Pernell Roberts was an American actor and singer, who was best known for his role as Adam Cartwright on NBC’s hit Western television series, “Bonanza,” and for his title character role on CBS’ medical drama series, “Trapper John, M.D.” He died in 2010 at age 81.

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Early life and family

Pernell Elven Roberts Jr. was born on 18 May 1928, in Waycross, Georgia, USA to Pernell Elven Roberts Sr. (1907-1980) and Minnie “Betty” Myrtle Morgan Roberts (1910-1988). His father was a Dr. Pepper salesman while his mother’s occupation, if any, was not revealed. There is no other information available regarding his parents and childhood years.

Educational Background

He matriculated from Waycross High School, and he actively participated in school and church plays during this time. He was cast in tragedies such as William Shakespeare’s “Othello” and Sophocles’ “Antigone.”

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He also sang at events such as the local United Service Organizations, Inc. (USO) shows, which is a nonprofit and charitable corporation providing live entertainment for the United States Armed Forces members and families. He attended the Georgia Institute of Technology but did not graduate.  In 1946, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served for two years wherein he played the horn and tuba in the Marine Corps Band. He attended the University of Maryland but still wasn’t able to graduate because he left for work to perform in summer stock theatre.


First steps

Roberts worked as a forest ranger, railroad riveter, tombstone maker, and butcher to support himself as he pursued his career in theatre.

He made his debut as a professional stage actor in 1949 with the three‑act comedy by George S. Kaufman and Hart Moss, “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” at the Olney Theatre in Maryland. It was followed by various stage plays including Emlyn Williams’ psychological thriller, “Night Must Fall,” and Bernard Shaw’s most popular play, “Pygmalion.”

He moved to Washington, D.C. in 1950 and for two years, he performed with the Arena Stage, a non-profit regional theater company, and was cast in many of William Shakespeare’s plays such as the comedy, “The Taming of the Shrew,” romantic comedy, “Twelfth Night,” and tragedy, “Julius Caesar” as well as Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” He also performed with other productions after that.

Further success

In 1952, he moved to New York and performed in a variety of off-Broadway and Broadway plays, and most notable was his performance in the off-Broadway play, “Macbeth,” which won him the Drama Desk Award in 1955.

Pernell made his television debut in 1956 in NBC’s anthology drama television series, “Kraft Television Theater,” which also starred popular actors such as Paul Newman, Grace Kelly, and James Dean. He appeared in one of its episodes entitled, “Shadow of Suspicion.” He was cast for guest-starring roles in several western television series after that including ABCs “Cheyenne” and “Sugarfoot” as well as NBC’s “Cimarron City” and “Gunsmoke.”

In 1957, he signed a contract with Columbia Pictures and made his film debut in 1958 in the American movie version of Eugene O’Neill’s 1929 play, “Desire Under the Elms.”

The movie, which starred Sophia Loren, Anthony Perkins, and Burl Ives, competed for the Palme d’Or award at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival. Pernell was cast in a small role that of Peter, one of the sons of Ephraim Cabot played by Burl Ives. That same year, he played the character role of a professional gunman named Chocktaw Neal in the western movie, “The Sheepman,” directed by George Marshall and starred Glenn Ford and Shirley MacLaine.

He accepted a lot of television work such as in the children’s anthology series, “Shirley Temple Storybook Theater,” and in NBC’s anthology series “Matinee Theater” and “General Electric Theater.”


He landed the role of Adam Cartwright in NBC’s American western television series, “Bonanza,” which was set in the 1860s during and after the American Civil War.

Pernell Roberts

It revolved around his wealthy family, the Cartwrights, who live at the 2,600-sq. km Ponderosa Ranch near the silver ore mines in Virginia City, Nevada. Pernell’s character was the eldest son of the widowed Ben Cartwright played by Lorne Greene, and he had two step-siblings, both from different mothers, namely Hoss (Dan Blocker) and Little Joe (Michael Landon).

Departure from the show

The show was a huge hit and enjoyed high ratings, but it did not stop Pernell from quitting after 202 episodes in 1965 when his five-year contract ended. His decision came after having disagreements over the scripts and his character with the writers and producers. It was said that he became frustrated and dissatisfied with the way his character continued to defer to his father’s wishes despite being a man in his 30s.

He also reportedly said that he didn’t like the series and called it junk although he later denied making such a statement in an interview. However, he did ask the reporter during a 1963 interview ‘Isn’t it a bit silly for three adult males to have to ask father’s permission for everything they do?’ In the “Mike Douglas Show” in 1966, he said he wanted the storyline to be ‘a little more grown-up’ and have more social relevance. He also realized he was not suited to the ‘confining aspect’ of a series that limited his acting range as well. The “Bonanza” producer, David Dortort, said he regretted not having Pernell continue on the show even if only as a semi-regular. He further added that he was too hard on the actor, whom he described as outspoken and rebellious, and that he did not appreciate how much good of an actor he really was.

