Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Restless Ballad of Pernell Roberts, part two

(Pernell) makes the whole show look bad. He’s so unprofessional. He complains that he’s just one-quarter of a character. Well, a lot depends on how much character you put in.
Lorne Greene, 1964.

Near the close of Bonanza’s 5th season, the network entered into negotiations with the cast for a contract renewal beyond season six. The four stars were then making $4,500 per episode, and three of them tasked their manager to seek a minimum of $6,500. The fourth, Pernell Roberts, had no intention of renewing for any price.

When negotiations were over, the manager returned with a surprise: not only had he secured $10,500 per episode for each of the three returnees, he also got them a 100% residual for the first rerun. For the 33 episodes of the 1965-66 season, each man would make a minimum of $693,000. When the contract ended in 1970, between salaries and investments, the three were comfortably in the multi-millionaire class.

By the time the press unearthed these financial details, Roberts was long gone. And when he’d turn up in the road show company of some play, or in a guest shot on The Big Valley or The Wild, Wild West or Mission:Impossible, journalists would remind him – and us – of the big payday he’d scorned.

“The last two years I have spent in a state of resignation, serving my time to the end of the contract,” said Roberts as season six began production. “I’m getting out as soon as it is contractually possible, which is next February (1965). The others in the cast decided to renew their contracts. That’s their business.” To a Look magazine reporter, Roberts clarified what “state of resignation” meant: “I don’t read (the scripts) anymore. I just get on, ask somebody for the lines and say them. That’s all the attention this kind of operation deserves.” Asked if he was worried about looking bad as an actor, he scoffed, “You can get up there and put out one tenth of what you’re capable of and they all think it’s great. No, I won’t try hard.”

TV Guide’s Dwight Whitney, writing a piece on producer David Dortort, saw the latter's frustration when Roberts declared he wouldn’t memorize a speech for the episode “Right is the Fourth 'R,'” but simply read it. “What can (I) do?” asked the producer. “He says that Adam Cartwright would make notes.” When Whitney first spied him, the actor was “drawing heavy black lines through the dialogue with a stubby pencil.” Asked what he was doing with the script, Roberts replied, “Trying to get some kind of honesty into it.”

Dortort bent over backward to keep Roberts interested. For season five, he created a romance between Adam and a young widow, Laura Dayton (Kathie Browne), then brought in Guy Williams (Zorro) to portray a new character, Ben Cartwright’s nephew, Will, who would presumably pick up the slack once Adam wed. The plan backfired. Roberts publicly declared he “didn’t have any feeling about a bride one way or another,” faithful viewers were aghast, and – most especially – Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker and Michael Landon didn’t cotton to the idea of another Cartwright. Dortort had no choice but to unravel the romance: Laura and Will fell in love and left the show.

In January 1965, as Greene, Blocker and Landon celebrated their lucrative future, Roberts asked Dortort for an early release, so he could audition for Tyrone Guthrie’s repertory theatre group in New York City. Dortort granted the request, which is why Adam doesn’t appear in the season’s final five episodes. “The problems, all his rudeness, his impossible conduct and lack of professionalism,” Dortort told TV Guide, “I would forgive all that if he would come back. He is that good.”

Unfortunately for Roberts, Guthrie turned him down. Neither man ever commented on the matter, but Guthrie would’ve had to have been deaf and blind to be unaware of Roberts’ attitude and misbehavior on Bonanza and didn't share Dortort's capacity for tolerance. Instead, Roberts settled for the role of King Arthur in a small tour of Camelot, followed by road show versions of Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice, William Gibson’s Two For the Seesaw, and the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical The King and I. After a year away from Bonanza, he was forced to accept guest shots in The Virginian and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. “because I have to make a living like anyone else. It’s the business that I’m in and I don’t have to appreciate the artistic level of what I’m doing.”

So it went for another 13 years.

Bonanza, meanwhile, did just fine without Adam Cartwright, which Roberts had predicted would be the case: “I don’t think my absence from the show could destroy it. Those three other men are strong. I’ve heard the arguments that I am ‘destroying the image’ and ‘breaking up a winning combination.’ I don’t believe it. That is a money-oriented kind of thinking that lacks reality. There is another, more human approach that actors are expendable.” The show reached number one in the ratings during Roberts’ final season, stayed there for two additional years, and remained in the top ten through 1971. It took Dan Blocker’s untimely death in 1972 to end the Cartwrights’ saga.

That same year, Roberts turned up in Washington DC in George Bernard Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversion with Ingrid Bergman. Commenting on the play’s characters, Roberts told reporter Richard Lebherz, “They’re not people. They are without sexuality, without passion. Just dolls. It’s true of so many kinds of drama and plays. That’s why I have trouble relating to the profession because it isn’t relevant. Very seldom is it, anymore.” By then, his greatest joy was overseas travel.

