An Interview With Pernell Roberts

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An Interview With Pernell Roberts

Post by desertgal » Sun Jul 03, 2011 7:46 pm

(January and Ellie encouraged me to start a new thread on this topic, so that's why this is here. :adam )
***** A colleague and I started trying to get an interview with Pernell Roberts in 1980. It was originally for a Bonanza "Where Are They Now?" retrospective. I cadged routine phone interviews with Lorne Greene and Michael Landon, who were fantastic, but it took 17 years before PR finally consented...and only after I made a complete jackass of myself over the phone with him. :grin

He was a warm, funny, gracious man. He talked to us for four hours, not really much about Bonanza, but his entire career in retrospect. We did not ask him about his personal life. After we were done, he took us out to dinner-pure politeness on his part, since we were all starving and we still had to drive back to points north. I was struck by both his integrity and his individualism. He had a wonderfully sparky personality-I could have sat and listened to him for days. Immense charisma. He was truly remarkable. That was one of the high points of my career, interviewing Pernell Roberts.

In the end, the piece-which was conceived as a simple interview but became an extensive biographical piece-was never published, for numerous reasons and some unfortunate timing. When that didn't work out, the full piece remains unpublished, per his request.

I can paraphrase...a little.

I didn't ask him why he had left Bonanza, since he was already on record about that countless times, but I did ask him if, on the far side of thirty years, he had ever regretted it. He said he never regretted leaving Bonanza, but he did regret some of the "collateral damage". That was his term-he didn't elaborate, but I think he was referring to some of the hard feelings that arose from his issues with the show and his departure. Not with the media, but personally.

He said one of the drawbacks to Bonanza was that many of the scripts WERE good, which made it harder to accept the ones that were banal. When the potential for excellence was ignored, that was hard to take. But he also said that was true of most television series of the era, it wasn't exclusive to Bonanza.

He said that he considered it a privilege to have acted and been friends with his Bonanza castmates.

He said TJMD was a good fit for him as an actor at the time because the show had a wide potential for storylines, but that Bonanza and TJMD were apples and oranges, and he didn't compare one to the other. He said, in an aside, that TJMD was also challenging because it required complicated dialogue, especially with the medical terminology. He likened some of the more energetic scenes to running a mental marathon, which he enjoyed. He also said that TJMD occasionally broke new ground in addressing certain issues, such as AIDS, and he appreciated that.

Then we moved to to his activism.

He said the civil rights movement had shown great progress in recent decades, but the eradication of basic racism will only come when people are no longer slotted into categories - white, black, Native American-and that would likely never happen, because human nature is fallible in that respect. He said we are all built on the same prototype, and while separate cultures should be celebrated and appreciated, we should be recognized simply for our humanness, not judged by our skin color. He echoed Morgan Freeman's position (or maybe Freeman echoed him?) that events like "Black History Month" simply encourage defining people by race. But he also said it was a betwixt and between situation-one cannot celebrate a culture and a heritage without some overlap. and there is no simple answer.

I had the general sense that while he had an appreciation of different cultures, Mr. Roberts didn't apply labels to individuals-white, black, or otherwise. Not even subconsciously.

He commented that it had long been accepted in Hollywood to cast minorities in subservient roles, and that was something he had long protested. He pointed out that Hattie MacDaniel was the first black actress to win an Academy Award-for playing a subservient role. (As Mammy, in Gone With The Wind, 1940.) While her achievement was a step forward, he couldn't help but think that Hattie MacDaniel would have liked to have seen her achievement used as a stepping stone for Hollywood to move towards casting minorities in more substantial roles-but Hollywood avoiding doing just that for many years after. (He also pointed out that Hatttie MacDaniel may have been the first black woman to win an Oscar, but she was still denied burial in the white section of the cemetery when she died, which he thought was shameful.) And while Hollywood has made progress in that respect, the stereotyping does still exist at times.

He said that he had always been an advocate for the homeless and equal housing, and one of the things he found appalling was that people have become so inured to the homeless problem in the USA that many passively accept it as a downside to our society. Not necessarily our fault, but it is always good to bestir ourselves to pay attention to the problems of those less fortunate.

He said that he got out of acting what he put into it, like everything else in life, and while some of the media may have said that leaving Bonanza "killed" his career, he always had opportunities to perform and he was grateful for that.

