I saw the notice of Pernell Roberts’ passing on Facebook yesterday, courtesy of Jim Hendrickson at Completeist, and I had originally planned to post an obit last night only to put it off until today. I guess I was either too saddened to hear that Roberts has left us—or if I may be a bit more candid, stunned to hear the news because in the back of my mind I could have sworn he had died many years ago. (Naturally, I’m a little red-faced to admit this—though in my defense, his last credit at the IMDb was a guest shot in 1997 on Diagnosis Murder.) This sort of thing runs in my family; if my father is watching television and happens to see a performer whom he’s not come across in some time, he’ll ask me “Whatever happened to so-and-so?” I then try to explain to him that just because an individual isn’t on the tube every week doesn’t mean they’re digging for sustenance out of the dumpsters ‘round back—some actors/actresses do a lot of stage work, singers perform in Vegas, etc. Roberts has shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 81 after a long bout with cancer.
Roberts is perhaps best known for his portrayal of elder brother Adam Cartwright on the long-running television western Bonanza—though his actual stint with the program amounted to only six seasons (the series eventually ran fourteen). Roberts left the hit series at the peak of its popularity, and many of the denizens occupying Hollywood at the time thought he was nuts. Truth be told, he wasn’t at all happy with the character—he once asked a reporter: “Doesn’t it seem a bit silly for three adult males to get Father’s permission for everything they do?” The series continued, explaining Adam’s absence as his simply having “moved away”—I guess they left the back door open for him just in case he had a change of heart. (Up until his passing, Roberts was the last surviving member of the original Bonanza cast—Dan “Hoss” Blocker died in 1972, patriarch Lorne Greene in 1987 and Michael “Little Joe” Landon in 1991.)
Free of his Bonanza commitment, Roberts took up quite a bit of work on the stage, appearing in productions of The King and I, Camelot, and The Music Man—while continuing to appear in guest roles on series such as The Virginian, Hawaii Five-O, Mission: Impossible, Marcus Welby, M.D., Banacek, Ironside, and Mannix. He then established a “comeback” by landing the role of Doctor John Francis Xavier McIntire in a CBS medical drama entitled Trapper John, MD. According to the show’s creators, Roberts’ character was the same “Trapper John” who operated alongside Dr. Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce during the Korean War as presented in the long-running sitcom M*A*S*H; the character was played on that series by actor Wayne Rogers for three seasons until Rogers left in a highly publicized contract dispute.
The premise of Trapper was that John had mellowed out considerably over the twenty-eight years since viewers had last seen him and much of the “wild” side of his iconoclastic persona had been toned down to the point where he no longer tilted at windmills but had found ways to get around them working within the system. The show’s creators instead added a young surgeon in Dr. George Alonzo “Gonzo” Gates (Gregory Harrison), a brash, irreverent sort reminiscent of the younger Trapper John (he lives in an RV on the hospital parking lot—wacky!) in those halcyon Korean War days. Trapper John, MD may not have broken any major dramatic ground but it was a solid performer for the Tiffany network, running for seven seasons (mostly on Sunday nights at 10pm) and 151 episodes.
A year ago, I did a write-up on the movie western Ride Lonesome (1959)—one of the Boetticher-Scott-Brown westerns I had recently sat down and watched—and mentioned how much I enjoyed seeing Pernell Roberts in the role of bad guy Sam Boone. I remarked at the time that it was probably the best thing I’d seen Roberts in…and looking back, that seems a little harsh. Roberts was an underrated actor, a man capable of embracing either heroics or villainy in his chosen roles, and while I still don’t think I’ll ever be able to cotton up to Bonanza (a show that I always describe—thanks to that great line in Tin Men —as a series about a fifty-year-old father and his three forty-seven-year old sons) Roberts’ work in Lonseome and Trapper John, MD will remind future generations that the man’s talent was a force to be reckoned with.
R.I.P, Pernell. You will be sorely missed.