In 1979, after turning 51, Pernell Roberts returned to series television as Trapper John, M.D., a spin-off from the highly successful M*A*S*H. Typically, he had no pretensions about why he took the role: “I wanted the security. It’s called covering your rear-end.” Trapper John ran seven seasons, during which Roberts took other TV roles (including a reunion with Lorne Greene on a two-part episode of Vega$ in 1980), and even appeared twice on Battle of the Network Stars – a show that was, culturally speaking, only a step or two removed from “carnival freak on exhibition.”

So, did Roberts win or lose his battle for “integrity” and “honesty” in his career? No doubt he would say he made the right choices all down the line, possibly even including the one in 1959 that tied him up for those six years. While he'd probably prefer his legacy to be as a fighter of causes (civil rights during the 1960's, better treatment for wounded war veterans in the '70's), it's a cinch that, for better or worse, Roberts will be remembered as Adam Cartwright. Looking back at Bonanza in 1979, he philosophically concluded, “It wasn’t all black. There was good and bad in it (but) the balance wasn’t right for me.” That same year, TV Guide’s Anthony Cook wrote that, for Roberts, acting had eventually become “a convenient form of therapy – a way of re-creating the pyschodrama of his own deepest feelings. ‘And once you finish your therapy,’ he says, ‘you have no more need of it.’”



Possibly he foresaw this back in 1962: “Maybe if I was 45 I would figure I had a good thing here (on Bonanza). The work isn’t too tough and you can go out and pick up good money at rodeos and supermarket appearances. But I’m 33 now and I’ll be 36 at the end of this contract, which cuts that much more time off the years I need to be an actor.”

UPDATE: Roberts passed away on January 24, 2010, at the age of 81.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article! I've been an avid Pernell Roberts fan all my life, and I have always admired that he just walked his own way.

Adam Cartwright was my childhood hero (and maybe still IS my hero); the integrity and honesty of Pernell Roberts however towers over him.

Booksteve said...

Nice piece. I only vaguely remembered some of this from all those years ago. I must say, though, after watching a long run of BONANZA a few years back, I was quite impressed by Roberts' performance as Adam. Imagine how good it might have been if he'd been actually putting any effort into it!

HemlockMan said...

This is a really fine blog. Generally I hate television, but you write so well about the TV that was important to me when I was a kid. A friend sent me a link. I'll have to thank him.

badmoon said...

Thanks for the wonderful piece on Pernell. I loved the show Bonanza when I was a kid. I think it's charm was it's simplicity. Today's shows are way different in the way they are written and acted. I can see why he felt his acting abilities were being compromised. Things back then were good or bad now-a-days they are so complicated they are hard to follow. Regards, den

Michael J. Hayde said...

Thanks everyone for all the great comments.

Booksteve, if Roberts really believed his low-key, half-hearted performances were acceptible because of television's undemanding mediocrity, it was poor judgement on his part. In truth, his style added to the mystique and appeal of his character. As I've written elsewhere, television is the most intimate of all media. In TV, less is more.

ericpaddon said...

I'm always fascinated by TV history of this era even when its a show I'm not a fan of (I have only watched about two episodes of "Bonanza" in my life), and this study of Pernell Roberts' saga on "Bonanza" is no exception. Kudos for a fascinating piece of research that synthesizes everything together.

As for Roberts himself, I have to admit, he just comes off like a horse's rear end for the most part. I was especially struck by this comment of his: “Bonanza has touched on some interesting problems, but handled them conservatively.... There has been an obvious effort to play it safe, to make Bonanza a good family show that would offend no one and hit a consistent level of mediocrity.”

I read something like this, and I'm left wondering just what did Roberts expect? He seems to have wanted "Bonanza" to be a giant soapbox from week to week that would be in-your-face with the audience and antagonize potential viewers who just wanted to be *entertained* and who if they came away with some little message worth pondering, at least didn't get it rammed down their throats. And it tends to reflect a mindset in Hollywood actors/writers etc. that often ends up in half the country having a low opinion of their profession in general since the soapbox they want their industry to promote is usually going to be a one-way street on most of the issues.

Classic TV for the most part, has remained classic to its fans over the decades *because* it knew how to show more restraint than is the case today, alas. And it's probably no coincidence that the one show I can think of from that era that most reflected a soapbox approach to issues of the day "The Defenders" is not a show that enjoyed a great long-term life in syndication. Classic TV, like the "Bonanza" Roberts turned his back on and then gave the middle finger to on his way out the door, has remained classic with its fans precisely because it didn't cater to Roberts whim on that point.

badmoon said...

