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September 4, 2015

Bonanza star Pernell Roberts dies at 81

by Allison Waldman, posted Jan 26th 2010 9:00AM
pernell_roberts_bonanza_trapper_john_mdDepending on your age, Pernell Roberts was either western hero Adam Cartwright or grumpy surgeon Trapper John to you. Pernell Roberts starred in two long-running television series, Bonanza and Trapper John, M.D. But despite his success as a TV star and personality, he was never happy being a celebrity and had a reputation for being difficult and demanding. Pernell Roberts passed away on Sunday, January 24, succumbing to pancreatic cancer. He was 81.

Roberts was probably most famous as Adam, the eldest son of Ben Cartwright, brother of Hoss and Little Joe on NBC's mega-hit Bonanza. For six years, beginning in 1959, Roberts was Ben's smartest and most accomplished son. Roberts got the most serious story lines and carried a lot of the show. But Roberts chaffed under the formulaic structure of the western hit. He was frustrated that the quality of the writing wasn't better. He questioned why three grown men continued asking their father's permission to do anything.

The producers didn't appreciate his criticism, and they didn't mess with a recipe that was working. So when Roberts' contract was up, he bolted the show. Today, that wouldn't be a shocking development, but in 1965, it was big news. A lot of people perceived Roberts as nuts for walking away from one of the most popular TV shows in the air. He didn't care. He was happy to be free.

As for Bonanza, it went on without him, running until 1973. Adam never returned to the program and was rarely mentioned, other than to acknowledge that he had moved back east.

Roberts continued to appear on a lot of episodic TV, doing series like Mission: Impossible, The Virginian, Mannix, Ironside and Banacek. He also did musical theater, including The King and I and The Music Man. He was Rhett Butler in a musical version of Gone With the Wind called Scarlett.

In 1979, Pernell returned to series work, playing the older Dr. John McIntyre, the character Wayne Rogers had played on M*A*S*H, in CBS's Trapper John, M.D. with Gregory Harrison. This time around, Roberts was more comfortable in the role and remained with the series until it ended in 1986.

Here's a brief clip from Trapper John, M.D. from one of the more memorable episodes, when Gonzo suffered a stroke. The bonding between the two characters, Trapper and Gates, is a highlight, as are the performances by Roberts and Harrison. Take a look:

Roberts leaves behind a legacy of having been a very good actor, albeit one who was as iconoclastic as he was talented. And for all the acrimony over his exiting Bonanza the way he did, in reruns he remains -- perhaps -- the most dynamic of Ben's sons.

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I remember an interview of Pernell Roberts by Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show where Roberts explained that one of the factors that contributed to his departure from Bonanza was "... the plots, the Godawful plots ..." Roberts had a direct, intellectual style that will be missed. While Trapper John was a step above Bonanza (I'm old enough to have watched all episodes of both series) I regret that I never saw him act in Shakespeare. He was a major actor and no one will replace him.

January 26 2010 at 7:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

last week we lost two good people,pernell roberts and jean simmons,may both rest in peace and i will miss them.

January 26 2010 at 5:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

And what curse would that be? Mr. Roberts was 81. No one lives forever. He had pancreatic cancer which though, terrible like any cancer, is not unique. How much longer would he have had to live not to be "cursed"? Why is the world filled with simple-minded dumbos.

January 26 2010 at 4:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

And the Bonanza curse claims it's final victim.

January 26 2010 at 3:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

RIP Mr Roberts. Your work will be remembered and you will be missed.

January 26 2010 at 9:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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