Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Restless Ballad of Pernell Roberts

You only live once, and I’m about half way through it. Well, you find yourself compromising and compromising, and that’s admitting failure in a way. What I want is my freedom. Some people value security more, but I’m the other way. Pernell Roberts, 1962

Back in high school, I’d read a book written in 1967 by a New York man who set up six TV sets in his apartment and watched all the commercial channels (CBS, NBC, ABC and three local stations) for a week. Although I’ve since forgotten both title and author (enlightenment from any knowledgeable reader is gratefully encouraged), one passage concerning Sunday evening at 9:00 pm has stayed with me:

Bonanza on channel 4. Little Joe, Hoss and Pa. God, I miss Adam. He was the glue in this particular horse factory, and his evil, saturnine way was a pleasant contrast to the Ponderosa good guys. But they wrote ol’ Adam out of the show many moons ago, and we will have to do with Little Joe and Hoss for the action.”

The exit of Pernell Roberts (Adam Cartwright) from Bonanza after its sixth season remains one of the most misunderstood actions in television land. Each year since 1961, TV columnists reported that Roberts was trying to leave; each September for four subsequent seasons, Roberts returned. Everyone assumed it was simply a money issue; either that, or Roberts’ gripes were the sniping of a TV actor with a massive ego problem. Clouding the issue was the fact that his departure wasn’t mentioned on the show. The others would make occasional references to Adam, but where he’d gone and why was never discussed.
Bonanza began 50 years ago come September; NBC’s big, color western intended to sell parent company RCA’s big color TVs. Producer David Dortort assembled a cast of unknowns in the belief that “television makes its own stars.” An indisputable point, but NBC was taking no chances, and filled up the early episodes with important stars: Yvonne DeCarlo, Howard Duff, Ida Lupino, Jack Carson. Consequently, the four Cartwrights bound together as tightly off-screen as on.

“(We) found ourselves fighting the star system because of all the outside names being brought in,” Roberts recalled three years later. “We found ourselves, at first, like supporting players. And the producer didn’t have the authority to change that.” At one point in early 1960, Lorne Greene walked into Dortort’s office and announced, in terms more earthy than the following, that the scripts written to date weren’t suitable as toilet paper. Luckily, the ratings also indicated that changes were needed. The main characters became more important, big name actors were forgotten, and by the end of its second season, Bonanza moved into the top 20. Chevrolet was interested in sponsoring the third year in Dinah Shore’s old timeslot: Sunday at 9. Even then, rumors flew that Roberts wasn’t interested in continuing. The rumors were true.

“When NBC turned down my request for a contract release,” said Roberts at the time, “I understood their point of view. They were trying to deliver a neat package to a new sponsor, and I felt some responsibility.” Complicating matters, all four stars were offered a hefty raise, provided they extended their five-year contracts to six. “I had to sign for a sixth year to get a raise, but now I would prefer to be out entirely,” he moaned in early 1962. But in its Sunday slot, Bonanza thrived, becoming the network’s highest-rated series. NBC was loath to risk that success, especially since the show was all theirs.

What, exactly, was Roberts’ beef? “I wasn’t keen to do a series, but I was told there would be some honest writing and that the people producing it had integrity,” he told columnist Hal Humphrey. “What good is integrity if you don’t use it? Bonanza for the most part is bad literature and I’m tired of trying to hide in it.” To Bob Thomas, he added, “They told me the four characters would be sharply defined and the scripts carefully prepared. None of this was put on paper. None of it ever happened.”

Personal appearances at fairs and rodeos also stuck in his craw: “First, there were the petty intrigues of the producers who thought they owned you and threw parties so I could meet all the grandmothers, nephews and cousins. (Then) they have you ride into the ring and titillate the crowds by touching their outstretched hands along the fence. Then the joke telling time in the center, after wading through ankle-deep manure, followed by several hours of autographs. Afterwards, the cowboys, who really resented me for the money and popularity, would make cracks about actors.” Even though it paid “five and six thousand dollars a day,” Roberts made only four such appearances during his six years, refusing to do more. “I am an actor, not a carnival freak on exhibition.”

Concluded the Georgia-born actor who took an early public stand against segregation and the Vietnam war: “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.”

Word got out in the middle of season three that Roberts was prepared to jump ship and go on suspension. But NBC played hardball: “(The network) said, ‘Sure, go ahead - if you never want to work again as an actor anywhere.” So Roberts – whose chief complaint about his employers was their lack of integrity – decided to retaliate with an egregious display of unprofessionalism: “I went to the producer and said I guessed I’d stay, but that, to preserve my sanity, I would continue walking through my part.”

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

ADAM IS SOOOOOOOOOOOOOO HOT 2 BAD PERNELL ROBERTS LEFT HE IS AWESOMW AN A GREAT ACTOR I LUVED THEM ALL BUT ADAM WAS MY FAVORITE .... I WISH BEN , LIL JOE AND HOSS WERE STILL W/ US SO THE 4 CARTWRIGHTS COULD DO A BONANZA REUNION ON THE BIG SCREEN !!!! RIP BEN , LIL JOE AND HOSS ..... AND PERNELL ROBERTS 1 WILL ALWAYS LOVE AN ADORE U GINA XOXOXO

GINA said...

LOVE U SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO MUCH PERNELL ROBERTS U R AWESOME U R SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO HOTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT 1-4-3 GINA

Jon C. Hopwood said...

Excellent piece. The best I've read about the Pernell Roberts and why he left.

Anonymous said...

nice!

Anonymous said...

Most informative article I have ever heard about the reason why he left BONANZA its a free country. We are all responsible for our own happiness, too bad he left though.

Paul Duca said...

The book you are thinking of is SEVEN GLORIOUS DAYS, SEVEN FUN-FILLED NIGHTS...about the man who watched TV nonstop for a week.

Anonymous said...

Roberts wanted out by Season 3? The producers must have wanted to make him happy. One of Bonanza's (and Adam's) best episodes, "The Crucible", aired at the end of Season 3.