He said that everyone has regrets in life, and he was no exception, but he didn't believe it was healthy for anyone to spend time second guessing themselves in retrospect or wallowing in retrospection. And he said it is important to try and keep in harmony with your inner being - in other words, march to your own beat and stay true to your conscience.

There was a good deal more, but those were some of the high points.

When I was preparing the biographical profile to frame the interview, PR opened the door for me to talk to some of his friends. A few highlights:


“[Pernell] is an outrageous prankster and a very gregarious man, so he was always playing jokes on us.

"After my folks split up, my mom bought a new car in the mid 80's. One night, Pernell arranged for a tow truck to come over and [pretend to] hook up her car as if it were being repossessed. She went tearing out of the house, waving the payment book, yelling “I made the payment! I made the payment!” When she caught sight of Pernell laughing fit to kill at the end of the driveway, she nearly strangled him on the spot. “
*****
“After my parents split up, it was hard on my mom. It wasn't any secret around town that Dad had been keeping company with --- before he left Mom, and Mom was humiliated over it. Naturally, it being Hollywood, a lot of "friends" had abandoned Mom to stay in Dad's camp, which added to the humiliation. After the divorce, she and I went to some event we'd both been invited to. Before we went in, a friend caught us outside and told us that Dad and --- were at the same function. Mom was reluctant to go inside after that-she was coming to terms with the split, but I don't think she was ready to see Dad and --- together or hear the whispers.

We were debating whether to go in when a voice behind us said to Mom, "You're the equal of anyone, honey." We looked around to see Pernell, who'd also been invited, and overheard us. He gave my mom his arm and they sailed in as pretty as you please.”
*****
"The script called for Ben Cartwright to refer to me as "boy". I sent it back and said, "No. I won't be called "boy". It's demeaning." The script supervisor and the director started fussing like a couple of scratchy hens. We went back and forth for a half hour, if you can believe it, over a single word. I held my ground. If you don't hold your ground in Hollywood, even over a word, you're finished before you get started.

Roberts was leaning against the wall waiting. Roberts leaned, everyone else argued, and he finally put in, "For crissake, have Ben say "son" instead of "boy" and get on with the (expletive) scene." Walked off onto the set to his mark. Discussion over.”
*****
“Pernell was strict, and he had high standards. If you did something bad enough to blip on his radar, you weren't going to get away with it. He'd give you this long stare until you started to squirm and gave up. You'd confess sins you hadn't even thought of doing yet. If warranted he'd raise the eyebrow. When Pernell gave you the eyebrow, you knew you were finished. (Laughs)

Once we were sitting around the house when I referred to a woman as a [expletive]. I was 12 or so, at that stage where I was testing forbidden profanity to see how much I could get away with. Pernell was in the kitchen and overheard me. He stopped in the doorway and gave me the stare. When the eyebrow went up, --- whispered to me, "Radar alert! Radar alert!"

