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by Phillip Joe Luke, Jr.
Pernell Elvin Roberts, Jr. passed away after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer on 24 January 2010 at his home in Malibu, California. The celebration of Pernell’s life was held on 28 February 2010 at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, California, not far from Pernell’s Malibu home. There were about 130 friends and family members in attendance at this private gathering.
After I received my nametag and entered the ballroom, the first person that I recognized was Pernell’s third wife, Kara Knack. I had met Kara on my previous trip to Los Angeles in 2008. She thanked me for coming to the memorial. Standing beside Kara was Pernell’s second wife, Judith Lebreque. Amazingly, Pernell maintained a wonderful relationship with all four of his wives. Next, I saw Pernell’s friend from Waycross, Larry Briggs and his wife Beth and daughter Julie. Then walked in cousin Rhett Roberts, his wife Gloria and their three boys from Waycross. I had not seen Rhett and his family since the Roberts Reunion back in 2000.
The first order of business was to eat. It was 1:00 and I was starved after running 10 miles along the Santa Monica coast that morning. The hotel served a nice winter salad, turkey and ham sandwiches, and a variety of freshly cut fruit and cookies. After filling my plate I sat at the table with Larry and Rhett and their families. This was the family table of Georgia crackers. Music from Pernell’s 1963 album “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies” played softly in the background. Photographs of Pernell surrounded the ballroom.
After the light lunch it was time for special remembrances of Pernell’s life. Pernell’s lawyer for the last 50 years, Richard Stone was the master of ceremonies. Pernell’s second wife Judith began by reciting a monologue from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…" It was obvious that Judith was an actress because of her wonderful voice.
Next, Richard Stone spoke of some of his memories of Pernell. He said that he was Pernell’s lawyer through all of his divorces. He said that he never met Pernell’s first wife, Vera Mowry, but their divorce was very cordial. He spoke of Dr. Vera Mowry Roberts as a legendary professor of theater history at the Hunter College of the City University of New York. He also mentioned that Vera had passed away one week after Pernell. Richard told the story of how Pernell married Judith during a lunch break during the shooting of Bonanza. Richard had arranged for the marriage to occur before a judge in Hollywood. But first Richard had to pick-up Judith and transport her to the marriage location. Richard’s car ran out of gas along the way. He had to run to the nearest gas station and get gas. They made it just in time. Pernell and Judith were married during his lunch break and he rushed back to the set. Richard also spoke of Pernell leaving Bonanza after his five-year contract ended. He was such a main character the studio didn’t know how they would replace him. Pernell went his separate way and Bonanza continued for another seven years. Richard said that David Dortort, the producer of Bonanza, told him years later that of the four main characters on Bonanza, Pernell was the only true professional actor. For example, the other three guys (Lorne Green, Michael Landon, and Dan Blocker) had problems filming scenes, difficulties remembering lines, etc.; Pernell never did. On the set he was the consummate professional actor. The problems between David and Pernell were off the set. Richard also represented Pernell during the 1980s when the Ponderosa Ranch theme park near Lake Tahoe was using Pernell’s image on billboards to promote the park, without his approval. Pernell filed a lawsuit, which he won. Richard told how Pernell and Eleanor were married in his breakfast room. Richard’s son became a judge and their marriage was the first marriage he ever performed. Richard spoke of Pernell being a fighter, but pancreatic cancer often meant a quick death. Pernell, the great fighter, fought that cancer for over two years until his final breath.
The next speaker was Pernell’s second wife, Judith (married 1962-1971). Judith told how she and Pernell had met in a bar in Hollywood. She spoke about their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, including their 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama with Martin Luther King. She also read one of Pernell’s favorite poems. It was a beautiful poem that I wish I could remember. The last verse was about never having to say goodbye and it brought the first of many tears.
