As you decline in years, you decline in the marketplace,” admits Pernell Roberts, 51, star of CBS’ surprise hit Trapper John, M.D. “So I took the series to financially cover my ass.” The candor is characteristic, but the irony is that Roberts’ posterior might not need fiscal padding today if some years back it hadn’t been so saddle sore. In 1965 he abruptly quit his role as Adam Cartwright after six seasons on the No. 1 TV show, Bonanza. “I feel I am an aristocrat in my field of endeavor,” Pernell proclaimed at the time. “My being part of Bonanza was like Isaac Stern sitting in with Lawrence Welk.”
So Roberts displayed his instrument on the strawhat circuit in works like Camelot and toured with Ingrid Bergman in Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, and his co-stars reaped most of the residuals of Bonanza’s phenomenal 14-year run. “He felt time was rushing by,” remembers Lorne (Pa Cartwright) Greene of his restless former co-star. “I said, ‘Look, Pernell, if you stay with Bonanza you’ll make so much money you’ll be able to build your own theater and get Tennessee Williams to write a play for you.’ ” Michael (Little Joe) Landon, who moved from the Ponderosa to his own Little House on the Prairie, adds, “Pernell didn’t like the show and would let you know it, but he rarely cared to do much about improving it. To say a show stinks doesn’t make it better. After he left we took one leaf out of the dining room table and we all made more money because we split the take three ways instead of four.” The third was, of course, the late Dan (Hoss) Blocker.
But the outspoken Roberts expresses no remorse over his blown bonanza. “Okay, so I threw away a million bucks,” he says now. “So what? All I cared about was my emotional well being. That job was very unpleasant, and I never regretted leaving.” Bill Kiley, the show’s press agent, cites Roberts’ idealism as one cause of his dissatisfaction. “He was a deep-thinking person who constantly wanted to see Bonanza more socially oriented, but it was a hit action Western and nobody paid him much mind.”
That still seems to be the case on Trapper John, a well-rated but predictable sawbones saga that owes little more than the title to M*A*S*H. “I really don’t know what the thrust of the series is,” concedes Pernell, who plays a 28-years-older, somewhat mellower version of the TV character created by Wayne Rogers. “Sometimes it’s drama, sometimes farce. I have absolutely no input. The actor is the last person the producers want to hear from.”
Or so contends the big noise from Waycross, the Georgia town on the fringe of the Okefenokee where Pernell grew up. Restless even then, he managed to flunk out of Georgia Tech and the University of Maryland (twice) before deciding to become an actor. During lean times, he supported himself as a butcher, forest ranger, tombstone maker and welder (“I’ve got the scars to prove it”). In 1950 he joined Washington’s Arena Stage, worked in summer stock and finally got established in 1955 with an award-winning off-Broadway Macbeth performance.
His admitted sell-out decision to do Trapper John doesn’t mean that Roberts has softened his anti-star attitude. He lives quietly in a small, rented, “junkyard modern” home in the Hollywood Hills with his late-30ish second wife, Kara, whom he wed eight years ago. (His son by his first marriage, Christopher, 28, is manager of a Chorus Line road company.) One of their few indulgences is travel, and they dream of a round-the-world tour. During taping season Pernell still reads sociology, politics and philosophy; keeps his 6’2″, 198-pound frame in shape with a daily three-mile jog, and tends a vegetable garden he planted on the 20th Century-Fox lot near the set. “I wanted to work strictly as a freelance actor, and that’s the way it turned out,” says Roberts of his unusual career trajectory. “If you’re locked into a philosophy of nickels and dimes, then you have a pretty limited approach to life. I don’t need a lot of money to live with dignity.”