Today is actor Richard Boone’s birthday (June 18, 1917 – January 10, 1981). We’re celebrating it by reprinting Alan Vanneman’s pithy write-up (previously published in issue 48, May 2005) of Boone and the gem of his career, the 1950s TV show Have Gun Will Travel.
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Richard Boone slaps leather in the classic fifties oater, Have Gun, Will Travel
It’s a well-known fact that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Rarely was the code masculine defined with so broad a brush yet so severe a regard for honor’s finest punctilio than in the U.S. during the 1950s. The culprit, if one is needed, was a shy kid from Oak Park, Illinois named Ernest Hemingway1 who somehow convinced himself that a man wasn’t a man unless he combined the unlikely and unstable virtues of Geronimo, the Fourth Earl of Chesterfield,2 and Gustave Flaubert.
Naturally, poor Ernesto ended his days by blowing his brains out, but the real damage was done long before. Ernie’s beard, his boozing, his wives, his wenches, his boxing matches, his lion hunts, and his endless braggadocio became the stuff that dreams are made of for generations of aspiring American writers, most especially the kids who came out of World War II anxious to trade in their M-1’s for a typewriter and a shot at the big time.
A classic instance of machismo a la Ernest is the fifties “adult western” Have Gun, Will Travel, now making its appearance on DVD. Have Gun, Will Travel starred the very existentialist Richard Boone as “Paladin” – “a knight without armor in a savage land,” as the show’s theme song had it.
Writers for the show projected all their fantasies on Paladin: he was a man who had been everywhere and done everything, the fastest gun in the West, to be sure, but with an eye for bone china, an ear for Mozart, and a wardrobe to die for.
To sell such a rococo character, the producers relied heavily on a number of sure-fire gimmicks. Each episode began with tight close-up of Paladin drawing his gun – hand-made to his personal specifications, of course – and pointing it right at the viewer. In the voice-over, Boone would inform whichever loathsome polecat he happened to be confronting of the sudden death that awaited if he didn’t mend his ways.3
The opening was beautiful shtick: it ensured that each episode, regardless of how cozy and peaceful the conclusion, would have the aura of violence hanging over it from the get-go.4 And it guaranteed viewers the weekly vicarious joy of threatening someone with a handgun – a universal fantasy if ever there was one.
Unique to the show was Paladin’s “Have Gun, Will Travel” business card, displayed with a flourish in every episode.5 Somehow, the gnomic message conveyed to its dimmest reader that the gentleman known only as “Paladin” (whom one could wire in San Francisco) was a man of infinite resource, competent and suited by nature for pursuing the gravest matters to their very end, even if that end be death itself.
The genesis of Have Gun, Will Travel lay in the early days of television. WW II vets like Rod Serling found both fame and big bucks writing for the new medium, which tended to function like a broadcast version of Broadway.6 Although Serling is now known for The Twilight Zone, his first fame came from live plays like “Requiem for a Heavyweight,7 tales of Manhattan drenched in chest hair, sweat, and male angst.
Unfortunately, the black-and-white Golden Age of live TV was undermined by those rapacious film folk out in L.A. While prestige productions like Heavyweight got all the press, Grade-B westerns that Hollywood had cranked out by the hundreds in the thirties and forties sold all the breakfast cereal. B western actors like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd8 were de-ghettoized by the success of their cheaply shot films and were quickly hired to make new ones for television.
B westerns were ostensibly made for little boys (though one wonders if most of the viewers weren’t grown men), and the hero inhabited a moral world rather similar to that of Shirley Temple’s. Virtually every western hero came equipped with a comical sidekick. He invariably rode a “beautiful” and highly intelligent horse that was a significant extension of his persona. He never smoked or drank. He was chivalrous in his treatment of women, but absolutely void of sexual desire. When he stepped into a saloon he cut his thirst with either pure spring water or milk. He was so quick with a gun that he always allowed the villain to draw first.9 And he never failed to shoot the gun out of the dude’s hand, finishing him off in a man-to-man fist fight.
The B western also was well established on radio, where the heroes, like the Lone Ranger, were if anything even bigger boy scouts than the film versions.10 Rather curiously, in 1952, CBS radio decided to change all that, creating a show, Gunsmoke, whose hero, Marshal Matt Dillon, did not have a favorite horse, was known to drink alcohol, displayed an obvious interest in a saloon girl known with mock formality as Miss Kitty, and tended to settle things with a .45 slug to the gut rather than a manly fist to the jaw. In 1955 the show traveled to television, where it quickly became an institution.
In 1957, Warner Bros. created a near anti-western for ABC, Maverick, starring James Garner as gambling man and ladies’ man Brett Maverick. Brett had an almost unmasculine fondness for the better things in life. He liked fine clothes and fine hotels, and didn’t care much for honest labor. He believed in justice, for the most part, but he also had a hankering for a paisley silk waistcoat with a decent fit. Most shocking of all, he wasn’t very good with a gun!11
In the same year, CBS combined the toughness of Gunsmoke with the good living of Maverick and leavened it with a dash of New York edge to come up with Have Gun, Will Travel.12 Paladin was even more of a dude than Brett Maverick. He lived in the Hotel Carlyle in San Francisco, bought his suits from the finest tailor in town, and kept a box at the opera. He was fond of quoting the poets, notably Dryden and Shakespeare, and had a connoisseur’s eye for almost any object d’art you could name. The ladies, unsurprisingly, found him irresistible.
Paladin paid for this fabulous lifestyle by hiring himself out to western folks in trouble, well-heeled ones, for the most part, since, we’re told, Paladin required $2,000 a year just to keep himself in cigars. On the job, Paladin eschewed the fancy ruffled shirts he wore in the lobby of the Carlyle, dressing in existential black,13 with a large, black six-shooter strapped to his hip.
