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.

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.”