Pernell Roberts remembered

Pernell Roberts.
Pernell Roberts.

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Pernell Roberts — the last of the stars from TV’s “Bonanza” — died on Sunday. The handsome actor shocked Hollywood decades ago when he walked away from the popular western series.

He’s a cautionary tale to actors: the man who walked away from one of the most successful television shows in history.

Pernell Roberts played Adam, the eldest of the three Cartwright brothers on NBC’s “Bonanza.” Adam Cartwright was an intellectual cowboy, the voice of reason to brothers Hoss and Little Joe. Adam was refined, but dressed in black like a gunslinger. And when it came to romance, Roberts — who was married four times — could easily play Adam as the ladies man on the Ponderosa ranch.

David Dortort, the man who created "Bonanza" praised his acting. "I knew that he was good, but I didn’t realize he was quite that good."

Dortort said "when Pernell wanted to, there was no one any better in existence. There was a mystery about him that most actors do not have. He could be marvelous. But he also could be difficult!"

In interviews, Roberts said he felt constrained by playing a man in his mid 30s still living at home with his “Pa.” Dortort said he was also unhappy about being part of ensemble and wanted meatier roles. In 1965, the two men had a showdown.

One night Dortort said, they were shooting late. As they wrapped, Pernell came over. He said, "I’d like to leave the show."

Roberts spent much of the rest of his career running away from “Bonanza.” He got rid of the toupee and guest starred on dozens of TV shows. He also played the role of activist in his personal life. He marched to Selma, Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King.

But Pernell Roberts’ real passion was singing.

Roberts had sung a bit on “Bonanza” and on the two albums connected with the show. He even released an album of folk songs. But then he turned to musical comedy. He played Jigger Craigin in a TV version of “Carousel” in 1967.

And in 1973, he donned the toupee again and starred as Rhett Butler at the Music Center in the musical version of “Gone with the Wind” with Lesley Ann Warren. Frankly, my dear, he wasn’t much of a dancer — but his voice filled the theatre all the way up in the cheap seats.

Six years later, Roberts returned to TV as the older, wiser version of the wisecracking doctor from “MASH” — “Trapper John, MD.” The show ran for seven years. His last TV appearance came on an episode of Dick Van Dyke’s “Diagnosis Murder” in 1997. Roberts retired from acting soon after. He died Sunday in Malibu of pancreatic cancer at age 81.

Pernell Roberts still has fans. There are 1,500 tributes to him on YouTube. And more than 40 years later, he’s still remembered as the dark, brooding, sexy older brother from “Bonanza.”