Despite his immense skill with a gun, Paladin much preferred argument over violence to settle disputes. “The taking of a human life is an act I perform with reluctance, even when it belongs to someone as contemptible as you,” he informed one object of his wrath. And, remarkably, Paladin usually had his way. Ruthless cattle barons, sleazy saddle tramps, morally complaisant lawmen – they almost always preferred to listen to reason than risk a face-off with Paladin’s .45.14
The moral world that Paladin inhabited was halfway between the self-enforcing moral universe of the B western, where good automatically triumphed over evil, and the moral anarchy that is the given in popular culture today. Paladin often found the wheels of justice to be clogged and frozen, but given a sure kick they would perform. In “Hey-Boy’s Revenge,” Paladin can charge a well-placed white man with the murder of a poor Chinese and turn him over to a time-serving sheriff, secure in the knowledge that justice will be done.
As the plot of “Hey-Boy’s Revenge” suggests, Have Gun, Will Travel scripts often came with a heavy dose of sixties liberalism.15 Paladin frequently took the role of the Great White Liberal, bringing succor to helpless Chinese, Mexicans, Indians, and other minorities who somehow were never quite capable of taking care of themselves. As the sixties wore on, the wheels would come off this unconsciously paternalistic and condescending liberalism, but nothing is forever, after all, and liberalism had a pretty decent run. Destroying segregation and institutionalized bigotry isn’t bad work for one generation.
More on the Knight Errant
There’s an excellent Have Gun, Will Travel website maintained by Andrew S. Fisher, with a history of the show, a bio on Boone, a synopsis for each episode, and more. Among other things, Fisher tells us that after HGWT ended its run, Boone organized The Richard Boone Show, a rep theater of the airwaves that attempted to recapture the Golden Age of TV by putting on a different play every week. Sadly, “the show quickly proved too highbrow for the ignorant masses.”16
Unless you’re a short-order cook in Point Barrow, Alaska (right), the release of the first season of Have Gun, Will Travel, 39 half-hour episodes on six DVDs, should be enough. But if you are a short-order cook north of the Arctic Circle, rejoice! The second season is on the way!
- Yousuf Karsh, a photographer of the rich and famous who flourished in the 1950s, described Hemingway with some care as “the shyest man I ever photographed.” [↩]
- The Earl of Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son teach “the manners of a dancing master and the morals of a whore,” in the testy opinion of Dr. Johnson. [↩]
- HGWT was the obvious source of the opening sequence of Clint Eastwood’s Magnum Force. [↩]
- The episodes could be shamelessly bookish. In one, Paladin assists a schoolteacher who insists on teaching both sides of the “Bleeding Kansas” terrorism just prior to the Civil War, in which pro- and anti-slavery vigilantes took turns murdering one another. In another, Paladin is paid with a first edition of Dryden’s All for Love. [↩]
- The unveiling of the card was always accompanied by a brief, descending musical phrase, a Leitmotiv, as it were, that small boys found irresistible. [↩]
- When TVs first went on sale, nearly everyone who owned one lived in the City. NBC kept a mailing list of every set owner and sent out postcards (right) each week describing the upcoming shows. [↩]
- The original Requiem for a Heavyweight, broadcast in 1956 and starring Jack Palance and Ed Wynn, is unfortunately not available on home video, though it could and should be. A 1962 film version, starring Anthony Quinn and Jackie Gleason, is available. [↩]
- Boyd, who broke into silents in 1918, put bread on the table in the thirties and forties starring as Hopalong Cassidy in dozens of B westerns. By the late forties his career was almost at an end when broadcasts of his old flicks made him far more famous, and far richer, than he’d ever been. [↩]
- William S. Hart, the greatest silent western star, who had grown up in the final days of the “real West,” always had the good sense to draw his guns before going into a fight. [↩]
- The Lone Ranger was a true Kantian in his purity, refusing ever to lie, even to a villain, and even when disclosure of the truth might cost a third party his (or even her!) life! [↩]
- To make up for this confession of near impotence, almost every episode of Maverick included extensive footage of Brett pounding the crap out of the villain du jour with his fists. Despite the ferocity of these dust-ups, Brett’s gleaming brunette coiffure never suffered the least harm. Whether this striking special effect was achieved with liberal application of Vitalis, Vaseline, or Valvoline is still unresolved. [↩]
- Whence the title? In 1954 Bob Hope published one of his many autobiographies, Have Tux, Will Travel. According to Hope, in the glory days of vaudeville, performers would place ads in Variety reading “Have Tuxedo, Will Travel,” meaning that they were ready to hit the road at a minute’s notice. In fact, the origins of the show’s gimmicks were brought into serious question by a lawsuit filed by one Victor De Costa, a Portuguese cowboy from Rhode Island who claimed that he had thought up the name and the business cards himself. CBS managed to stiff-arm De Costa until 1991, when it finally came through with $3 million. The 83-year-old De Costa died without collecting a dime. Where is Paladin when you really need him? [↩]
- Midway through the first season Paladin acquired a nice black leather jacket with a shearling collar to ward off the prairie chill – perhaps a sign that the show had been picked up for a second season. The scripts improved as well. [↩]
- Although Paladin never shoots the gun out of someone’s hand, he has a remarkable ability to disarm gunmen with trivial nicks to the upper arm, wounds that, apparently, never even require stitching. [↩]
- Star Trek viewers will be extremely unsurprised to learn that Gene Rodenberry broke into the biz writing scripts for HGWT. [↩]
- Oh, the ignorant masses! The ignorant masses! The Lord defend me from the ignorant masses! [↩]