Pernell Roberts dies at 81; played eldest son on TV’s ‘Bonanza’

Pernell Roberts, a versatile actor best remembered for his portrayal of the handsome, eldest Cartwright son on the classic television western “Bonanza” and later as the lead character in the medical drama “Trapper John, M.D.,” died at his Malibu home Sunday. He was 81.

His death after a two-year battle with cancer was confirmed by his wife, Eleanor Criswell.

Roberts became a star as Adam Cartwright, the heir apparent of the fictional Ponderosa ranch, a role he filled from the show’s debut in 1959 until 1965, when he left the cast despite the series’ immense popularity. “Bonanza” remained on the air for eight more years without him.

The longest-running TV western after “Gunsmoke” and the first to be broadcast in color, “Bonanza” broke the mold for its genre with its emphasis on character development over gunplay. The cast was headed by Lorne Greene, who played thrice-widowed patriarch Ben, and also featured Dan Blocker as the lovably oafish middle son, Hoss, and Michael Landon as the hot-headed youngest son, Little Joe.

Roberts was the well-educated and mature brother, who played Adam with a suave manner that won a legion of fans. He found the role unfulfilling, however, and left the show at its peak, a decision that caused him to be “scratched off by most of his contemporary fellow actors as some kind of a nut,” Times critic Hal Humphrey wrote in 1967.

Roberts had several complaints, chief among which was the relationship between Ben Cartwright and his grown sons. “Isn’t it just a bit silly for three adult males to get Father’s permission for everything they do?” Roberts said in the Washington Post a few years before he departed the cast. “I have an impotent role. Everywhere I turn, there’s the father image.”

A political liberal who later took part in civil rights protests, he also chafed at the mostly white complexion of the cast. The notable exception was Victor Sen Yung, who played a stereotypical Chinese house servant.

Born May 18, 1928, in Waycross, Ga., Roberts grew up poor on the edge of the state’s Okefenokee Swamp. In high school, he played the horn and acted in school and church plays.

He attended Georgia Tech and the University of Maryland but did not earn a degree from either institution, and he served in the Marine Corps band at Quantico, Va.

He began his theatrical career in 1950 at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C, where he performed in more than a dozen plays. In 1952 he moved to New York City and appeared in one-act operas and ballets with the North American Lyric Theater.

In 1955 he won a Drama Desk Award as the best off-Broadway actor for his performance in “Macbeth.” On Broadway he appeared with Joanne Woodward in “The Lovers.”

In 1957 he arrived in Hollywood and won roles in three movies, including “Desire Under the Elms” (1958), which starred Sophia Loren, Anthony Perkins and Burl Ives.

True stardom eluded him, however, until he landed the part of Cartwright’s No. 1 son in NBC’s “Bonanza.”

He helped his TV family maintain the ranch and fight off desperadoes and other scoundrels for six years, during which he also was given the opportunity to show off his singing voice a number of times.

But he frequently clashed with the show’s writers and producer “about the scripts, character development and other things” and grew so unhappy about “artistic compromises” that he became, as one headline described his decision, a “Bonanza Deserter.” His character was written out of the show.

Some of Roberts’ first television roles after leaving “Bonanza” were on rival westerns, including “Gunsmoke,” “The Big Valley” and “The Virginian.”

He also appeared on other leading series of the 1970s, such as “Hawaii Five-O” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.”

His comeback role was Dr. John McIntyre in the CBS drama “Trapper John, M.D.” based on the character from the popular comedy “MASH.”

His work in “Trapper John” earned Roberts an Emmy nomination for best dramatic actor in 1981.

After the show ended in 1986, he made guest appearances on other series and TV movies, narrated a documentary and hosted the short-lived “FBI: The Untold Stories” (1991). He retired in the late 1990s.

A son from his first marriage, Chris, died in 1989. He is survived by Criswell, his fourth wife. Services will be private.

Roberts said in several interviews that he harbored no regrets about abandoning “Bonanza,” which he said he left “for my own good.”

He outlived the other Cartwrights: Blocker died in 1972, Greene in 1987 and Landon in 1991.