Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pernell Roberts: Another Hero Gone

Actor, singer, and civil rights champion Pernell Roberts died on January 24, aged 81. Roberts is best known for his six-year run on the Bonanza TV show. In 1958, he co-starred alongside Randolph Scott in the 1958 Budd Boetticher film, Ride Lonesome. This is the kind of role that often comes just before an actor gains his or her breakthrough role. A year later, Roberts would begin his stint on Bonanza and forever be remembered as the cool, quiet, intellectual Adam Cartwright, Ponderosa patriarch Ben Cartwright's eldest son. Roberts quickly grew tired of the role, the show's writing, and the portrayal of Native Americans and African Americans. He left behind a fortune when he left that show, but his freedom was infinitely more important to him.

Pernell Roberts was a hero of mine since childhood. But back then it was because I was impressed by how cool he was. I appreciate him even more now as an adult because I learned how he was a champion of civil rights and a sturdy man of conviction in every endeavor, just like Adam Cartwright. He may have grown tired of the show and what he saw as its limitations, but Pernell himself embodied the very best qualities of his character.

After Bonanza, Roberts proceeded to guest star on virtually every program on network television. On any given week, the average viewer would see him on The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. to The Virginian to Hawaii Five-O. Roberts played all kinds of roles: tormented drifters, seedy gangsters, concerned fathers, fatcat businessman, and empty-headed cop. Roberts spent the years 1966-1979 wandering what I call his "Lost Road." He finally landed another starring role in a TV series when he played Dr. "Trapper" John McIntyre on the medical show, Trapper John, M.D. He admitted that he took the role for the security that a "nest egg" like that would provide, but Pernell Roberts paid his dues, did what he wanted and challenged himself more often than not with his inumerable acting gigs.

A public figure but intensely private man, Roberts disappeared from the show business scene in 1997 and retreated to quiet retirement. At the time of his departure from Bonanza, Roberts was often the butt of Johnny Carson's monologues, but Roberts is now seen by his many admirers as a man of principle and a singular talent who was on the right side of history with his progressive views on race and war and staying true to his beliefs.

Fighting the Good Fight: Pernell Roberts in a civil rights march, 1965


  1. Oh how very sad. He was a hero of mine, as well. This is the first I've heard of his passing.

  2. Nice write-up, Jim. I hadn't realized Pernell had guest-starred on so many series!

  3. Lovely post!

    I was so utterly depressed about his death. He's one of my favorites.

  4. DKoren: Somehow I knew you were a fan of Pernell's...

    Abigail: Pernell was essentially a "gun-for-hire" throughout the mid-'60s to the late-1970s, but he never fell off the map, so to speak.

    Millie: Thanks. You have no idea how lousy I've felt over the past few days...Pernell and I "go back" many years. :(


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