Well now, It is my guess that back in those days many of the actors who had aspirations of becoming a movie star was so afraid of being type cast shows like Bonanza caused that fear. My observation over those years was the westerns were one of the few shows that had lots of popular actors that were not type cast and these people showed up in movies and other TV shows for a long time.

Most all of the people who were part of Bonanza's regular cast moved on to other shows. Look at all of the western shows that spawned many actors careers.

Lets see now, Clint Eastwood from Rawhide, Gunsmoke with the first Matt Dillon on radio, William Conrad who later in life did Cannon and Jake and the Fatman. Conrad was into everything in the TV and film business, The Rifleman's Chuck Conners, Have gun will travel, The Virginian, Wagon Train, Maverick with James Garner and the High Chaparral just to remember a few. I can't remember all of the actors but I loved those shows as a kid. There was a lesson in morality back then too. Most of us got it.

I wonder why the cowboy shows didn't create the type cast actors other shows made. Ah well, I liked bonanza as a kid and I still like it. It is simple to follow and I do not have to worry about turning stuff off when the grand kids are about. Back to Pernell and his dislike for the way the show was written. He was right, it was a show for the masses and putting on something complicated like Shakespeare would never be understood in the Bonanza time slot.

I thought he did a good job in Bonanza and I thought he did a good job in Trapper John. As far as actors I thought most of the ones I saw on Bonanza were good and so must the masses or the shows would never have been on the air for more than a year. Good for them. It is too bad all of the Bonanza members are now dead. Pernell passed away a few weeks ago. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

From everything I've read about Pernell Roberts and his great interest in human rights, his integrity and intelligence it is astonishing to me that he would be satified to be employeed in such a frivilous profession.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading quite a bit about Pernell over the past 2 years, and was saddened by his death last year. I loved Bonanza when I was a kid, especially Adam. Even as a youngster I thought Little Joe was silly and immature, tho' all the girls seemed to prefer him. Adam was always steady, logical, and looked at all sides. I think I confused Pernell with Adam (a common error) and have been a bit disappointed with Roberts in real life. However, not because he left Bonanza, but because of his arrogant and disdainful attitude toward his chosen business. I think he was either very insecure within himself, or else he REALLY did think he was superior to others. Either way it's quite sad.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading quite a bit about Pernell over the past 2 years, and was saddened by his death last year. I loved Bonanza when I was a kid, especially Adam. Even as a youngster I thought Little Joe was silly and immature, tho' all the girls seemed to prefer him. Adam was always steady, logical, and looked at all sides. I think I confused Pernell with Adam (a common error) and have been a bit disappointed with Roberts in real life. However, not because he left Bonanza, but because of his arrogant and disdainful attitude toward his chosen business. I think he was either very insecure within himself, or else he REALLY did think he was superior to others. Either way it's quite sad.

CHERIE JOHNSON said...

As I read this article about the late Pernell Roberts, as in all things, lessons are learned.
I feel it's not about the whole man as versatile as he was, he did things his own way.
You can call it arrogance, foolishness, take your pick. Whatever you say, it won't bring him back, won't tarnish his gorgeous looks, his humanitarian causes, none of that.
I'm a huge fan, I couldn't appreciate "Adam Cartwright" until recently, over the last couple of years.
I knew that's who he was when "Trapper John, MD" began as a comeback role for him. My grandmother reminded me who he portrayed on NBC the week I was born, .."Oh yes, Pernell, he was Adam, the oldest of the Cartwrights." & she said it while she was smiling, so she even knew about the history back-in-the-day.
This show premiered on September 12, 1959. I was born 4 days later, so when Bonanza began it's 14yr. run, it was new also.
I began to adore it in the latter 60's, until Dan Blocker died... I recall the picture of beloved "Hoss", & the moment of silence along with it.
Albeit, one of many legacies that Pernell left was that he was a man of his own convictions. He did what wasn't politically correct even before the phrase.
What is also something that I always believe is that CA$H, money isn't everything... There are some things that for some, money, no amount , can buy.
Plus, unless you were the spider in her web, hanging onto the Ponderosa Pine rafters of the set, none of us who weren't there can tell all, know all, or be all who worked on that classic.
Those were turbulent times for this nation, the world even. I'm guessing that Pernell didn't need, or have time for whatever he went through, saw, heard, etc.
He is missed, & adored. Thank God for digital pics, CDs, HD-TV, & DVDs.
Thanks for writing this article, with sincere appreciation, CEJ.