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.
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.