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Dog Days 2021

Fare Thee Well, Pernell


My childhood viewing of Bonanza ended at just about the time that Pernell Roberts exited the Ponderosa screen-scene. I’m not sure if his departure had much to do with my dis-interest in this show, but, looking back, I know I did the right thing!


Bonanza without Adam, Bearer of Bad News; Architect-Engineer of the Ponderosa, who earned money on the side, designing bunkhouses and mining shoring; and love interest for just about every neurotically weird woman that came his way — that Bonanza just wasn’t Bonanza where I was concerned.


Upon recent view and review of The Adam Years, I have to say that the contrarian in me and the contrarian in Pernell must have somehow buddied-up during my childhood. I’d like to say that the character of Adam had a positive effect on me, and had nothing to do with my choice of this name of the First Man for my villain in Northstar. I really can’t say one way or the other regarding those outgoing signals. I’m a bit more clear on the incoming ones!

My very first novel, Northstar, got a major push in the right direction when, in 1983, I went on a Corps of Engineers inspection of Martis Creek Dam. That flood-control structure is located just south of Truckee, California, on Martis Creek, which is a tributary to the Truckee River. To reduce the chronic flooding of the Truckee River in Reno and Sparks, the “Corps” built Martis Creek Dam to protect the residents, casinos, and warehouses from those raging flood waters. The project was completed in 1972, the year that Bonanza was cancelled, largely due to the untimely death of Dan Blocker.


The mocking phrase at work about “Martis Creek” was: Martis Creek, the dam that leaks.


If only Adam Cartwright had offered his engineering expertise!

Actually, the foundation leaked. A grout curtain was designed, with newly discovered microfiber technology, and installed at Martis Creek Dam during the mid-1990s; but, by that time, I’d already written my novel set there!


This fictional location was set in stone because of a commentary given to me by one of the supervisory engineers tasked (burdened) with the geotechnical problems that continually plagued this dam:


“The location is beautiful. It’s the perfect setting for a novel, especially one with a murder.”


My work visits to this dam site had been preceded by pleasure jaunts to Truckee, a town that I’d discovered during 1979, my first year of living a new life in Sacramento, California. I instantly fell in love with Truckee. The love has not abated, even though that little mountain town by the Truckee River got hideously expanded, to the point of being nearly unrecognizable, during those hideous subprime spending years in California. There was a huge hotel & events center planned there, but the recessionary economy of the 2010s killed that project.


Maybe Adam Cartwright, or his spirit, blew that one up!

Pernell Roberts was not my favorite actor on Bonanza. I always got the feeling that he was profoundly bored and yearned for meatier roles, which indeed was the case. He was a complex man whose talents were not adequately assessed, much less used, in television productions, or even in the stage performances at which he excelled. His baritone was a naturally expressive and warm voice that did not possess that crucial factor in a stage voice: squillo (which my voice lacks as well).


Without squillo, his voice was best used in the intimate settings of a recording studio. And the world of recorded music in the 1960s and 1970s was in as much of a freefall as were the domains of television and film productions. As for stagecraft in the USA, the dire cries for Branson, Missouri-style entertainment were well-enunciated, even if Hollywood and Broadway were tone-deaf to those loud realities. In 1983, Roy Clark and his Celebrity Theater would put Branson on the American song-and-dance map.


In my opinion, Pernell Roberts was born 10-15 years too late for an attempt at thespian greatness. He would have been a solidly consistent lead actor in Hollywood films, particularly at Warner Brothers. The role of a softer film-noir actor, a singing cowboy, even a love interest with too much interest and not enough love, or too much love and not enough interest — those marvelous characters would have been his métier to play. Sadly, those fictional types never came his way.

When he was cast in 1979 as Trapper John, M.D., I took some note of the return of Pernell Roberts to the little silver screen. His hair had obviously moved from the top of his head to the jawline; and his eyes had lost a lot of their determined spark and willful fire. I never watched that TV show, but I watched virtually nothing on television during the 1980s (or any decade), save Murder, She Wrote. Tragedy and sorrow had come his way, although Roberts was not one to gripe aloud about his personal life. He seemed a private man, trying to reconcile his core beliefs with a world that did not meet those expectations. He was an idealist from the South who went West, and dealt head-on with the money-men of the East.


It’s a wonder he stayed the six years at Bonanza!


This legendary show’s tough but brilliant producer and creator, David Dortort, had ridden this actor hard, attempting to rein in a horse who did not take easily to the saddle or even to the bit. I think that Roberts was the most naturally gifted of the four male actors on this show, but he was unwilling to use those gifts for mere TV-fodder. He wanted to perform Art: Shakespeare, and the musical theatre classics that, perhaps unbeknownst to him, were already under savage assault by the hippies of an era whose liberal causes he espoused.

He was a man with too many causes about which to complain. The unfairnesses of life, the sins of certain economic and political policies, the blemishes on the face of society, all of those festering wounds that he felt driven to cure: they distracted him from his own inner wounds, scars that very few could see, or even know that they existed. He knew that anguish existed, though, and he threatened to never let it go too far from his heart.


There is a steep price that any person pays for insisting on playing the desperado role in life. The years go by, and before you know it, they’ve passed you by. I wrote of those truths in Northstar, not realizing at the time that I penned them that I might have been thinking of Pernell Roberts.


It is possible that my subconscious mind, or whatever it is that triggers my imagination to create fictional writing, was truly fired up by my countless trips to Truckee. I eyed the Pastime Club as if it were both in the present of 1983, and in 1863. Sometimes a novelist looks at a place and envisions a setting of long ago, completely disregarding the present moment. She’s then forever seeking to regain that lost moment of the here-and-now while she was engrossed in discovering those other lost places in time. By the time the present meets up with the past, the future is beckoning, waiting for her!

In Season 5 of Bonanza, the episode, The Waiting Game, greatly exasperated me. I turned to Dear Husband and said, “I have seen a lot of cowardly mothers, but this one goes beyond anything I’ve seen. Adam’s being the big brother here, until he finds out she’s Big Sister. This story-line is awful.”


According to Dear Husband, it’s about to get worse!


I’ve not yet seen the two successive episodes that evolve from this plot-line; I am still throttling back my disgust over Ben crumb-caking into crumbles his core beliefs in order to help (RESCUE) a widow-woman and her cherished criminal son without a conscience in “My Son, My Son.” That show ought to be called, “Her Son, Her Son.” And not in a good way. That anti-social anchor nearly took down the entire Cartwright ship, along with its Casanova Captain, Ben.


The writers of this frontier drama were setting into motion a 3-parter with this tale of the beloved “Laura”, a name that should serve as a warning shot to any guy hankering for a honey. All three shows were part of a not-so-diabolical plot, destined to help Adam ride off into the sunset with this nut-nut and her bratty daughter.

By Season 5, the Cartwright horses had to be careful riding over that Ponderosa soil so as to not trip over the doomed-female headstones!


I was not at all surprised, once the third of this trilogy of god-awful ardor had mercifully ended, that the contrarian Pernell Roberts decided:


“Okay, I’ll come back for another season.”


Not much was known about toxic co-dependency in 1861. Or in 1965. Pernell nonetheless knew how to zig when the writers zagged with that screwy blonde. It’s a survival skill he overplayed on TV but probably not in life. He did outlive all the other Cartwrights, and griped about that distinction too.


I won’t brand Pernell a malcontent, but a maverick. Although he wasn’t brand-able at all. That’s the true definition of a maverick. He fared well in that venue, and he fared very well in his final corral. He’d let gratitude and love rope him before it was too late.