Have Gun, Will Travel transplanted the chivalric myth to television's post-Civil War west. The hit CBS series aired from 1957 to 1963 and was centered on Paladin, an educated knight-errant gunslinger who, upon payment of $1,000, would leave his well-appointed suite in San Francisco's Hotel Carlton to pursue whatever mission of mercy or justice a well-heeled client commissioned. Paladin was played by Richard Boone, an actor who had risen to TV fame in 1954 with his intense portrayal of Dr. Konrad Styner, the host/narrator of the reality-based hospital drama, Medic.
Have Gun was created by Sam Rolfe and Herb Meadow, two innovative ex-radio writers who had been tipped that CBS was in the market for a cowboy show with a "different" twist. They thereupon fashioned the first truly adult TV western--a story centered on a cultured gunfighter who had named himself Paladin after the legendary officers of Charlemagne's medieval court. A gourmet and connoisseur of fine wine, fine women, and Ming Dynasty artifacts, Paladin would quote Keats, Shelley, and Shakespeare with the same self-assurance that he brought to the subjugation of frontier evildoers.
Because the entire concept revolved around Paladin, its success hinged on the ability of his portraying actor to, in creator Rolfe's words, "'play a high-IQ gunslinger and get away with it.'" (Edson, 1960). When western movie icon Randolph Scott (the first choice for the role) was unavailable, the producers turned to Richard Boone who, they were overjoyed to find, actually could ride a horse. Boone's intimidating growl, prominent nose and pock-marked visage physically distanced him from the standard fresh-faced cowboy hero in the same way that his character's cultured background distinguished him from those prairie-tutored rustics. After watching Paladin muse about Pliny and Aristotle, one television critic marveled, "'Where else can you see a gun fight and absorb a classical education at the same time?'" (Edson, 1960).
The show's identifying graphic was Paladin's calling card--bearing an image of the white knight chess piece and the inscription, "Have Gun, Will Travel . . . Wire Paladin, San Francisco." The responses that these cards generated were brought to Paladin by the show's only other continuing character--an Oriental hotel minion named Hey Boy (Hey Girl in 1960-61 when actress Lisa Lu temporarily replaced actor Kam Tong who had moved to another series). Without an ensemble cast, the entire weight of the series rested on Richard Boone's shoulders. Paladin's mannerisms and motivations had to be what propelled and interlocked the show's episodes from week to week and season to season.
A genuine descendent of Kentucky frontiersman Daniel Boone, method actor Richard successfully met this challenge both on camera and off, directing several dozen of the later episodes himself. The sophisticated elegance of his character also brought him more loyal feminine fan mail than was received by any of his more photogenic cowboy contemporaries. The show's off-beat quality was further enhanced by its practice of using mainly new writers who had not been drilled in conventional saddlesoap story lines. Have Gun became an immediate hit, ranking among the top five shows in its first season and was the consistent number three program from 1958-61. But by early 1962, Boone was growing weary of the project and felt it had run its course. "Every time you go to the well, it's a little further down," he lamented. "It's sad, like seeing a (Sugar) Ray Robinson after his best days are past. You wish he wouldn't fight any more, and you could just keep your memories" (Newsweek, 1962).
Have Gun's distinctive inverting of the television horse opera provided many memories to keep. In virtually every episode, Paladin would be seen in ruffled shirt, sipping a brandy or smoking a fifty-eight-cent cigar before or after embarking on his latest paid-in-advance assignment to the hinterland. Like Captain Marlowe from Conrad's Heart of Darkness, he was always the brooding observer as well as the valiant if somewhat vexed participant. Unlike the archetypal western hero, Paladin wore black rather than white, complete with an ebony hat embellished by a band of silver conches and a holster embossed with a silver chess knight. He sported a villain's mustache and wasn't enamored of his horse; declining even to justify its existence with an appealing name. And he seemed to relish the adventures of the mind--his chess matches and library--far more than the frontier confrontations from which he drew his livelihood.
As articulator of Have Gun's central premise, its theme song, The Ballad of Paladin, became a success in its own right. Sung by the aptly-named Johnny Western and written jointly by Western, Boone and series creator Rolfe, the tune was a hit single in the early 1960s. The first words of the lyric encapsulated both the show's motivating graphic and the chivalric roots of its central character:
Have gun, will travel reads the card of a man A knight without armor in a savage land.
Occasionally, this unshielded self-sufficiency would cause Paladin (again like Conrad's Marlowe) to turn on his employers when he determined them to be the unjust party. For a nation that, in 1957, was just becoming politically aware of cowering conformity's injustices, this may have been Have Gun's most potent, if most understated, element.
Paladin.............................................. Richard Boone
Hey Boy (1957-1960; 1961-1963)................ Kam Tong
Hey Girl (1960-1961)...................................... Lisa Lu
Frank Pierson, Don Ingalls, Robert Sparks, Julian Claman
PROGRAMMING HISTORY 225 Episodes
September 1957-September 1963 Saturday 9:30-10:00
Brooks, Tim and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows: 1946-Present. New York: Ballantine, 1979.
Edson, Lee. "TV's Rebellious Cowboy." Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 6 August 1960.
MacDonald, J. Fred. Who Shot The Sheriff? The Rise And Fall Of The Television Western. New York: Praeger, 1987.
Shulman, Arthur and Roger Youman. How Sweet It Was. New York: Bonanza, 1966.
West, Richard. Television Westerns: Major And Minor Series, 1946-1978. Jefferson City, North Carolina: McFarland, 1987.
". . . Will Travel." Newsweek (New York), 22 January 1962. Yoggy, Gary A. Riding the Video Range: The Rise and Fall of the Western on Television. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1994.