Family & Companions
An intense, brooding leading man and character actor on stage and in television, Pernell Roberts rose to fame as Adam, eldest son of the Cartwright clan, on "Bonanza" (NBC, 1959-1973), one of the longest-running and most popular television series in history. He left the show in 1965 due to conflicts with producers over the show's writing, and became a regular face in guest-starring roles on television and in the occasional film. But in 1979, he returned to television stardom with the lead role in "Trapper John, M.D." (CBS, 1979-1986), a medical drama based on the Korean War doctor played by Elliott Gould in the Robert Altman feature "M*A*S*H" (1970) and by Wayne Rogers in the television version. Also blessed with a rich baritone voice, Roberts appeared in several musical theater productions and recorded an album of folk songs in 1962, making him as versatile a performer as he was talented an actor.
Born on May 18, 1928 in Waycross, GA, Roberts was active in both music and sports while in high school and was a vocalist in his local church choir. He twice failed to attend his college classes; first at the Georgia Technological Institute, which he attended prior to joining the Marines in 1946 (where he performed in the Marine Corps Band), followed three years later by a brief tenure at the University of Maryland, which gave him his first exposure to acting in classical theater. After leaving the university, Roberts moved to Washington D.C. in 1950 and supported himself in a wide variety of jobs while performing with the acclaimed Arena Stage Company. Two years later, he relocated to New York and appeared off-Broadway before graduating to the Great White Way with performances in "Tonight in Samark," "The Lovers" opposite Joanne Woodward, and "A Clearing in the Woods." A 1955 Drama Critics Award for Best Actor in an off-Broadway production of "Macbeth" prompted a move to Los Angeles to try his hand in motion pictures. Roberts signed a contract with Columbia in 1957, and he made his film debut a year later as one of Burl Ives' contentious sons in "Desire Under the Elms" (1958).
Roberts' tall frame and authoritative presence made him a natural for Western hero roles. He marked considerable time in film and television shoot-em-ups, most notably Budd Boetticher's "Ride Lonesome" (1959), for which he broke tradition to play a smooth-talking villain. That same year, Roberts was cast as Adam Cartwright on "Bonanza." Producer David Dortort knew Roberts from his appearances in other television Westerns and thought him perfect to play the well-mannered Adam, whose education in architecture allowed him to design the family's iconic home, the Ponderosa. Though the series struggled its first year, a move to Sunday nights proved to be a successful one, leading to a rise in the ratings until it reached the top spot in the mid-1960s. Roberts enjoyed the rewards of being on a top-rated show, which allowed him to explore his musical interests with an album of folk songs, Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies in 1962.
But Roberts was uninhibited in expressing the concerns he had with the show over script quality and other issues. A public supporter of the Civil Rights Movement who attended the historic marches in Selma in 1965, Roberts used his position on a popular show to press NBC to stop casting white actors in minority roles, and spoke out against racist and sexist elements on the series itself. He also clashed with the producers over scripts and direction, railing against having to wear a toupee for the role. All four of the main cast members had signed five-year contracts with NBC in the second year of the show's production, but when Roberts was approached for renewal, he turned it down. Despite the dismay of his many fans, Roberts left the program in 1965 and headed back to the stage for a production of "Camelot." Years later, Roberts would express regret in interviews about his abrupt departure from the show.
For the next decade or so, Roberts worked steadily in television and a handful of obscure films, but substantive success eluded him. 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." But for the most part, Roberts was a guest star on episodic series and television movies which frequently cast him as authority figures - generals, police detectives, doctors and scientists. Then in 1979, Roberts had a second chance at television stardom with the title role on "Trapper John, M.D.," which concerned the further adventures of "M*A*S*H" surgeon Trapper John McIntyre. The series brought Trapper John up to the present, where he served as head of surgery at a major San Francisco hospital. Though older and without a toupee, Roberts was still capable of gaining a sizable female fanbase, though newcomer Gregory Harrison gave him a run for his money as fellow vet "Gonzo" Gates. Roberts netted his first and only Emmy nomination for the show, which ran until 1986. He also parlayed his popularity as a TV doctor into a long-running stint as the spokesman for Ecotrin tablets.
After "Trapper John" concluded its network run, Roberts returned to guest appearances in television and TV features, though the frequency of these guest shots were fewer and more far between. He appeared in a few made-for-TV movies, like "The Night Train to Kathmandu" (Disney Channel, 1988), "Perry Mason: The Case of the All-Star Assassin" (NBC, 1989) and "Donor" (CBS, 1990), then lent his distinctive voice to the ABC anthology series "FBI: The Untold Stories" (1991-93). But Roberts slowed his output with each subsequent year, until he made his final television appearances in several episodes of "Diagnosis: Murder" (CBS, 1993-2001) and as the narrator for the History Channel documentary, "Mountain Men" (1999). When the 21st century arrived, Roberts appeared to retire altogether from screen acting. His name and image, however, were frequently referenced in tributes and reports on "Bonanza," which fixated with some degree on the fact that at the time he was the last surviving member of the original cast. Sadly, he passed away from pancreatic cancer at age 81 in Malibu, CA.
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Worked briefly as an apprentice with the Atlantic Coastline Railroad after graduating from high school
Joined the newly formed Arena Stage in Washington, DC, where he performed in more than a dozen plays
Worked with several off-Broadway theatres in New York, including the American Lyric Theatre and the Equity Library Theatre
Had roles in "Twelfth Night" and "The Merchant of Venice" with New York's Shakespeare Theatre Company
Won a Drama Desk Award for his performance in the off-Broadway play, "Macbeth"
Made Broadway debut in "Tonight in Samarkand"
Made feature film debut with a sizable supporting role in "Desire Under the Elms"
Played stalwart Adam Cartwright on NBC's Western series, "Bonanza"; left after the sixth season due to disagreements with the writers and a desire to return to theatre
Played the title role in the CBS-TV series, "Trapper John M.D."; earned an Emmy nomination for Best Actor in 1981
Co-starred with Milla Jovovich in the TV movie, "The Night Train to Kathmandu"
Hosted the TV series, "FBI: The Untold Stories"
Final TV appearance was on an episode of CBS' "Diagnosis Murder"