For six seasons (1957-63), Have Gun Will Travel was one of the most popular shows on American TV and probably its most literate western. Violent action, character study, and humor were framed around a weather-beaten, rueful, gentlemanly yet occasionally savage bounty hunter called Paladin.
He lived at the Carlton Hotel in San Francisco, where he could be found dressed like a dandy and attending various female acquaintances. Then he’d be hired for a job, or he’d read about one in the papers, upon which he’d dress up in black and be off to some town in the middle of nowhere (often looking like the same town, with the same mountain behind it) to set things right.
Once an episode, there’s a close-up on his calling card. It shows a chess knight with the title phrase over it and the instructions “Wire Paladin, San Francisco”. The paladin, symbolized by the chess piece, is a traveling knight, or as Johnny Western sang in the closing theme song, “a knight without armour in a savage land”. Paladin didn’t have armour, but he was a dab hand, ambidextrously, with a shooting iron. His real name was never revealed; the origin of his nom de gun was explained in the premiere of the final season, which gave him a bit of backstory.
An archetypal episode could be described as Paladin riding into town to confront a pack of miscreants and having everyone sidle around each other for a spell of suspense and tension, leading to a cathartic gunfight in which Paladin leaves several corpses on the ground, utters a weary quote from Plato, and walks away. That description isn’t quite fair, though. This collection of 19 episodes, the first half of Season Four, demonstrates a wide variety of approaches.
There are entire plots where nobody dies. There are even comic relief episodes, such as the slapstick baseball show with allusions to Pope and Plutarch. But soon enough we get back to the business of multiple bodies in the street, just to remember where we are. When exactly does Paladin roam? One of these episodes shows a newspaper with an 1876 date (the year of Little Big Horn, featured in a second season episode), and that’s close enough for legend.
In a sense, the whole show is Richard Boone. Not only does his portrayal of Paladin dominate the series, but Boone himself was an example of the star as auteur, since he had script approval and nothing happened on the show without his input. He also directed several of these Season Four episodes. As much if not more than producer Frank R. Pierson or creators Herb Meadow and Sam Rolfe, Boone contributed to the show’s expansive vision of the Old West as a sequence of morality plays on man’s shortcomings, the ambiguities of justice, the existential unfairness of this world, and the eternal struggles of conscience in the business of life and death. As Peter Orlick writes of Paladin for the Museum of Broadcast Communications, “Like Captain Marlowe from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, he was always the brooding observer as well as the valiant if somewhat vexed participant.”
The show aims for an inclusive vision of races and ethnic backgrounds. The premiere of Season Four centers on a Russian Jewish immigrant (Martin Gabel) who fought in the army of the Czar (“may the cholera take him”) and now carries the US mail. Paladin easily bandies quotations from the Torah, the Talmud and the Zohar as they sit at table around a menorah. “The hands are the hands of Esau but the voice is the voice of Jacob,” he remarks. A later episode prominently features a black man (Hari Rhodes) who lives at a camp with an older white gentleman (William Talman), where they seem to be partners in some labor. “I hate chains on a man,” he says apropos Paladin’s prisoner.
Indians show up here and there. One episode about bartering for a kidnapped white woman focuses on the ambiguous character of the former army scout (future Oscar winner Ben Johnson), born a white man, who feels a foreigner everywhere he’s not with his adopted people, the Sioux. “I have no contempt for the army,” he muses. “Exterminating the Indian nation is a dirty job, and they do it as well as the next.” This episode also demonstrates rivalries and contempt between tribes. A later episode, stronger in concept than execution, concerns a traveling puppeteer whose Punch and Judy show exposes the conscience of a celebrated, Custer-like general who tortured the man’s Indian wife.
The grim two-parter, “A Quiet Night in Town”, is a very bloody, scorched-earth tale of Paladin arresting a Mexican-Irish “half-breed” who arouses the ire of a quarter-Apache townie because “everybody needs somebody to hate”. This is the most speechifying and Bible-quoting episode of the set, and the most tense, driven, and annihilating. Another week, a comic episode inserts Paladin into the middle of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout’s voyage “around the world in 80 days”. Paladin trades quotes from Shakespeare and Boswell with a princess of the Punjab who travels with them.
