‘Bonanza’: When and How Did Adam Cartwright Actor Pernell Roberts Die?

by Joe Rutland

Pernell Roberts made his presence felt on “Bonanza” as elder brother Adam Cartwright. But the actor played other roles in his career.

Roberts died on Jan. 24, 2010, of pancreatic cancer at his home in Malibu, Calif., according to an article from The New York Times.

“Bonanza” first hit TV screens on NBC in 1959 and would last until 1973. Roberts played Adam from 1959 until leaving the popular western after the 1964-65 season. He would get into disputes with show writers over his character’s dialogue. Plus, Roberts was no fan of having non-Native American actors play Native Americans on the TV show.

‘Bonanza’ Star Wasn’t Shy About Being Civil Rights Activist

He was a stout activist for civil rights in the 1960s, taking part in the Selma to Montgomery, Ala. marches in 1965. Roberts, after leaving “Bonanza,” would find other work as a guest star on different TV shows.

But he did return to play “Trapper John” McIntyre in CBS’s “Trapper John, M.D.” from 1979-86. Roberts picked up the role after Wayne Rogers, who originally played that role on “M*A*S*H” but left that TV series himself, didn’t want to play it again.

It is quite evident, based on some of Roberts’ comments, that when his contract was complete for “Bonanza,” he was ready to take his leave.

“It got so I was upset the minute I arrived for work,” Roberts says in a 1986 interview with The Washington Post. “That’s no way to live. I don’t have the psychological stamina to last under artistic compromises over a prolonged period of time. I get hostile and vindictive. It wears me down.”

Roberts Would Find Additional TV, Stage Work After Leaving Show

Among his other TV credits included “The Virginian,” “The Big Valley,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Gunsmoke,” and “Mannix.” Roberts also goes back to something he was doing before “Bonanza” and that’s stage work. He appears in plays like a 1973 production of “Gone With The Wind” alongside actress Lesley Ann Warren. Others include “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Any Wednesday,” and “The Sound of Music.”

Back to “Bonanza” for a minute. When Roberts appeared on TV screens, he was joined by Lorne Greene, who played Ben Cartwright; Michael Landon, who played “Little Joe” Cartwright; and Dan Blocker, who played Eric “Hoss” Cartwright. Roberts could not stand the dialogue, as we noted earlier, between himself and Greene’s character.

One rather embarrassing moment in Roberts’ time on “Bonanza” was when his hairpiece fell off during a scene. See, Adam needed to save a calf from drowning in a river. When he went into the water, Roberts lost his hair for a quick minute. It’s just for a brief moment, though, and the hair is back in place.

Despite his grumblings about the show, “Bonanza” fans still enjoy Pernell Roberts’ character all these decades later.