By John C. Alsedek:
“Have gun, will travel reads the card of a man, A knight without armor in a savage land. His fast gun for hire, heeds the calling wind, A soldier of fortune is the man called Paladin. Paladin, Paladin, where do you roam? Paladin, Paladin, far, far, from home.”
These lyrics, sung with zest by Johnny Western, were part of "The Ballad of Paladin," which ran over the closing credits of Have Gun - Will Travel, a TV Western series that aired on CBS from 1957 through 1963. The period from the mid-fifties until the mid-sixties was the domain of the Western, with shows such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza regularly near the top of the Nielsen ratings. And though it didn’t have the longevity of those venerable programs (Gunsmoke ran for a remarkable twenty seasons!), Have Gun - Will Travel nonetheless is rightly remembered as being one of the very best programs ever produced in the genre.
Have Gun - Will Travel was the brainchild of screenwriters Sam Rolfe and Herb Meadow; Rolfe would go on to create several other TV series, including the spy series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. It was a different sort of Western, starring a different sort of hero in Paladin (as played by Richard Boone). Rather than the usual smiling, ruggedly handsome cowpokes who would get into gunplay only as a last resort, Paladin was something else. He was almost an anti-hero: an honorable, urbane professional gunfighter who took his name from the preeminent knights of Charlemagne’s court. He was willing to find non-violent means to settle disputes if possible yet was also prepared to shoot without hesitation. And though a smile would occasionally crease his weathered features, Paladin was by nature prone to brooding about a past that always seemed to be right below the surface. At the same time, he had a Robin Hood quality about him. For those who could afford his services, he charged $1,000 (or more) a job; but for those who lacked the funds, he worked for free.
Set in the late 1870s, a typical episode of Have Gun - Will Travel would begin at Paladin’s home, the Hotel Carlton in San Francisco. There, he would be living the life of a bon vivant, generally headed off to the opera or enjoying the company of a lovely lady when he was either interrupted by the hotel’s Chinese bellhop or by a stranger bearing one of Paladin’s calling cards (which, ironically, says "Wire Paladin"). At that point, the story would begin to unfold, and the hero would shed his fine city clothes and suit up in his all-black "work outfit" (complete with a gun holster emblazoned with a silver knight chesspiece) before riding out into the wilds to right whatever wrong had been brought to his attention.
For a fifties Western, Have Gun - Will Travel was surprisingly progressive. Yes, the presentation of Chinese characters such as "Hey Boy" (as played by Kam Tong) and his temporary replacement "Hey Girl" (as played by Lisa Lu) is rather eyebrow-raising today, though it was par for the course at the time (remember the Cartwright’s cook Hop Sing on Bonanza?). But over the course of the series, "Hey Boy" got a real name (Kim Chang) and a family, and Paladin showed both a familiarity with and fondness for Chinese culture (among other things, he practiced martial arts, including kung fu). Have Gun - Will Travel was also one of the first Westerns to portray Native Americans in favorable terms rather than as savage villains. Again, while the presentation of Native Americans on the show may be a little problematic to modern eyes, it was a step in the right direction.
From the start, Have Gun - Will Travel was a ratings success; so much so that it also spawned a successful radio version (starring John Dehner as Paladin) that ran concurrently with the TV show. For the first four seasons of its existence, Have Gun -Will Travel was either #3 or #4 overall in the Nielsen ratings, drawing a 30+ audience share despite being in a very competitive Saturday evening time slot. Those numbers started to slide in the fifth season, but the show was still #29 overall, and CBS finally convinced a reluctant Richard Boone to renew his contract for one more season; the network’s faith was reasonably well-rewarded, as Have Gun - Will Travel ended its six-season run by finishing #29 overall once again.
The show was also a hit from an artistic/critical standpoint, garnering three Emmy nominations and seeing one of its writers receive the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Script in 1957. That writer, by the way, went on to create a little series called Star Trek—yes, I’m referring to the late, great Gene Roddenberry. And he wasn’t the only Have Gun - Will Travel writer to go on to big things in the industry. Bruce Geller created the hit series Mission: Impossible; Harold Jack Bloom created Boone’s NBC Mystery Movie series Hec Ramsey, as well as the medical-adventure show Emergency!; Harry Julian Fink was behind Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry series of films. Other names of note among the show’s writers include Charles Beaumont, Gene L. Coon, Richard Matheson, and even legendary director Sam Peckinpah.
When Have Gun -Will Travel ended its run, Richard Boone already had his next series lined up: an anthology for NBC called The Richard Boone Show. It was an ambitious, artistic program, with Boone serving as producer and gathering a repertory company of 15 actors who would perform different roles in different episodes; Boone himself appeared in all the episodes, sometimes in a major role and sometimes a minor one. Unfortunately, The Richard Boone Show only lasted one season, a victim of the ratings juggernaut Petticoat Junction. Boone would return to series TV a decade later for Hec Ramsey, which Boone jokingly linked to his earlier show by stating “Hec Ramsey is Paladin, only fatter.”
Remember how I mentioned that Have Gun - Will Travel co-creator Sam Rolfe would later go on to create The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which was a smash hit during the James Bond craze of the mid-1960s? Well, check out my article about a spinoff from that show: The Girl from U.N.C.L.E, starring Stefanie Powers. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.