Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rant #181: Bonanza Bites the Dust

I am sure that you read that actor Pernell Roberts died at 81 the other day.

This is a guy who had two chances at fame, rode the wave while it was high, and left when the going was still good.

His most famous role was that of Adam Cartwright, the eldest son of the Cartwright family on NBC's "Bonanza" western. The show was one of the most popular westerns ever. It was so popular that NBC used the show to sell RCA color televisions during a time when families were lucky if they owned a single black and white TV.

He had a six-year contract to portray this character, and even though the show was at its height in 1965, he left the series when his contract was up.

Some people thought that this was one of the dumbest things an actor could do, leaving a highly rated series for supposed fame and fortune elsewhere. But Roberts stuck to his guns, and really was not heard from again for nearly two decades. In the interim, he did summer stock, acted occasionally in TV and movies, and pretty much became a trivia question: "Who portrayed Adam Cartwright on "Bonanza" and what was the explanation for his character leaving the series?" (Obviously he was the answer to the first part of the question, the second answer was simply that Adam moved away from the rest of his family.)

Then in the late 1970s, Roberts took on a role that had been already been created on another show, and for that matter, on the big screen. He was CBS's "Trapper John, M.D.," a role originated on the "M*A*S*H" TV show by Wayne Rogers and in the movie by Elliot Gould. This was the Korean war character more than 20 years later, as a doctor in a hospital.

The show was very popular, but when it came to the end of its run in the mid 1980s, Roberts faded away once again. His co-horts on "Bonanza,"--including Lorne Greene, Michael Landon and Dan Blocker--all passed away in the intervening years, so, ironically, he lived out his life as the lone original cast member alive from the Cartwright clan.

That is, until the other day, when he, too, succumbed.

Roberts evidently plied his career the way he wanted to, even though his critics still said he was a numbskull to leave "Bonanza" when it was still at the top of the TV heap.

But I guess that wasn't his thing, and you have to respect him for that.

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