Pernell Roberts: A Man of Many Talents

We are up close and personal this month with some of our favorite male television stars, and Pernell Roberts is definitely on that short list. Pernell Roberts was well known to television viewers in the early sixties and the early eighties. Some fans might not even realize the two characters he was best known for, Adam Cartwright on Bonanza and Dr. John McIntyre on Trapper John, MD were played by the same man.

The Family of Bonanza Photo: toledoblade.com

Pernell Elven Roberts Jr. was born an only child in 1928. He was named for his father who was a Dr. Pepper salesman. During high school, Roberts played the horn, acted in several school and church plays, played basketball, and sang in the local USO shows. He enrolled at Georgia Tech but then enlisted in the US Marine Corps. He played both the tuba and horn in the Marine Corps Band while sometimes tackling the sousaphone and percussion parts. After his time in the Marines, he enrolled at the University of Maryland where he enjoyed participating in classical theater. He left college to continue his acting career.

In 1949, he had his professional stage debut in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” with Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle. He then took on several roles in Philadelphia.

In 1951, Roberts married Vera Mowry; she was a professor of theatre history at Washington State University. They divorced in 1959. They had one son who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1989.

In 1952, Roberts made the big move to New York City appearing in off-Broadway shows. Several of his costars were Joanne Woodward and Robert Culp. He performed several Shakespeare roles.

In 1956, Roberts made his television debut in Kraft Theatre. In 1957, he signed with Columbia Pictures. His first big-screen role was as Burl Ives’ son in Desire Under the Elms. His second role was with Glenn Ford and Shirley MacLaine in The Sheepman.

Roberts continued to accept television roles with ten appearances in 1958 and six in 1959.

Photo: simple.wikipedia.org

From 1959-1965 he would portray Adam Cartwright, Ben’s oldest son on Bonanza. Each of the brothers had a different mother, and Adam was the only Cartwright to attend college, studying architectural engineering. After acting in classical theater for so much of his early career, the transition to a weekly series was a difficult one for Roberts. He thought it a bit ridiculous that the independent sons had to get their father’s permission for everything they did. He wanted to act in a show with greater social relevance. So, although the show would continue until 1973, he left in 1965 after appearing in 202 episodes. The storyline was that Adam was traveling in Europe or living on the east coast. Bonanza producer David Dortort said Roberts was “rebellious, outspoken . . . and aloof, but could make any scene he was in better.”

The Odd Couple Photo: sitcomsonline.com

During this time on the show, Roberts married again in 1962; he wed Judith Roberts and they would divorce in 1971.

After leaving Bonanza, Roberts returned to theater, playing a variety of roles. He toured with many musicals including “The King and I”, “Kiss Me Kate”, “Camelot”, and “The Music Man.”

Pernell also became involved in the civil rights movement, joining Dick Gregory, Joan Baez, and Harry Belafonte in the sixties demonstrations including the March on Selma.

On Mission Impossible Photo: ebay.com

From 1972-1996, Roberts was married to Kara Knack. They also divorced.

Throughout the late sixties and seventies, Pernell continued appearing in television series and made-for-tv movies. You’ll see him in westerns such as Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, and The Virginian; spy genres including Wild Wild West, Mission Impossible, and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.; crime shows including Hawaii Five-0, Mannix, Police Story, Ironside, Cannon, and The Rockford Files; and several medical series—Marcus Welby, West Side Medical, and Quincy. He even showed up on The Twilight Zone and The Odd Couple.

Photo: televisionacademy.com

Perhaps he enjoyed those medical shows because he returned to television to star in his own series in 1979, playing Trapper John, MD. The plot was featured Trapper John from M*A*S*H later in his career at San Francisco Memorial Hospital where he was Chief of Surgery. He worked with a young surgeon who had also served in a MASH unit, Alonzo “Gonzo” Gates (Gregory Harrison). The series lasted seven seasons.

In 1979, he told TV Guide that he chose to return to a weekly show because he had “seen his father age and realized it was a vulnerable time to be without financial security.” Roberts felt the role allowed him to use his dramatic range of acting skills and to address important social issues.

In the 1990s, Roberts took on very few television appearances; his last television performance was in Diagnosis: Murder in 1997.

Roberts would attempt marriage one last time in 1999 when he wed Eleanor Criswell. When Pernell passed away in 2010 from pancreatic cancer after being diagnosed in 2007, they were still together.

Photo: Facebook.com

Pernell also enjoyed golfing, swimming, playing tennis, running, reading, cooking, and singing. He appeared on two record albums during his career. The cast of Bonanza recorded an album in 1959 and he released a folk music album in 1962, titled “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies.”

He certainly had a long and varied career: music, movies, Broadway, and television. He also used his fame to help causes he believed in. I don’t think he is remembered as well as he should be. Maybe it’s because he left Bonanza too early to be included on a lot of the memorabilia that came out of that show or because there was such a gap between his two series that he starred in. Whatever the reason, I hope this blog has helped recall some of our memories of the three decades he spent entertaining us.

The Toast of the Town: The First Variety Show

We are ending our “They Were the First” blog series with the first variety show to air on TV. During the first few decades of television, variety shows were always popular. And the show that drew in viewers every week was The Ed Sullivan Show.

