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.

Big Valley: Home of the Barkleys

We are in the midst of our western series, and today we turn our attention to a show that was on ABC for four years, from 1965-1969: The Big Valley. Created by A. I. Bezzerides and Louis F. Edelman and produced by Levy-Gardner-Laven (a trio of Jules V. Levy, Arthur Gardner, and Arnold Laven).

Photo: amazon.com

The series is set on the Barkley Ranch in the 1870s, home of the Barkleys, one of the wealthiest families in the area. The ranch is based on the 30-acre Hill Ranch which existed from 1855-1931. Lawson Hill was murdered in 1861 ad then his wife Euphemia ran it. They also had three sons and one daughter. Today the ranch is covered by Camanche Reservoir waters. The exterior shot of the house used in the show was also Tara in Gone with the Wind.

Photo: pinterest.com

On Big Valley, Victoria Barkley (Barbara Stanwyck) runs the ranch with the help of her sons Jarrod (Richard Long), Heath (Lee Majors), and Nick (Peter Breck) and daughter Audra (Linda Evans).

Barbara Stanwyck in The Big Valley by Silver Screen | Barbara stanwyck,  Actresses, Silver screen
Barbara Stanwyck Photo: pinterest.com

Heath was her husband’s illegitimate son, but she considered him her own child. He never met his father who had never been told of his existence; Heath learned it from his mother on her deathbed.

Three Great Stories in the Barkley Library - The Big Valley Writing Desk
The boys of Big Valley Photo: tapatalk.com

Jarrod was an attorney and was refined and well educated. He was briefly married but his wife was killed shortly after by a bullet meant for him. Nick was the younger, hot-tempered son who helped his mother run the ranch. He was a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War. He had a great sense of humor and was very loyal to his family.

15 Things You Don't Know About Linda Evans - INSP TV | TV Shows and Movies
Linda Evans Photo: insp.com

Audra was rather bold for the times. She was a tomboy but had a soft heart and tended to children at the local orphanage.

There was another younger Barkley, Eugene (Charles Briles), who was a medical student at Berkeley. He was seen off and on through season one, then drafted into the army and never really mentioned again.

Considering that the show was only on the air four years, a lot of stars appeared. A small sample includes Jack Albertson, Lew Ayres, Anne Baxter, Milton Berle, Charles Bronson, John Carradine, Yvonne Craig, Yvonne DeCarlo, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Goulet, Julie Harris, Ron Howard, Cloris Leachman, Gavin MacLeod, Leslie Nielsen, Regis Philbin, Lou Rawls, Pernell Roberts, Wayne Rogers, Katharine Ross, William Shatner, and Adam West.

The Big Valley" Joshua Watson (TV Episode 1969) - IMDb
Lou Rawls guest star Photo: imdb.com

The Big Valley was a western but with a few twists and never predictable. It was the first time a woman would have the lead in a western.  The Barkleys may have been wealthy, but they were raised right. They were hardworking and fought for the underdog, making sure justice prevailed. However, it was not a cliché; no one could be trusted and nothing was exactly as it looked. Characters who appeared angelic ended up being truly evil.

Photo: hulu.com

Unfortunately for the show, it was coming in at the end of the western’s popularity and was never in the top 30 during its time on the air. The other new shows that began when it did included Get Smart, I Dream of Jeannie, Hogan’s Heroes, Lost in Space, F Troop, and The Wild Wild West.

However, it received good reviews, and in 1966, Stanwyck was nominated and won the Emmy for drama series. She would also be nominated in 1967 and 1968, losing to Barbara Bain from Mission Impossible both years.

The theme was composed by George Duning. In 1966, a soundtrack from the show was released in mono and stereo versions. During his career Duning would work on more than 300 movie and television scores.

Like many television shows in the fifties and sixties, Dell Comics published six comic books based on the show. For some reason, I did not see much in the way of merchandising for this show compared to other westerns or shows from the sixties.

A warmhearted retrospective with 'Big Valley' cowgirl Linda Evans | Medium
Photo: pinterest.com

The cast got along well. Evans and Stanwyck were exceptionally close and rehearsed at Barbara’s house every Saturday. When Arthur Gardner was interviewed on the Television Academy, he said that Stanwyck mentored the younger cast members. He said “he could not praise her enough” for the work she did.

52 The Big Valley ideas | tv westerns, barbara stanwyck, linda evans
Photo: pinterest.com

It’s too bad the show didn’t begin earlier in the decade; it might have been able to stay on the air a bit longer. It was a unique concept with a powerful woman as the star. You can currently see it on Me TV on Saturdays as well as a few other networks.