I started to squirm and blurted out "My dad says that all the time." Which he did, but in Dad's defense, it was a curse he'd gotten in the habit of using automatically. I don't think he thought of women that way. I know he didn't because of the way he treated my mother and their friends. Pernell said, "That's neither a valid excuse nor a valid reason. If I ever hear you refer to a woman by that term again, I'll wash your mouth out with soap." He'd have done it too.“
*****
“Pernell is funny and warm and devastatingly masculine. I teased him a lot about that, but that was one of the perks of working with him. Lord, I'd have sooner acted with a handsome actor than an ugly one-gave me something to look at. And Pernell is one of the yummiest men to grace a stage. Once, during a rehearsal, I was supposed to run in from stage left, gasp out a message to Pernell's character, and run off stage right. Well, I ran in...but my feet hit a slick spot on the stage and I slid straight into Pernell and knocked him over. Fortunately he broke my fall. (Laughs) He helped me up, brushed himself off, and said, "If you wanted to get me flat on my back, B, all you had to do was ask." I said, "Great. What are you doing tonight?" He roared at that.
*****
“Privately, Pernell is a dear and abidingly decent man. He's a character-he has the kind of presence that can energize an entire room of people just by him walking in to it and a dry, off beat sense of humor that is just wonderful. He can make me laugh until my ribs ache from his 'observations'. I love him, just love him. He has the most contagious belly laugh, too. Another actress who worked with Pernell often told me once that getting Pernell to throw his head back and let loose with that belly laugh of his always made her feel as good as the best sex she ever had.”
*****
“I enjoyed acting with Pernell. For some reason, whenever we acted together, there were always two things that happened: we had to kiss, and he had to pick me up. Let me tell you, Pernell may have looked lean, but he was strong. Otherwise, I don't know how he did it-I wasn't overweight, but I wasn't at all skinny, and he had a bad back-but he picked me up like I weighed nothing every time. My hero."
*****
"The very first scene I did with Pernell on Trapper was nerve wracking. During rehearsal, he'd been involved, but he came across as abrupt and that was unsettling. In the scene, my character was supposed to walk into the doctor's locker room and harangue Trapper about something. I had to yell at Pernell's back, since he was reaching into his locker in the scene. Pernell picked up on the fact that I was nervous, and when he turned around, he stayed in character, but he was wearing a pair of those joke glasses with the bouncing eyeballs. Cracked everyone up, and broke the ice for me.”
*****
"One day...I think it was in 1964..I was working on a television spot with Geraldine Brooks. You probably don't remember, but Gerry played Adam Cartwright's mother on a flashback episode of Bonanza. I was planning to swing by the Bonanza stage and grab Pernell for a cup of coffee, so Gerry went with me. When we got there, Pernell was on the set filming a Cartwrights versus the bad guys scene. Gerry went up to Don MacDougall and asked if she could borrow his bullhorn. She pointed that thing at the set and said, "Adam! This is your mother! Don't shoot the villains, son!", like a voice from the great beyond. The entire cast and crew went to into hysterics. Pernell laughed so hard he couldn't breathe.

When Pernell was doing Trapper John, Robert Vaughn and I stopped by one day. They were getting ready for an emergency scene, and Vaughn convinced the crew to let him get on the gurney and be the "victim". When Pernell came on the set in character, he nearly came out of his skin when he looked down and recognized Vaughn laying there. Pernell grabbed a prop needle that looked about sixteen inches long and turned back with a wicked gleam in his eye. Vaughn came off that gurney in a mad scramble. He never knew he could move that quick, I bet.“
*****
“He called me up one time, before he left Bonanza, and said, "Give me your house." I said, "Pernell, you're a good friend, but no one loves you that much." Turned out the network wanted him to do a "Pernell Roberts At Home" feature, and he didn't want his own house to appear in the photos. I said, "Pernll, they're gonna know it isn't your house." He said, "Yes, we'll know it and the network will know it, but the readers won't know it." I said, "Yeah, but then pictures of MY house will be out there." He said, "So? They'll think it's MY house." He had me so confused I think I may have actually signed over the mortgage at that point.”
*****
“I'd been working [with] Pernell for around ten years, but he'd never met my family beyond my husband. My mama died of bone cancer in 1985, and she was in and out of Emory throughout the year before she died. Pernell used to come to Waycross every month to see HIS mama, and one weekend, he detoured and dropped in out of the blue to visit my mama. Mama'd been a big fan of Pernell's since Bonanza, and when he came through the door, her eyes were round as saucers. She'd been going a little stir crazy with the hospital routine, and she was low in her mind, and that sure gave her a kick in the pants. They visited for a while and then Pernell asked if there was anything she needed or anything he could do for her. Mama said, "You know, Mr. Roberts, I always liked your acting and all, but I used to specially love it on Bonanza when you'd sing. I wish you'd sing me a song." And he did! The nurses brought him a guitar from somewhere, and he sang some folk songs and a couple of hymns. The nurses and the doctors were crowded in the hallway and peeping around the doorway while Pernell was singing. When he was ready to go, he leaned down and gave Mama a kiss on the cheek. Mama walked on air for weeks after that. Crowed to all her friends that Adam Cartwright had serenaded her. I love to remember that.”
*****
“I picked him up at the airport once in the late 60's, and it was the first time I'd seen him without his hairpiece. I guess I looked at him funny when he got off the plane, because he said, "What?" and I blurted out, "I didn't know you were that bald." He put his hands on top of his head and felt around a little bit and then he said, very loudly, "I'll have you know I had hair when we left Los Angeles. I'm never flying THIS airline again!"
****
“[Pernell] decided to get back at me one time for a prank so he had one of the little ladies down at the studio call my house in a breathy voice asking for me and telling my wife that I needed to call "Christine" and "he'll know what it's about." I hadn't made it two steps inside the front door that evening when my wife demanded to know who Christine was and what was it I was supposed to know?"
*****
“One scene called for Pernell to play pool. He was actually a damn good pool player, but that time, he only goofed around, because there were four cameras around and no room to maneuver. Pernell had lined up a shot when the mid camera bumped him...the pool cue flew out of his hands and landed in ----'s lap somehow. She coolly looked down at it, coolly looked back up at Pernell and coolly said, "Is that a pool cue in my lap or are you just happy to see me, Pernell?"
*****
“The first scene that Pernell and I did was the kissing scene. When it came time to film the scene, he had a vicious head cold. I tried to kiss him lightly because the poor man couldn't even breathe, his head was so stopped up, but every time our lips connected, I'd hear him wheeze through his nose and we'd crack up. It took us quite a few takes before we managed to complete the scene.”
*****
"Pernell and me used to prank the officers, which would give the regular soldiers a big laugh. He'd snatch off the hairpiece while he was talking to them or something. One of them was telling him how much he liked Pernell's work on Bonanza and, just to mess with him, Pernell put on a confused expression and said, "I wasn't on Bonanza." That poor guy kept staring at Pernell across the room the whole time we were there, trying to figure out what show he knew Pernell from if not Bonanza."
*****
“The first time I met Pernell was in 1971, right after I started working for ----. I went to his house to drop off [some papers] that ---- wanted him to look at. He had this little place he rented in the hills back then. Little place-it was a converted garage with a couple of bedrooms upstairs. So nondescript, I thought I had the wrong address at first. My own place was fancier than his, and I lived in an apartment. He had a beautiful Japanese garden behind the house, though. Built it himself. Had a brook, a little bridge, a bonzai tree, the works. Peaceful. Beautiful.