With all this ethnicity, we must address the problem of Hey Boy (Kam Tong), an employee of the Carlton. This semi-regular speaks pidgin English and provides comic relief, and the show may have been getting uncomfortable with this depiction. An episode near the end of the first season gave him a real name and a family, including a sister, and featured Paladin taking revenge on a racist who murdered Hey Boy’s brother. Even so, this character never had much to do on the show. He’s only in three episodes this half-season because the actor had a better gig as the half-brother of the hero on The Garlund Touch in the fall of 1960, so his place is taken by the beautiful Hey Girl.
She’s played by Lisa Lu, the same actress who’d appeared as Hey Boy’s sister, but it’s not clear she’s playing the same character. Maybe it’s clarified later in the season, before Hey Boy eventually returned to the show. Aside from her traditional decorativeness, Hey Girl isn’t a stereotype or a comic character, and she speaks perfect English. She even quotes Ben Franklin on the wisdom of marriage, though Paladin tunes her out. She’s quite an improvement and it’s too bad she didn’t stay around as a less clumsy representative of Chinese people in San Francisco. (As part of the show’s rotating vision of the melting pot, there are other episodes with Chinese guests, but none in this set.)
Paladin is one of the rare western heroes who clearly has an active sex life. First, there are all those well-appointed ladies whose evenings are continually being interrupted. One episode begins with Paladin reclining on a divan with a woman who’d apparently been his bounty. He lets her go free with a pearl necklace because she’s too pretty for prison. He definitely has his own standards, and he’s capable of not doing the job he’s hired for.
Most telling is “The Princess and the Gunfighter”, in which he has a fling under the desert stars with a slumming princess of Montenegro. They exchange Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius, among other things, before she calls him a gigolo. This actress, Arlene Martel (here billed as Arline Sax), is something of a cult actress who played many ethnicities on TV, including Vulcan when she caused trouble for Spock as T’Pring. Her website, Arlene Martel.com, has a reel of clips, including this episode.
“Poker Fiend”, an outstanding entry full of ambiguous characters at cross-purposes, even with themselves, has an especially remarkable cast: Peter Falk doing a bit of character method behind thick little spectacles, Jack Weston as the sweaty schmuck of a gambling addict, Brett Somers (later a fixture on the game show Match Game) as his hard-headed mistress, Betsy Jones-Moreland (The Last Woman on Earth) as his be-feathered cigar-smoking wife, and Warren Oates as background decoration. Vivid character sketches are part of the series, which is all the more remarkable when you consider these dramas were only 30-minutes with commercials.
Comic characters abound. Ken Curtis, later Festus on Gunsmoke, dominates one episode as Monk Bordelli, an uncouth saddle-tramp reprised from a Season Three episode. A later episode centers on Jeanette Nolan as a small-town sheriff and five-time widow who’s a mean shot with a rifle, and who sets her cap for Paladin when he finishes cleaning up her town. The punchline is that she’s Monk’s aunt.
The show recycled its guest stars. These 19 episodes have multiple appearances by Robert Blake, Denver Pyle, George Kennedy, Harry Carey Jr., and Hal Needham (also Boone’s stunt double). Other guests in this batch include Mike Mazurki, Jack Albertson, J. Pat O’Malley, Martin Balsam, Ken Lynch, Andrew Prine, Sydney Pollack, James Best, Robert Emhardt, and Don Grady. Many of these actors appeared multiple times over the course of six seasons.
Writers this half-season include Shimon Wincelberg, Harry Julian Fink, and Robert E. Thompson, while directors besides Boone include Buzz Kulik and Andrew V. McClaglen. It’s not a visually distinctive series; the black and white photography by Frank Phillips is crisp and flat. More distinctive is the portentous opening theme music by Bernard Herrmann, its dark syncopated horns announcing a nightmare of bodies tumbling like chess pieces. Jerry Goldsmith, Fred Steiner and others provided music for various episodes in this set.
CBS/Paramount released the first three seasons on DVD years ago, and the long hiatus has had fans in a dither. They’ve picked up where they left off, though now the seasons will be broken in half. As long as they’re released somehow in these clean prints, fans of this moody classic should be happy.