Happy Birthday Pernell Roberts: Remembering the Adam Cartwright Actor From Iconic Western Series ‘Bonanza’

by Evan Reier

Today, the legendary Bonanza and Trapper John, M.D. actor and activist Pernell Roberts would have been 93-years-old.

The life of Pernell Roberts was accomplished and complicated. Despite his place on Bonanza, he is famously the man who left the gargantuan western. Further, his work in civil rights away from the screen added a layer of depth to his legacy that can’t be ignored.

But, starting at the beginning, Roberts was born in Waycross, Georgia in 1928. He performed early and often, learning several instruments throughout his childhood before college. At the grand old age of 18, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1946, where he continued his music.

Despite not graduating from Maryland or Georgia Tech after studying there, he continued chasing the arts. This led him to New York, where he gradually moved up the acting ladder, and eventually got his on-screen debut in 1956. Three years of movies and television later, he became Adam Cartwright on Bonanza.

Pernell Roberts’ Journey Through Bonanza

Adam Cartwright somewhat mirrored the education and intelligence of Roberts. The Bonanza character had studied and became an architect. Further, the eldest Cartwright brother was always more calculated than his family members.

However, while Roberts and Bonanza took off in popularity fairly quickly, his enjoyment of television acting did not. The actor did not enjoy the direction Adam Cartwright was taking, and famously spoke against the premise of the show. He told the Washington Post as much even before his departure.

“Isn’t it just a bit silly for three adult males to get Father’s permission for everything they do?” Roberts said. “I have an impotent role. Everywhere I turn, there’s the father image.”

By 1965, Roberts had completed his first contract and left the show in turn. The ever-eloquent Roberts explained his departure from Bonanza to the Washington Post.

“It got so I was upset the minute I arrived for work. That’s no way to live,” Roberts said. “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 Becomes Trapper John, M.D.

Leaving Bonanza gave Roberts what he wanted: a variety of roles. The actor had proven his ability in New York stage acting and on the legendary show, which led him to appearances on major programs like The Virginian, Mission: Impossible, and The Rockford Files.

This all built up to his role as John McIntyre in Trapper John, M.D. As McIntyre, Roberts portrayed as the Chief of Surgery at the San Francisco Memorial Hospital, 28 years on from the character’s time in M*A*S*H. He’s far less rambunctious after all that time, but still ignored procedures to do what he thought was best.

The show was a huge success and returned Pernell Roberts to the mainstream. After seven seasons, the story came to a close, as did his last major TV role.

Roberts went on to make several more appearances and cameos, but never took on a reoccurring television role again. He ended up being the last surviving Cartwright from Bonanza, and had an expansive career to match decades of activism.

Sadly, Roberts passed away on January 24, 2010.