‘Bonanza’: Adam Cartwright Actor Pernell Roberts’ Only Child Died Tragically

by Joe Rutland

“Bonanza” actor Pernell Roberts went through something any parent never likes to face and that’s the loss of their child.

Chris Roberts, who was Roberts’ son from his first marriage to Vera Mowry, died in a motorcycle accident in 1989. He was 38. There’s very little information available about the accident itself.

Roberts, just three years earlier in 1986, had wrapped up a seven-season run on “Trapper John, M.D.” on CBS. It marked his return to television as a major star. Years earlier, he portrayed Adam Cartwright on NBC’s popular western drama.

Pernell Roberts Had Trouble Being A Part Of ‘Bonanza’

But his time on “Bonanza” wasn’t always fun. Roberts reportedly found the relationship between Ben Cartwright, played by Lorne Greene, and the three sons didn’t make sense. He felt the way it was presented was adolescent. In addition, Roberts couldn’t understand how Ben talked with his older sons.

There were other issues on “Bonanza” that Roberts couldn’t deal with, such as not allowing minorities to play roles filled by white actors. Roberts was a staunch civil rights activist, marching with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Montgomery to Selma, Ala., in 1965.

Roberts left after six seasons on “Bonanza” and found work on stage, where he felt more at home.

That’s why it was more surprising to see him return to television since his previous experience was rather bad for him.

Pernell Roberts died in 2010 of pancreatic cancer. He was 81.

NBC Western Quickly Found Itself Among Top-Rated Shows

The ratings for “Bonanza” started slow, but once they found a timeslot that worked the show was off to the races.

Initially, the show was put on Saturday nights and struggled to make inroads against CBS’ “Perry Mason” in 1959. The first season saw it finish 45th in the Nielsen ratings. Season Two was better, ending up at 17th place.

But NBC was getting itchy about the show. They almost canceled it, yet decided to give it a new timeslot on Sunday nights. Good thing the network did that. The third season for “Bonanza” finished in second place overall.

That’s not all, folks. NBC would see its western drama reach No. 1 in the Nielsens, and stay there, between 1964-67. It was an amazing run for the show. Ratings, though, started falling in the 1970s and were truly hurt with the untimely death of Dan Blocker in 1972. The show never recovered its ratings legs and was canceled in 1974.