Thursday, 14 September 2017

The 60th Anniversary of Have Gun--Will Travel

Sixty years ago today a Western debuted on television that would be unlike any that has debuted before or since. It was a sophisticated and intellectual Western, to the point that in some ways it had more in common with the anthology shows that had proliferated only a few years before it than it did its fellow Westerns airing at the time. Its hero could handle a gun, but he was not a lawman or gunslinger, and he preferred to use his gun only when he absolutely had to. It was on September 14 1957 that Have Gun--Will Travel debuted.

Have Gun--Will Travel centred on the man known only as Paladin (played by Richard Boone). On the surface Paladin appeared to be little more than a playboy with a taste for the finer things in life. He made the luxurious Hotel Carlton in San Francisco his home. He wore only the latest fashions and had a keen appreciation for a good cigar, a well prepared meal, fine brandy, and beautiful women. Paladin was equally adept at both cards and chess. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of art, music, poetry, and literature.

Despite this Paladin was no idle man of leisure. He was also a high priced gun for hire, who advertised his services with a card that read, "Have gun--will travel. Wire Paladin, San Francisco" and bore the logo of the white chess knight. Paladin was no mere assassin, however, but a man with his own personal code of honour. If Paladin learned that an employer's motives were less than noble, he would see to it that his former employer was brought to justice. On occasion Paladin would even forgo payment for his services to see that justice was served. While on a case Paladin looked very different from the playboy he appeared to be at the Hotel Carlton. He dressed entirely in black and wielded a long barrelled, hair trigger Colt .44. It is little wonder that his opponents, upon seeing Paladin, believed the Angel of Death had come for them.

Throughout the series Paladin remained a mystery, with very little revealed about his past. He was born to wealth and graduated from West Point. During the Civil War he served in the Union cavalry. At no point was his given name ever revealed. Paladin had been given his nom de guerre by a man named Smoke, whom an evil land baron had led Paladin to believe was a vile outlaw. Needless to say, when the newly dubbed Paladin learned the truth, he went after the evil land baron (this was related in the sixth season episode "Genesis").

Throughout the entire run of the show there were only two other recurring characters. For most of the show's run Kam Tong played the Hotel Carlton's bell hop Hey Boy. During the fourth season Kam Tong was working on the TV show Mr. Garland, so his place was taken by Lisa Lu as Hey Girl (explained to be Hey Boy's sister). Kam Tong returned as Hey Boy the following season, Mr. Garland having been cancelled.

Have Gun--Will Travel was developed by Sam Rolfe (who would later develop The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and Herb Meadows (who would later create The Big Valley). Originally Paladin was conceived as private eye in modern day New York City. This should come as no surprise, as "private detective" is probably the best way to describe Paladin's chosen profession. Indeed, to a small degree Paladin resembles Philip Marlowe, who had his own strict code of honour. The character of Paladin may also owe a good deal to the mystery men of pulp magazines and comic books, such as The Shadow and Batman (who in turn owe a great deal to the original mystery man of the West, Zorro).  Like Paladin these heroes lived as playboys when not fighting crime, although unlike Paladin they did not charge a fee for their work.

Although Have Gun--Will Travel obviously has its roots in American pop culture, the show's creation was the subject of controversy. A rodeo performer and construction worker named Victor DeCosta filed a lawsuit against CBS asserting that he had created the character of Paladin in the Forties. According to DeCoasta, he adopted the name "Paladin" for his rodeo act after an Italian man referred to him as a "paladino"at a horse show. He even claimed that he started using the phrase "Have gun--will travel" after an individual yelled it at him at a rodeo. As "Paladin" DeCosta dressed in black and even handed out cards with the phrase printed on them.

DeCosta won his case in a federal court in 1974, only to have the decision overturned by the court of appeals the following year. The court of appeals felt that DeCosta's claim had little merit as it was unlikely DeCosta's "Paladin" (who was simply DeCosta in a costume) would be confused with the "Paladin" of Have Gun--Will Travel. DeCosta persisted in filing appeals until he was awarded a settlement of $3.5 million in 1991. That same year DeCosta died at the age of 83, before he could receive the settlement. The settlement was overturned in 1992. Whether the series was inspired by DeCosta as he alleged may never be known for certain.

At any rate it is perhaps a moot point, as Richard Boone is the man the public will always remember as Paladin. As hard as it is to believe, he was not CBS's first choice for the role. The role was originally offered to Randolph Scott, who turned it down as he did not want to do television. It was then that the producers looked to Richard Boone, perhaps then best known for the role of Dr. Konrad Styner on the groundbreaking TV series Medic.

