Pernell Roberts Biography

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Pernell Roberts Biography

Post by January » Tue Sep 06, 2016 1:15 pm

May 18, 1928 - January 24, 2010

Born Pernell Elvin Roberts, Jr. on May 18, 1928. He grew up in Waycross, Georgia. During his high school years he played the French horn, acted in school and church plays and sang in local USO shows. While attending Waycross High School, he was a member of the boys basketball team. He attended both Georgia Tech and the University of Maryland but flunked out of both colleges because of boredom and interest in acting rather than studying. He joined the Marines in 1946 and served for two years. During that time he became interested in Philosophy and Psychology after coversing with captives of the Japanese POWs once they were released. He eventually decided to give acting a chance and supported himself as a butcher, tombstone carver and forest ranger to name a few jobs during the lean years while pursuing his craft.

On stage in the 1950s
Pernell gained experience in various plays before spending a couple of years performing the classics with the renowned Arena Stage Company in Washington, DC. 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."

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 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).

Heading to Hollywood
Pernell found minor roles in films and TV, but his first big break was in the film "Ride Lonesome" in 1959 where he played Sam Boone. His performance was met with critical acclaim, with most critics saying that he stole the show from the star of the film, Randolph Scott. That same year, he landed the pivotal role of Ben Cartwright's oldest and best-educated son Adam Cartwright in the TV show Bonanza. The series made Roberts a bonafide TV star, while the program itself became the second longest-running TV western (after "Gunsmoke") and first to be filmed in color.

At the peak of his and the TV show's popularity, Pernell 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.

After Bonanza:
Pernell Roberts focused on singing and the musical stage. One solo album was filled with folks songs entitled "Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies." 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 based on the life of "Mata Hari."

He starred in foreign films such as The Kashmiri Run (1970) & Four Rode Out (1970). He maintained a viable presence in TV with parts in mini-series and guest shots on TV.

In 1979 he won 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. The medical drama co-starring Gregory Harrison ran seven seasons.

Pernell did an outstanding performance as a guest star in "The Young Riders" in 1990 called "Requiem for a Hero" as Hezekiah Horn, for which he won western heritage award.

Pernell's last starring series & retirement:
Pernell starred in his last series as host of FBI: The Untold Stories (1991).

Pernell's final TV appearance was on Diagnosis Murder, where he continued his character, George Fallon, from a Mannix episode from 1973. He retired from acting at age 69 in the late 1990s.

Pernell's Personal Life:
Pernell was a heavily principled man and spent a life-time of work fighting racism, segregation, and sexism, notably on TV. He was at odds with the "Bonanza" series writers of his concerns regarding equality. Married and divorced three times, he had one son, Jonathan Christopher, by first wife Vera. Jonathan was killed in a motorcycle crash in 1989.

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. Pernell Roberts outlived the entire Cartwright clan (Dan Blocker died in 1972; Lorne Greene in 1987); and Michael Landon in 1991).

His marriages:
Eleanor Criswell (1999 - January 24, 2010) (his death)
Kara Knack (June 1, 1972 - 1996) (divorced)
Judith Roberts (October 19, 1962 - 1971) (divorced)
Vera Mowry (January 4, 1951 - 1959) (divorced) (1 child)

His Parents:
Pernell Elven Roberts, Sr. (1907–1980)
Minnie (Betty) Myrtle Morgan Roberts (1910–1988)


Image 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.

Image Was also a lifelong activist, which included participation in the Selma to Montgomery Marches in 1965, and pressuring NBC to refrain from hiring whites to portray minority characters.

Image He was only 13 years younger than Lorne Greene who played his television father, Ben Cartwright, on Bonanza (1959).

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

Image Remained good friends with Gregory Harrison, during and after Trapper John, M.D. (1979).

Image He had several hobbies, including, swimming, reading, playing tennis, cooking, running, playing the guitar, singing & riding motorcycles.

Image Had appeared in each and every episode of Trapper John, M.D. (1979), with the exception of 1.

Image His son, Jonathan Christopher Roberts died in 1989 in a motorcycle accident.

Image Was reunited with his ex-Bonanza (co-star, Lorne Greene, for 2 episodes of Vega$ (1978).

Image His second ex-wife Judith Roberts guest-starred with him on an episode of Trapper John, M.D.

Image Pernell Roberts was the longest living Bonanza cast member, followed by Lorne Greene, who played his TV father in the series.
His ex-Bonanza co-star, Michael Landon, died of pancreatic cancer, the same disease Roberts succumbed to, years after.

Image Upon his death, he was cremated.

Image Met Peter Breck on one of the two episodes of The Big Valley (1965), where the two became friends until Roberts' own death in 2010.

Image Longtime friend of James Drury.

Image Attended Michael Landon's funeral, attended Lorne Greene's funeral and gave the eulogy at Victor Sen Yung's funeral.

Image Roberts appeared with his ex-Bonanza (1959) co-star's, Michael Landon's, former television daughter, Melissa Gilbert, in Donor (1990).

Image He was known to be a very private man.

Personal Quotes

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.

I'm never satisfied with my own work.

In 1979: I've never been career oriented. Did I even want to be a star? What's a star? Is that something in the heavens? That's the only definition that comes to my mind. And the most important goals in my life have been to move gently to be at ease with the mystery of what it's all about.

As we get older, we become more political in terms of survival. We realize a certain amount of cunning is necessary and that you just end up in a victim when you are totally honest in an environment where those around you aren't. It's a matter of remaining true to yourself while continuing to move forward. It's also a matter of learning to keep control of one's balance.

Pernell Roberts bio courtesy of January and A Ponderosa Pine. Click here to go to Pernell's Place. A Forum dedicated to the work of Pernell Roberts outside of Bonanza!

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