18 August 2018

Wire Paladin, San Francisco

Yes, I know this is primarily a blog about writing and about mysteries--and about writing mysteries--but today I want to mention an old TV series I've been re-watching lately, one that was a cut above most of those in its genre. (Its genre was western, but let's call it historical crime fiction. That'll make me feel less guilty about wandering off topic.)

The show was Have Gun--Will Travel, a half-hour series that ran on CBS from 1957 to 1963. It's something I rarely saw when I was a kid, because it aired on Saturday nights from eight-thirty to nine o'clock (CST), opposite The Lawrence Welk Show, which was on from eight to nine. My mother liked Lawrence Welk and his band, and although my dad and I always lobbied hard for switching channels at eight-thirty to see HGWT, that never happened. The three of us, and my little sister, always sat there and watched Welk and his Champagne Music-Makers for the whole hour before changing channels (thank God) to see Gunsmoke from nine to ten. Funny the things we remember, about childhood . . .

Anyhow, since I missed out on this entire series, I picked up a boxed set of DVDs from Amazon a few months ago that includes all 225 episodes. I'm well into season two by now (seasons back then were far different from the way they are now; each season then contained thirty or forty episodes), and I've found that I love the show. It's a little corny at times, yeah--TV fifty or sixty years ago usually was. But again, it was head-and-shoulders above most of the prime-time network fare of that period.

Very quickly, here's the premise. A gentleman gunfighter named Paladin, played by the not-traditionally-handsome Richard Boone, traveled the Old West helping people solve their problems, which usually involved bad guys. He always tried to avoid violence but of course wound up in the middle of it, and he charged a fee (usually a thousand dollars) for his mercenary services--a free that he sometimes declined or gave to the needy. His business card, which showed up in every episode, displayed the image of a white chess knight and the words HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL and WIRE PALADIN, SAN FRANCISCO.

Why was this show so good, when most TV series back then were barely watchable? I think one reason was the quality of the stories themselves, and that means the quality of the writing. Writers for Have Gun included Gene Roddenberry, Harry Julian Fink, Sam Peckinpah, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Irving Wallace, and other fairly familiar names.

Another factor: production values seemed to be higher, for this series. Many of the episodes were shot outdoors and on location instead of at cheap-looking studio sets, more arrention was paid to authenticity, and the "look and feel" of the show was almost always better than what viewers were offered in most TV westerns (or cop shows or comedies, for that matter).

The basic idea was also a good one: Paladin was a gunfighter with a code of honor, but still a hired gun, ready and willing to travel to wherever he was needed (or paid to go). This offered unlimited plot possibilities. Unlike Matt Dillon or Lucas McCain, whose antagonists had to wander into Dodge City or North Fork every week, Paladin could go anywhere, and did--sometimes as far away as Alaska. And the plots were never the same, even though it would've been easy to make them that way. Sometimes the storyline even intersected with the real world: in one episode Paladin was just over the hill from the Custer massacre at the Little Bighorn, and in another he rescued Oscar Wilde from a group of bandits.

Add to all this a few interesting quirks not seen before in a western hero. For one thing, Paladin had a love and knowledge of art and chess and fine wines and opera (he lived at the Hotel Carlton in San Francisco), and the ability to quote Shakespeare. Also, he chose to wear a villainous-looking mustache and a black outfit when he was on an assignment, something heroes didn't often do in TV westerns. The icing on the cake: this show had an opening sequence with music by Bernard Herrmann of Psycho and Vertigo fame.

Even the title has become a catchphrase, altered to suit different purposes, like the cartoon Have Time Will Travel, and everybody seems to have heard of HGWT whether they saw the show or not. Someone told me that in one episode of Maverick, another western of that time period, a Kansas sheriff was talking about a gunfighter who had been in town handing out business cards--and viewers immediately knew this was a sly tip-of-the-hat to Paladin.

Do any of you remember Have Gun--Will Travel? Have you ever seen an episode? If so, do you agree that it was fairly unique among the incredible number of prime-time westerns on TV back then?