Ed Sullivan Show – Motor City Radio Flashbacks
Photo: motorcityflashbacks.com

The Ed Sullivan Show debuted on CBS as The Toast of the Town on June 20, 1948. (The show was changed from The Toast of the Town to The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955.) If you watched the first episode, you would have enjoyed Martin and Lewis performing, jazz singer Monica Lewis, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein previewing their score to South Pacific which would open on Broadway in 1949, a troupe of singing firemen, and a boxing referee who would be in charge of the Joe Louis-Jersey Joe Walcott match. The last show of the series from March 27, 1971 featured pop singer Melanie, soprano singer Joanna Simon (sister of singer Carly Simon), Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass, and multi-lingual singers Sandler and Young.

Ed Sullivan and the eye of a generation | The ed sullivan show, Old tv  shows, Tv on the radio
Photo: pinterest.com

It was on Sunday evenings at 9 pm ET and would continue airing Sunday evenings in the network schedule until it went off the air in 1971. Sullivan presented a vaudeville (vaudeo as some execs referred to it) type format with guests from almost every genre of entertainment: popular singers, comedians, dancers, actors, acrobatic acts, opera singers, sports and classical musicians.

Even if you never watched the show, you probably can hear Sullivan’s dead-pan introductions in your head. He was mimicked for years for his notorious monotoned voice and his bungling of introductions. Cher always complained that they were introduced as “Sonny and Chair.” When he was mad at Buddy Holly, he introduced him as something like “Buddy Hollared.”

CBS had its own symphony orchestra in the early years (as did NBC). Some of the orchestra members became part of the orchestra conducted by Ray Bloch on Toast of the Town. It was an incredible group of musicians who could play for a wide array of genres (imagine switching from The Jackson Five to Ella Fitzgerald to Itzhak Perlman to a ballet in one night). Each member was a specialist and had no trouble performing a spectrum of musical genres. In addition to the orchestra, the June Taylor Toastettes also danced on the show.

Most performers looked at an invitation from the show as their ticket to stardom. Harry Belafonte was a popular performer in the mid-fifties on the show, Elvis Presley made his first appearance on September 9, 1956, and The Beatles made the show one of their first stops when they came to America in 1964.

10 Facts About The Beatles's 'Ed Sullivan Show' Debut | Mental Floss
The Beatles Photo: mentalfloss.com

While most people would not be surprised to learn Belafonte, Dinah Shore, and Irving Berlin made their debuts on the show, they might not have expected that Ed also hosted Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, and Janis Joplin.

Until 1962, the show’s main sponsor was the Ford Motor Company, specifically the Lincoln-Mercury Division. Sullivan would read live ads on the air during these decades. Color came to the Ed Sullivan Show in 1965.

The show was broadcast live. Originally it came from the Maxine Elliott Theatre (CBS TV Studio 51) at Broadway and 39th St. and moved to its permanent home CBS-TV Studio 50 which eventually was renamed the Ed Sullivan Theater.

The Incredible History Of The Late Show's Ed Sullivan Theater - Recommended  Photos - CBS.com
Photo: cbs.com

The show did very well attracting viewers. Until 1968, it was in the top twenty for its entire history. In 1969, it dropped to 23rd and in 1970, it hit 27th but still did pretty well, landing in the top thirty. However, the network decided that the show was attracting the wrong demographic, namely older Americans. The show was cancelled in spring of 1971, so Ed was not able to put together a final good-bye; the show just ended.

In 1990, Andrew Solt (SOFA Entertainment) purchased exclusive rights to the library of The Ed Sullivan Show from Ed’s daughter. The collection includes 1087 hours of kinescopes and videotapes. Most of the shows that have been released have been on VHS/DVD sets. However, in 2021 MeTV began airing half-hour packages of performances on, when else but, Sunday evenings.

So, you might be wondering how Ed Sullivan became the emcee of such a long-running, successful show. Alan King once said, “Ed Sullivan can’t sing, can’t dance, and can’t tell a joke, but he does it better than anyone else.”

Although his onscreen persona was not very exciting, off screen his life was just the opposite. He loved New York night life and was a world traveler. He was a bit eccentric and lived at the Delmonico Hotel.

Ed was a twin but, sadly, his brother was sickly and only lived a few months. In the 1920s, Sullivan had hosted radio programs with Broadway themes. He was able to work with Jimmy Durante, Irving Berlin, and Jack Benny, among others.

In 1926 he began dating Sylvia Weinstein; their families were opposed to a Catholic-Jewish marriage and they dated three years before wedding. The couple had a glamorous, exciting life, hobnobbing with the rich and famous.

Ed worked as a newspaper reporter, covering sports till 1931. At that time, he was asked to write a Broadway feature and The New York Daily News hired him to write a regular column about New York.

What Makes Ed Sullivan Tick? | The Saturday Evening Post
Photo: thesaturdayeveningpost.com

In 1947, Sullivan emceed the Harvest Moon Ball for the Daily News which was televised. After that event, CBS offered him the variety show. Although he was known for having controversies, asking musicians to change lyrics or eliminate songs he thought were not appropriate for his show, he was respected in the industry for being color-blind to talent. Despite racism within the industry, he supported talented individuals despite their race, gender, or background. He featured many African American guests who went on to become stars on his show. He and Louis Armstrong were close friends, and Sullivan paid for the funeral of Bill Bojangles Robinson after he died penniless. Sullivan also appreciated Motown and often invited their artists on the show.

When you look at what television was like in the late forties and all the changes that the next several decades would bring, it is pretty amazing to have Meet the Press, which began in 1947 and Toast of the Town which began in 1948 to have such long lives on air. These shows not only learned to adjust to social and technical changes, they were quality shows that stood the test of time. After learning more about The Ed Sullivan Show, I am curious to learn more about the man behind the show. I hope you have enjoyed getting to know a little bit more about the early days of the classic television this month.