Childhood & Early Life
Roberts was the only child of Minnie Myrtle Morgan Roberts and Pernell Elven Roberts, Sr. He was born on May 18, 1928, in Waycross, Georgia, US. The American actor’s father was a ‘Dr. Pepper’ salesperson.
Roberts realized his passion for acting during his high-school years, when he acted in school and church plays. It was during the same time that he discovered his potential as a singer. He sang at local ‘USO shows’ and learned how to play the horn.
He attended the ‘Georgia Institute of Technology,’ also known as ‘Georgia Tech,’ but he did not graduate. In 1946, he was enlisted in the army, and thereafter, he served in the ‘United States Marine Corps’ for 2 years. Even when he was serving the country, he was not divorced from his artistic self. He played the horn and the tuba in the ‘Marine Corps Band.’ Roberts also had a coherent knowledge of the sousaphone and percussion instruments at that time.
Pernell Roberts’s first encounter with classical theater was during his years at the ‘University of Maryland,’ though he did not graduate from there either. Nevertheless, his years there brought him closer to his destiny as an actor. While he was a student, he acted in four productions, two of them being ‘Othello’ and ‘Antigone.’
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Roberts made his professional debut on stage in 1949, with ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner,’ at the ‘Olney Theatre’ in Olney, Maryland. Soon after this venture, he appeared as ‘Dan’ in Emlyn Williams’s ‘Night Must Fall’ and as ‘Alfred Doolittle’ in GB Shaw’s immensely successful play ‘Pygmalion’ at the ‘Bryn Mawr College Theatre,’ Philadelphia.
Pernell Roberts’s first claim to fame was as a theater actor. In 1950, he moved to Washington, DC. In the first 5 years of the decade, he worked extensively as a stage artist. For 2 years, he performed at the ‘Arena Stage’ and was part of several productions, some of them being ‘The Adding Machine,’ ‘Taming of the Shrew,’ ‘Children of Darkness,’ ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ ‘Twelfth Night,’ ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ ‘Julius Caesar,’ and ‘She Stoops to Conquer.’
In 1952, he moved to New York and started working in ‘Broadway’ and ‘Off-Broadway’ projects. In the following years, he performed in ‘Off-Broadway’ operas and ballets at the ‘North American Lyric Theatre,’ the ‘Equity Library Theatre,’ and other reputed venues. Some of the ‘Broadway’ productions he worked in were ‘Tonight in Samarkand,’ ‘The Lovers,’ ‘Merchant of Venice,’ ‘Doctor Faustus,’ ‘St. Joan,’ ‘The Duchess of Malfi,’ and ‘Measure for Measure.’
Roberts made his TV debut in 1956, with a role in an episode of anthology series ‘Kraft Television Theater,’ titled ‘Shadow of Suspicion.’ This was followed by a string of guest appearances in series such as ‘Whirlybirds,’ ‘Gunsmoke,’ ‘Buckskin,’ and ‘Sugarfoot.’
In 1957, Roberts signed his first film, ‘Desire under the Elms.’ This movie, where he played the character of Burl Ives’s son, released the following year. In the same year, he secured a role in the film titled ‘The Sheepman.’ With two successful movies to his credit, he kept bagging guest-artist roles in TV series.
In 1959, Roberts secured a career-defining role in the ‘NBC’ western series ‘Bonanza.’ He appeared in the series for 6 long years, and this became the most talked-about performance of his career.
In 1963, Roberts’s folk album, ‘Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies,’ was released by ‘RCA Victor.’ Some of his most notable songs were ‘Shady Grove,’ ‘They Call the Wind Mariah,’ ‘The Water is Wide,’ ‘A Quiet Girl,’ ‘In the Pines,’ and ‘Sylvie.’ His music earned praises.
In the 1970s, Roberts returned to the stage with Ingrid Bergman’s ‘Captain Brassbound’s Conversion.’ Through the 1980s and the 1990s, he made appearances in a large number of TV series and a handful of TV films, such as ‘The Wild Wild West,’ ‘The Night Train to Kathmandu,’ and ‘Donor.’
His last TV appearance was in a 1997 episode of ‘Diagnosis: Murder.’
Family & Personal Life
Pernell Roberts had married four times. In 1951, he married Vera Mowry, who was, at the time, a professor of theater history at ‘Washington State University.’ Their marriage ended a few years later. They had a son named Jonathan Christopher Roberts, who died in an unfortunate motorcycle accident in 1989.
In 1962, Roberts married Judith Anna LeBrecque. The marriage lasted almost a decade, before ending in 1971. The following year, Roberts walked the aisle with Kara Knack, but again got a divorce in 1996.
Roberts married Dr. Eleanor Criswell in 1997 and remained married to her till the end of his life. He died of pancreatic cancer on January 24, 2010, in Malibu, California, US.