If, like me, you didn't watch it when it was first aired (or, unlike me, this was before your time), and if you find yourself feeling the urge to watch one (maybe not 225) of those episodes now, many of them are available via YouTube. Check 'em out!

Or, Heaven help us, you could watch Lawrence Welk instead.


  1. Great piece, John! I caught a few episodes of HGWT in reruns about a year ago, and on the strength of those, bought the box set of all the episodes on Amazon (probably the same set as you). I love this show! I've probably watched about 60 episodes, so far.

  2. Fun piece, John. And Paladin episodes can be seen on TV, on Me-TV, and they were on the Starz-Encore Western channel for a while, though I'm not sure if they still are. They might also be on some other independent channels. I know I run across them every once in a while.

  3. Stephen, you and I think alike. I've been truly amazed at how good that show was, and how much I've enjoyed it. And the half-hour length is just right (like a short story). I've watched around 50 episodes, and looking forward to the rest.

    Thanks, Paul. I'd forgotten about Me-TV. If you watch more of them, pay attention to the writers. Roddenberry wrote at least two dozen of the episodes.

  4. John,

    I'm old enough to have seen a few in the late 1950s. My father liked it a lot. Some episodes come on the Western channel and I check one out once in a while on YouTube. You're right. It's a cut above most 50s-60s westerns. Did not know the significance of Paladin when I was a kid but looked it up later, learning paladins were the "foremost warriors of Charlemagne's Court" - first appearing in the SONG OF ROLAND. They represented Christian valor. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paladin).

    Harlan Ellison wrote a novelette and script entitled PALADIN OF THE LOST HOUR for THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1985 series). A wonderful production which featured Glynn Turman and the last screen appearance of Danny Kaye. The story is about guilt and time. Reportedly Harlan wrote a different ending and the producers asked for a change. Harlan balked but respected the producers (who were also writers) and changed the ending of the script and the novelette. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paladin_of_the_Lost_Hour

  5. Hey O'Neil! I knew about the paladins of Charlemagne's Court, but did not know about Ellison's novelette or screenplay. (I really must watch some of the 80s Twilight Zones; I've seen all the episodes of the original series.) Thanks for this comment!!

  6. A great favorite in our household when I was a child.

  7. Hi Janice! Yep, those old westerns were fun. I suppose my favorite was The Rifleman, at the time--but I liked 'em all.

  8. I was a fairly regular viewer of HGWT, at least the first few years. Then I got into high school and football and very occasional dating...

    Most programs then were 39 episodes and 13 reruns for a year, and one year in the late 50s, I think there were 39 different westerns in prime time. I watched far too many of them, but HGWT was definitely one of the best. Wasn't it rated the # 2 show on TV at that time, maybe behind Gunsmoke?

    Paladin with his gun for hire and his chivalric morality feels very Noir PI, doesn't he, a precursor of Sam Spade, Lew Archer and Philip Marlowe. Thanks for bringing back great memories.

  9. Steve, I think you're right, HGWT was rated really high, especially in the first several years, and yes, I believe it was #2 for a long time. And I agree, Paladin did seem very much like a PI with a different "case" every week. Interesting show!

  10. I loved HGWT when I was a kid, and we watched it every week. (Luckily, my parents hated Lawrence Welk.) I've caught a few episodes since, and remember one episode where Paladin not only quotes Shakespeare, but references the battle of Thermopylae to set up an ambush. HGWT was - and I'm serious here - like Bullwinkle, full of historical / literary / musical references for those who were in the know, along with some pretty good jokes (Bullwinkle), good plots (HGWT), and good acting. And, of course, GREAT writing.

  11. "Thanks for the memories," as that yea old crooner Bob Hope would sing. Fortunately, my Dad and Mom loved this show, so I remember sitting in front of TV on Saturday nights. It, along with Bonanza, Gumsmoke, Maverick, Tenderfoot, and Cheyenne made for great entertainment, but also taught a moral lesson of sorts. As kids, we always wanted to play the good guys in Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers.

