‘Bonanza’: The Heartbreaking Story of How Pernell Roberts Lost His Only Son

by Madison Miller

Pernell Roberts, who played Adam Cartwright on the classic Western series “Bonanza,” had to go through a parent’s worst nightmare.

Roberts had a son named Chris Roberts with his first wife, Vera Mowry. One day, he was out riding his motorcycle in 1989. At the time he was 38 years old. Chris Roberts ended up getting into a deadly motorcycle accident that cost him his life.

Pernell Roberts Coping with Death

To this day, there is limited information available regarding Pernell Roberts’ son’s accident.

His son died just as Roberts had moved on from a massive part of his life. In 1986, just three years earlier, Roberts wrapped up his seven-season-long job on “Trapper John, M.D.” This was his other major role after playing Adam Cartwright on “Bonanza.”

As for Pernell Roberts, he was the last surviving member of the show’s original family when he passed away in 2010. He died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 81.

Besides “Bonanza,” Roberts had a background in performing in a number of classic plays Off-Broadway. According to The New York Times, Pernell Roberts actually would jokingly refer to himself as “Pernell the-Last-One Roberts.” Michael Landon had died in 1991, leaving him as the only Cartwright.

In addition to his on-screen life, Roberts had a budding personal life. He was married four times and divorced three times. He was survived by his wife, Eleanor Criswell.

Pernell Roberts Struggled with his Role in ‘Bonanza’

NBC struck gold with “Bonanza.” The Western drama series reached No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings and would stay there from 1964 to 1967.

Despite its success, Roberts had some serious issues with how things were run when creating “Bonanza.” For starters, the actor found the dynamic between Ben Cartwright and his sons profoundly confusing. He called it “adolescent” in nature.

According to History 101, further, one of his biggest issues was that roles that should have been filled with minority actors were instead given to white actors. Roberts was known for always using his voice, especially in regard to the civil rights movement. He marched with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama back in 1965. His criticism of the stereotypical portrayal of minority characters is reportedly one of the major reasons he decided to leave the show for more “high brow” entertainment.

His personal experience on the show clearly was not all that. Before Roberts left, all of the main stars on the show made the exact same salary. Roberts’ salary was split between Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, and Landon when he left.

Seeing as the show really relied on all four of these actors evenly, this equal salary distribution was very fair.