“Bonanza” was one of the first television series filmed and broadcast in color. It ran from 12 September 1959 to 16 January 1973 for 14 seasons with 431 episodes making it the longest-running western series at NBC and second in the U.S. The series was ranked 43rd on “TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.” It received numerous nominations from various award-giving bodies such as the Primetime Emmy Award, which gave them the Outstanding Individual Achievements in Entertainment – Color Consultant award in 1965 and Individual Achievements in Film Editing award in 1966.

After Bonanza

He went back to performing in stock summer theatre and regional theatres. He also toured with musicals such as “Camelot,” which was based on the legend of King Arthur, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I.”

He received good reviews in 1969 for his performance in “Mata Hari.” In 1972, he played the title role and was praised for his performance in the Broadway play, “Captain Brassbound’s Conversion,” by George Bernard Shaw, which also starred the Academy Award and Tony Award winner Ingrid Bergman. Also worth mentioning were his performances as Rhett Butler in the play, “Gone with the wind” and as Captain von Trapp in the musical, “The Sound of Music.” From time to time, he accepted guest-starring roles in television series and leading roles in television movies.

“Trapper John, M.D.”

It was in 1979 when he landed the title role in the medical drama television series, “Trapper John, M.D.” This CBS show was a spin-off of the black comedy war film, “MASH,” released in 1970.

The story revolved around Dr. “Trapper” John McIntyre, the Chief of Surgery at San Francisco Memorial Hospital, nearly three decades after he was discharged from the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) in the Korean War. It first aired on 23 September 1979 and ran for seven seasons with 151 episodes, and the last one was aired on 4 September 1986.

His last regular TV work was as the host of the ABC police anthology, “FBI: The Untold Stories,” in 1991. Roberts appeared in more than 60 films, TV movies, and television series.

Personal life

Pernell was married four times. His first wife was Vera Mowry, who was a professor of theatre history at Washington State University. He first met her when he joined the Arena Stage in 1950. She was one of its founding members and technical director at that time.

Pernell Roberts

According to Vera, Pernell had this purity that you couldn’t help but feel the truth in his acting. They were married in 1951 and had a son named Jonathan Christopher “Chris” Roberts, who was born in October of that year. In 1952, the family moved to New York where Pernell continued to pursue his career in theater as well as ventured into acting in television and film. Vera, on the other hand, taught acting classes at Hunter College, which is one of the constituent colleges of the City University of New York. The couple had a cordial divorce in 1959. There is not much information about his son except that he attended Franconia College in Franconia, New Hampshire, United States. In 1989, Chris was killed in a motorcycle crash.

His second wife was Judith LeBreque whom he met at a bar in Hollywood.

He married her before a judge in Hollywood in 1962 on a lunch break during the shooting of “Bonanza.” It was said that he had to pick up Judith first then go to the judge. However, he had to run to the nearest gas station because his car ran out of gas along the way. Luckily, they made it in time and were able to marry. He then rushed back to his set to continue shooting. After nine years of marriage, they divorced in 1971.

Pernell’s third wife was Kara Knack, and they tied the knot in 1972 and divorced in 1996 after 24 years. Kara said they had a code they used when she was revealing too many of his secrets and he had to stop her, and that was PMB – “Protect My Balls.”

He married Eleanor Criswell before a judge in his breakfast room in 1997. Their paths first crossed while he was filming “Trapper John, M.D.” He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007 and died at age 81 on 24 January 2010, in his Malibu home with his wife by his side.

Interesting facts and rumors

  • According to his family, Pernell joined the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama and walked alongside Martin Luther King.
  • Pernell recorded “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies,” which was folk music and included in the album released by RCA Victor that was on the fourth disc of the “Bonanza” 4-CD boxed set; he sang more than a dozen songs in the album.
  • It was said that on the set of “Bonanza,” he protested the use of all-white crews and guest actors.
  • A Ponderosa theme park near Lake Tahoe used Pernell’s image on billboards without his permission so he filed a lawsuit in the 80s and won.
  • Eleanor said that Pernell never exercised his right to vote.
  • He loved trees and spent some time pruning them, even bringing red-handled clippers when he traveled.
  • Pernell learned Gullah, the language spoken by slaves of coastal Georgia and South Carolina. He bought the Gullah Bible and read a few pages to Eleanor in 2007.
  • At the celebration of Pernell Roberts’ life on 28 February 2010 in Santa Monica, California, those who gave eulogies were not just his wife and friends but also his ex-wives, Judith and Kara. Richard Stone, his lawyer of 50 years was the master of ceremonies.


He was 6 ft. 2ins. (1.8m) and weighed 198lbs (89kg).

Net Worth

He had been working in theatre, films, and television for more than half his life for guest-starring roles as well as major roles such as in “Bonanza” and “Trapper John, M.D.” His income was not disclosed, but according to sources, his estimated net worth was $10 million.

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