Scheduled before Gunsmoke on Saturday nights, Have Gun--Will Travel was a success from the beginning. In its first season it ranked number 4 out of all the shows in prime time for the year. In following seasons, from 1958 to 1960, Have Gun--Will Travel ranked number 3 in the annual ratings. For its last two seasons Have Gun--Will Travel dropped in the ratings, although it still ranked a respectable number 29 for the year each of those seasons.

It was a measure of its success that Have Gun--Will Travel would be one of the few TV shows to make the transition to radio. From 1958 to 1960 a radio show based on the popular TV series aired on CBS radio. Have Gun--Will Travel also conquered other media as well. In 1959 Whitman published a young adult novel, written by Barlow Meyers and illustrated by Nichols S. Firfires, based on the series. In 1960 a novel for adults by Noel Lomis was published. This was followed by A Man Called Paladin by Frank C. Robertson in 1963. It was based on the Have Gun--Will Travel episode "Genesis", essentially Paladin's origin story. Dell Comics also published several issues of a Have Gun--Will Travel comic book. The theme song of Have Gun--Will Travel ("The Ballad of Paladin"), written by Johnny Western, Sam Rolfe, and Richard Boone and performed by Johnny Western, even made the music charts. Duane Eddy's version of "The Ballad of Paladin" reached no. 33 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1962.  As might be expected, there was even a Have Gun--Will Travel lunchbox.

As shown by the ratings above, Have Gun--Will Travel was still doing well after five years on the air. It was at that point that Richard Boone wanted to leave the series. CBS convinced him to remain for one more year and Have Gun--Will Travel ended its run after six seasons on the air.

Unfortunately Have Gun--Will Travel would have a sporadic run in syndication over the years. While it did well as a syndicated rerun for much of the Sixties, the late Sixties and early Seventies would see concern grow over the effects of television violence. As a result many series considered "violent" saw their syndication revenue shrink overnight. Have Gun--Will Travel would then be seen rarely in the Seventies. Complicating matters was that, later in the Seventies, local programme directors developed a bias against shows shot in black and white. Many series previously successful in syndication (The Dick Van Dyke Show is a prime example) disappeared from local stations entirely because their entire runs were shot in monochrome. Finally, Victor DaCosta's lawsuits would keep Have Gun--Will Travel off the air for a good portion of the Seventies and Eighties. Fortunately the Nineties would see Have Gun--Will Travel once more appearing often on television screens. TV Land aired the Western that decade. It would also air on the Hallmark Channel, Encore Western, and the classic TV broadcast network ME-TV. The entire run of Have Gun--Will Travel is also out on DVD.

The level of intelligence often seen in Have Gun--Will Travel set it apart from many other Western series of the time. Through the adventures of Paladin the series explored various ethical and philosophical questions. Have Gun--Will Travel portrayed a world in which individuals and situations could not always be viewed in terms of black and white--there were always plenty of shades of grey in between. What is more, Have Gun--Will Traveli often explored issues that were very much relevant to the late Fifties and early Sixties. Over the years the show dealt with lynching, racism, prejudice, class conflict, and even the fear of modern medicine. Have Gun--Will Travel was far from a simple shoot 'em up.

The overall quality of Have Gun--Will Travel must rank it as one of the greatest Western TV series of all time. It brought to television a sophisticated Western hero with a strong sense of honour and placed him in a world where right and wrong weren't always what they seemed. Though its run it examined several important issues as well as the human condition in general. At the same time, however, there was never a shortage of excitement. Have Gun--Will Travel could be enjoyed as a straight shoot 'em up. It is perhaps for this reason that sixty years after its debut and a less than stellar syndication run that Have Gun--Will Travel is remembered. There can be little doubt that Have Gun--Will Travel will be remembered for a long time to come.

3 comments:

john curtis said...

My favorite character from the time ! I was 11 when it began and watched every episode and glad the reruns are out now. Richard Boone a classic actor put so much into the role !

JohnJ said...

There is one other cable channel currently carrying the show, the Heroes & Icons channel has a westerns on weekday mornings and Sunday afternoons schedule. You can find Paladin there.
Heroes & Icons also carry all 6 Star Trek series, 7PM to midnight with the animated series leading them off at 6PM (Central) on Sunday.

aslanleon said...

At no point was his given name ever revealed. OF COURSE IT WAS. His given name was Wire. It's right on the card