Pernell Roberts, a versatile actor best remembered for his portrayal of the handsome, eldest Cartwright son on the classic television western “Bonanza” and later as the lead character in the medical drama “Trapper John, M.D.,” died at his Malibu home Sunday. He was 81.
His death after a two-year battle with cancer was confirmed by his wife, Eleanor Criswell.
Born May 18, 1928, in Waycross, Ga., Roberts grew up poor on the edge of the state’s Okefenokee Swamp. In high school, he played the horn and acted in school and church plays. He attended Georgia Tech and the University of Maryland but did not earn a degree from either institution, and he served in the Marine Corps band at Quantico, Va.
He began his theatrical career in 1950 at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C, where he performed in more than a dozen plays. In 1952 he moved to New York City and appeared in one-act operas and ballets with the North American Lyric Theater. In 1955 he won a Drama Desk Award as the best off-Broadway actor for his performance in “Macbeth.” On Broadway he appeared with Joanne Woodward in “The Lovers.”
In 1957 he arrived in Hollywood and won roles in three movies, including “Desire Under the Elms” (1958), which starred Sophia Loren, Anthony Perkins and Burl Ives.