    It's a wonder they've not brought some of these shows back, given Hawaii 5-0 or MacGyver. Then again, they'd have to update what the real west looked like. Wonder who would play Paladin?

    Thanks for a walk down memory lane, John.

  12. That was truly one of the great mustaches. I was aware of the show but I don't know that I ever watched it.

    In 1971 Boone starred in one of my favorite TV movies, IN BROAD DAYLIGHT. He played an actor who has gone blind and discovers his wife is cheating on him. He decides to commit the perfect crime: killing her in a way no blind man could ever be suspected of.

    By the way, another tribute to the series came from the excellent mystery writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch. She has a series of short stories about two folks who investigate crimes related to science fiction conventions and they are known only by their pseudonyms: Spade (an obese Microsoft millionaire) and Paladin (a beautiful and cranky private eye).

  13. I wasn't allowed to watch TV much as a child. We had a black & white TV which was kept in the basement where the reception was awful & I only got to watch a show if I got permission from my mother in advance. "Appointment television" before the term existed. It's funny but I still watch the same way as an adult, in that I decide in advance what show to watch & turn it off when it's over ... anyway, having said all that, I'll click up an episode or two of Have Gun Will Travel on YouTube. Thank you!

  14. Eve,

    Right on the Rocky & Bullwinkle comment. I was probably in my 40s before I encountered the opera Boris Gudanov and realized that Boris Badenov was a pun on that title.

  15. Been catching it on cable! It was a radio show too! (It may all have been a reboot of a fun radio drama called "Frontier Gentleman.") For many years here in Wichita, the deejay at one of the country stations ("The Radio Ranch") was Johnny Western, writer of the closing theme! And yes, he did play the theme as the opening to his show!

  16. Eve -- Thanks for this comment. I haven't gotten to that episode yet!! Glad to hear you also like this series--I've been SO impressed with the writing, so far. There's a lot to be learned, I'm finding, from shows like this.

    Hey Larry--thanks for stopping in, here. Yes, there was almost always a moral lesson in those shows, wasn't there. Not quite the same, these days . . . As for a remake/rebirth of this series, I too am surprised they haven't tried it, given its popularity--but, as you said, who would play Paladin? I think he was one of a kind.

    Rob, I didn't know about IN BROAD DAYLIGHT--I love to get tips like that. I'll be looking for it. As for KKR's series, yes, that was a fitting tribute. I bet there are lots of folks like you who might not have watched this old show, but who know about it anyway.

    Liz, I honestly think you might like this show. Just remember, parts can be hokey sometimes, but overall it's a darn good series. Let me know what you think.

    Eve and Steve -- Don't you love the name Boris Badenov??

  17. Hey Jeff--I only just saw your note. Yes, HGTW was also a radio show--wasn't John Dehner the voice? (He was usually cast as a villain in the TV version, and in many other westerns as well.)

    By the way, I heard Richard Boone was one of the composers of the theme song sang by Johnny Western (Lord, what a name . . .).

  18. I also have the boxed set/ HGWT was one of my favorite shows back them (my parents did not like LW, so we got to see a western!!!).

    I will mention that years later (1972-1974) an older (and heavier) Richard Boone was the title character in another western--"Hec Ramsey." Set in a turn-of-the-century small town in Oklahoma, Boone played the older deputy chief of police to Rick Lentz's young chief of police. Interestingly, Ramsey had inclinations toward "scientific" investigations, whereas the police chief (Oliver Stamp--Lentz) was more of a "traditionalist." It's apparently not available on DVD, but might be on one or another streaming service, and is well worth seeking out.

  19. John, I despised Lawrence Welk. I argued to my parents that all the decent band leaders had died out leaving Welk to torture the rest of us with cotton-candy 'champagne' music. Ugh. Fortunately my parents partially agreed. Once my parents finally bought a television set, Have Gun became one of the shows they watched, which meant I caught two or three.