Pernell’s third wife, Kara Knack (married 1972-1996), was the next speaker. She spoke about how she and Pernell were married for a quarter of a century. Said they went through many ups and downs, especially during the 1970s. She said that if she could define Pernell in one word, the word would be “contrary.” He was the ultimate contrarian. Kara has done a lot of work with the City of Los Angeles, raising millions of dollars to restore the Griffith Observatory. Kara said that Pernell was always good at providing advice regarding her endeavors with the observatory. She laughed and said that she had a fairly large backside. Pernell once told her that if she wanted to make a statement at a meeting that she needed to walk into the room backwards. That brought a lot of laughter. She said that she often had a hard time getting Pernell to go to a party, but once they were there, she had a hard time getting him to leave. And, he always liked to make a grand departure. For example, when Kara was ready to leave the party, she might say, “Pernell, let’s go.” In a very loud and stern voice, Pernell would respond, “Woman, we’ll leave when I’m good and damn ready to leave.” The place would turn dead quiet and all of the faces would turn toward Pernell. Kara would then say, “Well, are you ready to leave?” Then, in a softer voice, Pernell would sheepishly respond, “Yes, I’m ready.” Kara commented that she is a big talker and Pernell often told her that she was telling too many of his secrets and she had to stop doing that. Therefore, they created an acronym PMB to be used when Pernell thought that she was giving away too much personal information. In the middle of her conversation, Pernell might say, “PMB,” and Kara would stop her story and redirect the conversation. PMB stood for “Protect My Balls.” The crowd roared with laughter.
Next up was Peter Harrell. Peter had met Pernell in the 1970s while attending St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. The theater department wanted Peter to play a part in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The character was an Indian. Peter wasn’t sure that he wanted to be in the play until he found out that the lead character would be Pernell Roberts. Peter called to tell his parents and his father told him, “Son, you do that play and learn all you can from that man.” The day of Peter’s first meeting with Pernell, he showed up and waited, but Pernell had not arrived. Someone told him that Pernell was down running on the track. Peter went down to the track where Pernell was running. He described Pernell as this big, burly guy dressed like a lumberjack, running the track with boots on. The second time Pernell passed Peter he stopped, looked at Peter and said, “Are you Peter Harrell?” Peter responded, “Yes, I am.” Pernell said, “Well you’re the biggest, blackest Indian I’ve ever seen.” Peter said, “It’s pretty obvious that I’m black.” Pernell laughed and told him not to worry that they would recast the role for him. Pernell gave Peter a lot of guidance during that show and told him he thought he could make it in acting. Peter said that he thought he would like acting if all actors were like Pernell. However, once Peter arrived in Los Angeles, he learned quickly that most actors were not like Pernell. Peter was having difficulty finding work and Pernell invited him to join the Trapper John cast. Peter went on to film 28 episodes of Trapper John as Pete the anesthesiologist (1979-1984). Peter said that he learned so much from Pernell and that he would be indebted to him forever. Peter said that his last visit with Pernell was in November 2009. He and a friend were only going to visit Pernell for about an hour because they knew he was sick and weak. The visit ended up being three hours long. Before Peter left, Pernell sang 12 stanzas of one of his favorite folk songs, Dapper Dan. Peter said he could tell that Pernell had given it all he had. At the end, Pernell stood up and took a bow. That was Peter’s last visit with Pernell. “My parents were waiting for Pernell when he arrived at Heaven’s Gate,” said Peter. “And, he’ll be waiting for me when I arrive.”
Larry Briggs was the next speaker. Larry told how he and Pernell had met 20 years ago through a mutual friend. Pernell was in Waycross and looking for a canoeing partner. Larry is a big canoer, often taking three-day canoeing trips across the Okeefenokee Swamp. Pernell wanted to canoe the Satilla River from Waycross all the way to the Georgia coast. They would canoe about 20 miles per day and Larry’s wife Beth would meet them at predetermined locations along the way. On the final day of their journey, it was taking longer than expected as they neared the ocean and the river got wider. A motor boat was speeding directly toward them. Pernell said, “Larry, do you think he sees us?” The boat’s waves almost capsized them as the boat got near. Finally, the old codger looked at Pernell and said, “I know you. I was watching you on TV the other night.” The guy raised his arms like he was pointing a gun at Pernell and said, “If I had a gun I would’ve shot you.” Larry and Pernell were not sure what to do except get closer to the shore. Finally, the guy said, “Well since I found you, I’ll go back and tell the misses.” It turned out that they were over an hour late and Beth was worried about them. She asked this old codger with a boat if he would mind going upriver to look for them. He didn’t seem inclined to do so until Beth told him, “The guy in the canoe is Adam Cartwright.” Larry told another story of how he and Pernell were in North Carolina. They had reservations at a hotel and as they entered they could hear this black couple arguing with the hotel manager. Somehow, the hotel didn’t have a room for them even though the couple had a confirmation number. The manager saw that Pernell was waiting and said, “Mr. Roberts, I have your room waiting.” The couple’s argument with the manager continued a little longer. Finally, Pernell had heard enough. He walked up to the manager and said, “I know how to resolve this situation. You told me that you have a room waiting for me.” He then looked at the hotel manager very sternly and said, “This couple can have my room. You don’t have a problem with that, do you?” The manager responded, “No sir, Mr. Roberts.” Pernell and Larry went to a relative’s house that lived nearby and slept on bunk beds that night.
