Question: I know you're probably sick of writing about difficult stars, but I was going through your Cover Gallery and found one (Oct. 30, 1982) talking about Trapper John, M.D.'s Pernell Roberts being angry. What was that all about? Thank you. Arnold K., Selma, Ala.
Televisionary: Well, the funny thing about that story, Arnold, is that while it did its best to chronicle Roberts' fabled anger, it ended up being a bit of what we call a write-around a collection of quotes and stories about the actor's penchant for critiquing and arguing, with almost nothing direct from Roberts himself. Not that there wasn't any anger displayed when reporter Dwight Whitney gave interviewing Roberts a shot after Roberts refused to cooperate.
"I thought I made it clear I don't give interviews!" Roberts snapped after Whitney, who'd just been discussing a wide range of topics (minorities, jobs for the handicapped, gun control, etc.) with him, made the mistake of asking about Roberts' former Bonanza costar Lorne Greene. "What you are able to observe on the set, I have no control over. But it's dialogue I don't care to participate in...."
So Whitney did the next best thing, and talked to colleagues who'd butted heads with the star. First up was producer, director and former actor Jackie Cooper, who'd helped talk the powers that be into casting Roberts despite his post-Bonanza rep for being difficult. "A council of war was held," Cooper said of the decision-making process after Roberts read for the part. "We thought, no, who needs this? But we ran some lines. I thought he took direction beautifully and the others were persuadable."
That beautiful direction taking didn't last long, however.
"The trouble began the third day," Cooper recalled. "He got into a hassle with Jessica Walter, who plays the occasional role of Trapper's ex-wife. She favored her left side and he didn't like that. He doesn't believe a director should favor anything. He kept testing me over little things. 'I don't think my desk should look like this,' he'd say. I said, 'Look, Pernell, I've done my research.' Still he complained. 'You begged for this job,' I reminded him. 'And we're going to go with what I feel is right for the scene.' Later somebody told him they thought he was lucky to be working with such capable guys as [producers Rob] Brinkley and [Frank] Glicksman. 'All producers are S.O.B.s,' he said."
Over a week of visiting the set, however, Whitney only heard less-than-praiseful comments from one other person Walter and she pulled her punches. "I warn you, I won't say anything bad," she said. "My mother always said if you can't say something good, don't say anything."
Otherwise, Roberts' castmates on the show, which ran for seven years on CBS beginning in September 1979, called him tough at worst. "Principles are important to him," Madge Sinclair observed. "So he tries to change things for the better, clumsily sometimes."
"Pernell is no better or worse than any other star working under pressure," Brinkley added. "Sure, he has his superstar peculiarities. Who doesn't? Anybody here think Arness was perfect?"
And so it was that Roberts' colleagues had learned to live with him and he with them, a lesson Roberts probably picked up from his first go-round on a hit network show, when he was younger and more brash and couldn't put up with those who wouldn't see it his way. As Bonanza fans well know, he left his role as Adam Cartwright after regularly clashing with others on the popular series and wandered the wilderness of stage work and guest-spot TV work for 15 years before landing the Trapper John lead. And by that time, he may still have had his "very strong opinions on certain subjects," as Glicksman put it, but by that time he knew where his bread was buttered.
Asked in 1979 why he'd return to a weekly series after storming off one the last time through, he was perfectly candid. "I wanted the security," he said. "It's called covering your rear end."
So what did make him so angry? I'm not sure. But I know he learned to stop complaining just short of derailing the gravy train.