Lewis (September 17, 1979). "Monday". Waycross
^ Western Heritage Award Archived 2005-03-05 at the Wayback Machine.
^ The Pittsburgh Press, "Cartwrights Meant Cartwheels," Vince Leonard,
April 28, 1967.
^ (TV Guide, 1982).
^ (New York Times, January 26, 2010; Cowboydirectory.com).
Bonanza Gold Magazine, 2005).
^ "Vera Mowry Roberts Chair in American Theatre Announced at 90th
Birthday Celebration". City University of New York, December
^ "Pernell Roberts". Bonanza.dcanary.com. Archived from the original
Pernell Roberts FAQ". Archived from the original on October 28,
2009. Retrieved 2007-05-05. CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status
Franconia College The Big List of Names". Franconia.to.
^ Johnson, Milt. TV Radio Mirror 1963
^ Woo, Elaine (January 25, 2010). "Pernell Roberts, Adam Cartwright on
"Bonanza," dead at 81". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-01-25.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Pernell Roberts.
Pernell Roberts on IMDb
Pernell Roberts at the Internet Broadway Database
Pernell Roberts at Find a Grave
Pernell Roberts at Internet
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