    I stumbled upon Have Gun radio shows starring John Dehner. Many television westerns and copy shows grew out of their radio predecessors. One of the most controversial was Gunsmoke. It was a top-rated radio show starring William Conrad, who justifiably expected to make the transition to television. However, TV producers deemed short and fat Conrad visibly wrong to star on television. Instead, they hired James Arness, 6'6, robust, handsome, and, er, a very wooden actor.

    Have Gun turned many things on its head and the Have Gun – Will Travel television program begat the HGWT radio program. Early plots mimicked the television show, but soon radio producers hired its own writers to create entirely new plots.

    The gay community in NYC had a major crush on Richard Boone. Some insisted Boone was himself gay. I suspected not, but who was I to object to daydreams?

  20. Don -- I do remember Hec Ramsey, but I'd forgotten it until you mentioned it--I will seek it out. Believe it or not, the Richard Boone role I seem to remember most is as the villain who shoots it out with Paul Newman at the end of Hombre, an Elmore Leonard western.

    Leigh, you always seem to come up with facts like this, and I love it! (Richard Boone gay??) And I never heard the radio versions of either HGWT or Gunsmoke, but I sure can't see William Conrad as Matt Dillon on TV. I think they made a good choice there.

    Thanks for the comments, guys!

  21. Yes, John, Dehner was in radio's HGWT. According to IMDB he appears in the tv episode "High Wire." (And he was in two of my favorite Twilight Zones: "The Jungle" and "Mr. Garrity and the Graves.")

  22. Oh, and I think "Johnny Western" was his real name. He started his performing career singing with one of his heroes: Gene Autry!

  23. Jeff, I always think I know a lot of trivia until I talk to you and learn something new.

    I remember all three of the episodes you mentioned, featuring John Dehner--the one HGWT and the two Twilight Zones. I especially liked "Mr Garrity and the Graves." Dehner is one of those names nobody recognizes until they see his face, and then everybody recognizes him.

    Thanks for the info, old friend.

  24. Boone later played a small but important part in John Wayne's movie The Shootist. He was one of three bad guys Wayne summoned for a final shootout.

  25. I'd forgotten that, Rob! That's a movie I need to watch again . . .

  26. John Dehner got one of his best (and few top-billed) parts as Pat Garrett opposite Paul Newman as Billy the Kid, in THE LEFT-HANDED GUN. The scene that introduces Garrett is a stunner.

    I watched HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL religiously, and a couple of years later, the Richard Boone anthology show, which used a repertory company. It should come as no surprise that Paladin is an influence on my own bounty hunter character, Placido Geist.

    The seasons ran 39 episodes, and reran 13 over the summer. HGWT indeed had terrific scripts, and a solid stable of directors. Andrew McLaglen made his bones on the show.

    Wayne cast Boone as Sam Houston in THE ALAMO, and a story goes that because Boone agreed to do his cameo for scale, Wayne gave him a Rolls to make up the difference.

    Thanks for the post, John. Loved it!

  27. David, I'll have to go back and watch that John Dehner scene. I'm always surprised that no one knows his name, but he's one of the most recognizable actors ever.

    Yes, Andrew McLaglen seems to have directed almost all the episodes I've watched so far. The variety of the storylines is one of the things that I think kept this series going so long.

    Thanks for the trivia, involving Richard Boone and THE ALAMO. I also noticed, in one of the DVD extras, that Boone was expelled from Stanford for having thrown a dummy in front of a car as a prank, thus terrifying the driver, and I think it said the driver was the wife of Herbert Hoover, who was then president of Stanford. Love that kind of thing! (Though Hoover was always associated with Stanford, I'm not sure he was ever the prez of the university, but that's what the info said.)

  28. my favorite western. I grew to love the character. I also started watching them only recently when someone put it up on YouTube. the Restless Gun, and The Tall Man are also great

  29. Thanks, Unknown! I think I'd have to say this is probably my favorite TV western as well. The plots, the production values, etc., were just outstanding. I remember both The Tall Man and The Restless Gun--but have not seen any of those episodes in many years.

    I appreciate your mentioning those--and for taking the time to stop in here at SleuthSayers!

  30. Was palidin's mustache real? It looks fake.


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