Like many in my generation, I was an avid fan of the TV show Bonanza, launched in 1959. It was destined to become the second most popular TV western after Gunsmoke. In particular, I was mesmerized by the show's eldest brother, the suave, deep-voiced, dark-haired Adam Cartwright, played by Pernell Roberts, who died Sunday at 81 of pancreatic cancer.
I remember how shocking and irrational it seemed when Roberts decided to leave Bonanza a few years later at the height of its popularity. No one had ever done that before. Some erroneously said he would never work again. (He would go on to guest star in over 60 television series and starred in the hit TV show Trapper John, M.D. that ran for seven years.)
In late 1966, I foolishly flew out to Hollywood to try my hand as an actor, screenwriter, and songwriter. I took acting classes and somehow managed to land an agent.
I decided the best way to learn the business was to watch screen and TV actors plying their trade. So I would sneak into Universal Studios and onto the movie lot in Studio City. There, I watched the filming of TV episodes and feature films, including Gilligan's Island, It's About Time, The Big Valley, and The Lucy Show. (Once, I happened to be standing not far from Lucille Ball when a police officer walked onto the set and arrested her for an unpaid speeding ticket, which had gone to warrant. Pretending to faint, she fell into my arms and begged me to save her from "this brute.") I played bridge with Paul Newman during the filming of The Secret War of Harry Frigg, and played touch football on Sundays with Robert Conrad, star of The Wild Wild West. I was fortunate to become superficially acquainted with many actors, camera people, directors, and stage hands.
But for some reason, only one person made a concerted effort to help my fledgling career.
One day in 1967, Pernell Roberts showed up as the guest star on The Wild Wild West. I introduced myself and couldn't believe I was actually engaging Adam Cartwright in conversation. Between takes, we dissected his role on Bonanza, the counter culture, the Beatles, and, of course, the Vietnam War and the protest movement. At the end of the day, he did something shocking. He reached up and ripped off his toupee. He howled with laughter at the look on my face. I had no idea he was bald. He then invited me home for dinner, where I met his second wife, Judith -- a tall, slender, dark-haired, intelligent, but diffident, woman, whose lovely face I can still see. (He eventually married two more times.)
He lived in a small Japanese-style bungalow, (which he rented from the Hollywood Hills Hotel), with a spectacular view of Los Angeles. (For years, the hotel management gently tried to persuade him to move out.) Pernell taught me to drive a motorcycle in the hotel parking lot. I also became friends with his son Chris, four years my junior, who later died in a 1989 motorcycle accident.
A Broadway actor, Pernell had a commanding presence. He was charismatic, intelligent, and well read. Hence, he could speak with great authority on many subjects. He was energetic, curious, had a booming laugh, a great sense of humor, a wonderful baritone singing voice, always seemed to have a twinkle in his eye, and cared deeply for the underdog. And I -- who suffered from panic attacks during auditions -- was the consummate underdog. (He helped me prepare for an audition for The Graduate, but I didn't get a call back.)
Pernell edited all my screen- and teleplays, none of which was ever optioned, never mind produced. He listened to and made wise suggestions to the many songs I struggled to compose, which were picked up by a local music publisher, but never by a single recording artist.
Even though Pernell must have known that his efforts on my behalf would never pan out, he never gave up on me. Every time he invited me over for dinner, which was often, he invariably had also invited someone in the business, whom he thought could help me. He seemed to know and was respected by everyone -- at least every serious on-screen and stage actor.
In fact, he got me my first acting job in the 1967 TV production of Carousel, starring his cigar-smoking friend, Robert Goulet, who played Billy Bigelow. Pernell played the role of Jigger Craigin. Thanks to Pernell, the director, Paul Bogart, cast me as a sailor in the opening scene in which I had one speaking line -- the only speaking line of my entire acting career.
After two years of utter failure, I fled Los Angeles and lived overseas for several years. In the process, I lost Pernell's unpublished phone number. I should have made an effort to re-connect, but I was too ashamed. We never spoke again.
I'm writing this -- belatedly -- to say thank you, Pernell, for your extraordinary kindness and generosity to me long ago.
Gary S. Chafetz is the author of The Perfect Villain: John McCain and the Demonization of Lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
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