Eleanor Criswell, Pernell’s fourth and final wife, was the next speaker. She spoke of how she and Pernell were born in close proximity to each other. She in Jacksonville, Florida and him in Waycross, Georgia. She chose a career in academia and Pernell chose a career in theater. Their paths crossed in California while Pernell was filming Trapper John, M.D. in San Francisco. She talked about how Pernell was his own man. He did what Pernell wanted to do, not what others wanted him to do. She said that Pernell never voted. He didn’t play that game. She said that he loved the Gullah language that was spoken by the slaves of coastal Georgia and South Carolina. He spent a lot of time learning the language and even bought a Gullah Bible that he enjoyed reading. I know this for a fact because he read a few pages of that Bible to me back in 2007. Pernell loved trees and spent a lot of time in the yard pruning trees. He would even take along his red handled clippers when he traveled in case he found a tree that needed to be pruned. After Pernell’s first chemotherapy regimen they had traveled up to Novato and Eleanor had a dead oak tree out in her front yard. She was going to call a tree service, but Pernell decided he was going to fell the tree. He did. He was so proud of himself that the tree fell right where he predicted it would fall. Pernell was happy with his lifetime achievements and enjoyed reminiscing about old times. He had no regrets. He was surrounded by people he loved and people who loved him. She spoke of how happy she was to have spent the last 20 years of her life with Pernell. And, how she was happy to be there and provide his care during his final days.
Gregory Harrison, who played the young Dr. “Gonzo” Gates on Trapper John, M.D., was not scheduled to speak, but he decided to get up and speak. He said that he had worked with Pernell for seven and one half years for 12 hours per day. Over that period of time he learned a great deal from Pernell. He called Pernell the most furious man he had ever known. He was furious about acting and furious when things did not go his way, on or off the set. He said that Pernell was all about quality acting and there is no quality acting today. Instead, the studios are more concerned with getting scenes shot quickly to save money. He said that he sees some of Pernell’s professional qualities in himself today. He is grateful for that.
A few other speakers had a few words to say. Jean Hibben talked about Pernell’s habit of stealing food from your plate when you were eating with him. I experienced this on several occasions myself. If Pernell liked what was in your plate, he would say that looks good and reach over and grab a bite of it. Jean called this act “doing a Pernell.” She said that even if she brought a friend along to dinner, it did not matter to Pernell. He would reach over and grab a bite from their plate as well. She would tell the friend, “It’s okay, he’s just doing a Pernell.”
Ed Gish got up and joked about how it seemed odd that three of Pernell’s wives were at the service. He said that the only reason his ex-wives would show up at his funeral would be to ensure he was really dead. Ed spoke of how he called Pernell to tell him that his second wife had left him. Pernell said, “She did what?” Ed said, “She left me for the UPS man.” Pernell’s response was, “It’s those damn brown shorts.” Ed said that no matter what was going on in life, he could always call Pernell and he would make Ed feel better. Pernell’s voice just had that calming, soothing effect.
The service concluded with Pernell reading a Desiderata in 1973 and then some highlights of his great performances over the years. There were acts from a couple Bonanza episodes, Big Valley, Hawaii Five-O, and The Odd Couple to name a few. Eleanor thanked everyone for coming. It was a wonderful celebration of a wonderful man. I believe he would have been proud. Peace, my friend.
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