His door was answered by a middle aged woman with bare feet and a Swedish accent. I thought she was his housekeeper, to be honest. I shook his hand, had coffee and small talk with them, handed him the papers, and was back in the office for a couple of hours before I realized I'd just met Ingrid Bergman. (Laughs)

Women loved Pernell, though. LOVED him. I thought I was a reasonably good looking guy, but if I was standing next to Pernell, forget it. I was in-vi-si-ble. Once I was standing to one side while he signed autographs, and two of the gals went by me after they'd gotten his signature, all flushed and giddy. When Pernell was done, we walked off, and I asked him, "Pernell, what did you say to those two girls? They were ecstatic." He said, "I said, 'Hi'." Typical Pernell. One 'Hi' was all it took."
*****
“I had two scenes with Pernell and we did them back to back. We had technical difficulties shooting the first one and it took over 30 takes. It was difficult and aggravating, but Pernell kept his cool. What I found astonishing, and still do, is that with every take, Pernell would give a subtly changed performance. A different gesture, a different inflection, but he nailed it every single time. They could have used any one of his takes. His acting was as fluid as water, and I'll never forget how I felt watching him: like a kid with my nose pressed to a candy shop window."
*****
“We were all sitting around the set one day and the talk turned to significant others. One of the guys had recently married an older woman, and the other guys were ribbing him about it. Pernell was sitting off the one side, reading the paper, and without looking around, he put in, "My first wife is 15 years older than I am." The guy who was the target of all the ribbing said, "Really?" and Pernell put down his paper and stood up and said, "Yes. Did you ever read 'The Graduate'? Vera was the model for Mrs. Robinson. Mrs. Roberts...Mrs. Robinson, see?"

He walked off and everyone kind of paused and double taked after him. It took a few minutes before we all caught on that Pernell was yanking our chains. He jokes like that often-he's perfected his poker face and he'll tell the most outrageous stories with a straight face and if you don't know him, you can't be sure if he's joking or not."
*****
“I was sitting next to Pernell at a network thingie once when Pernell was still on Bonanza, signing an autograph, and the fellow I was signing it for said, "I collect autographs". Pernell overheard him and commented jokingly that everyone collects something. The fellow asked him what he collected, and Pernell gave him that cool steady look and said, "I collect charitable donations. You show me yours and I'll show you mine." The man took out his checkbook and signed a check while Pernell signed his autograph. After he walked off, I told Pernell I wished I'd thought of that."
*****
"You know that scene in Lethal Weapon...I forget which one...where Mel Gibson and Rene Russo compare battle scars? Pernell and Dan and I started that thirty years before Hollywood put it in a movie. We'd get together at parties and swap stories and compare scars. The more people we'd get listening in, the more outlandish the stories would get. No party was complete unless we had grossed out at least six people. As we've gotten older, we've graduated to comparing replacement parts and surgeries. I have Pernell beat, though-he's freakishly healthy for a guy who spent the sixties flying on and off horses. But Pernell has always been abnormal.

We were at a party once in the late 60's when the talk turned to Bonanza. I said something about being the only one in the room who hadn't guest-starred on Bonanza. Pernell was nearby, overheard me, said, "I find myself strangely turned on by that. Say it again." That jump started our friendship. (Laughs)

Pernell's looks and build and voice are his main flaws. My wife and I were at an awards dinner one evening in the 70's, and I was chatting away when I noticed that she wasn't listening to a word I was saying, which was normal, and she'd started to hyperventilate, which wasn't. I thought she was having a heart attack and figured I should see about getting some help, but when I looked around, I saw that Pernell had come in, wearing black tie. The female population of the room literally shifted in his direction. "Can't you," I asked him later, "wear a bag over your head to these things?" He revels in it. If he pretends he doesn't, he's faking.

I was at the stables one day and spotted Pernell riding in the paddock. I whistled, Pernell's horse came to a dead stop, and he went a"" over teakettle onto the ground. I went over to help him up-he would've sued me if I hadn't, he's mean like that. Then I ran away as fast as I could.

Seriously, I love Pernell. He's been a dear friend for many years. He's a kind, funny, smart, talented, courageous man. It's really not his fault he's obnoxious too."
*****
“I was sitting offset with Pernell when he leaned over and whispered, "I've got a lump on my leg." I have no idea why he thought it was necessary to share that with me-boredom maybe. It was a little cartilage lump, harmless, but he kept poking it and making it move under the skin. It gave me the creeps, and I blurted without thinking, "Quit touching it, Pernell! It wouldn't be that hard if you'd stop playing with it."

Everyone heard me, and Pernell nearly coughed up a lung. Oh, he gave me a hard time about that! ”
*****
“My dad died when I was 19, and over time, Pernell filled the gap in a big way. So when things started getting serious between me and S., Pernell insisted that I bring him to dinner. Now that DID make me a tiny bit nervous, because I knew Pernell was going to play Papa Bear. I said to Pernell, "Pernell, don't you dare start with S. I mean it." And Pernell said, "Oh, honey, I wouldn't do that to you."

We'd no sooner sat down at Pernell's table when Pernell looked across at S. and said, "So. What do YOU do for a living, son?" I thought, oh, no, here we go. I said, "PerNELL..." and he completely ignored me. And poor S. was almost shaking. You had to have gumption to stand up to Pernell's scrutiny.

So S. was "Yes, sir" ing and "No, sir" ing, Pernell was dreaming up difficult questions to put him on the spot, and I couldn't stop giggling. It was hilarious. When we left, they shook hands at the door and then S. turned to me and said, "I really like your GRANDPA." Pernell loved that. From that moment on, S. has been in the green on the Pernell meter.”
*****
Once we drove to Sausalito to look at the antique stores. In one of them, Pernell found this big blue and white vase that he knew his wife would love, but he wanted two of them to go on either side of his dining room doorway.

So he asked the proprietor if there was a way he could find Pernell another vase to match, and the old guy said, "Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on the incentive."

Pernell pulled me aside and whispered, “He wants money. I don't want to give him any money. Let's tell him who we are and maybe he'll change his mind.” I said okay, and he said, “You go first.”

I stepped up and introduced myself, and said, "I was with the band ----. You might have heard of it." Man looked at me for a minute and said, "Nope. What else ya got?" I motioned to Pernell, and said "Well, he's Pernell Roberts." Guy looked Pernell up and down, very bored, and said, "Yeah? And what band were you with?"

Pernell almost kissed that guy, he was so delighted at that.”
Last edited by desertgal on Sun Jul 10, 2011 10:01 am, edited 3 times in total.
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