A man called Paladin (Richard Boone), identified in the title song as a fast gun for hire who heeds the calling wind, roams the West dispensing rough justice and dropping literary quotations in Have Gun, Will Travel, one of TV’s best westerns. Its two-fisted, sharp-shooting antics punctuate plots filled with tension, character, and philosophy. Now ravishingly sharp prints make the show look better than it could have on anybody’s TV when it first aired.
This newest set contains the first 19 episodes of the fifth season, broadcast from the fall of 1961 through January 1962. While Frank R. Pierson produced the series, star Richard Boone had a lot of power in this penultimate season. Boone directed several episodes, though the primary director remains Andrew V. McLaglen.
Hey Boy (Kam Tong) is the Chinese employee at San Francisco’s Hotel Carlton, and his role is expanded and altered this season in more dignified way. He appears in almost all episodes and, though still speaking with the accent of a first-generation immigrant, he now uses complete sentences, pronounces properly, and engages in banter. He often speaks to Paladin in Chinese, giving the latter a chance to respond with a few phrases. Since the actor was returning from a more substantial role in another series, he possibly didn’t want to take a step backward. It works better and serves the show’s nods at social conscience.
Many of this season’s episodes are about women, and a few are even written by women. The premiere is about a headstrong proto-feminist nurse (Mary Fickett) who gets chastened for being too trusting and meddling in others’ business, even though that’s how Paladin makes his living. A similar though stronger character is a crusading missionary (Suzi Carnell) who tries to disarm a town with faith while Paladin uses other methods. They are presented as the Yin to each other’s Yang, and they turn each other on, leading to a passionate kiss. Her position might have been mocked and exposed, but her iron will and intelligence are taken more seriously than viewers might have expected.
Then there’s the shotgun-toting hillbilly lass (Jena Engstrom) who wants to avenge her Paw in an endless family feud (she and Paladin duel with Bible quotes), but the skunk who did the shooting is a right cutie (rock star Duane Eddy) and they all learn a valuable lesson in this especially simple-minded episode written by Betty Andrews. Andrews redeems herself with the remarkable “Odds for Big Red”, directed with several flourishes by Richard Donner (Superman). Paladin kills his bad guy in the opening minutes, but there’s collateral damage in the form of a wounded bargirl (understood as a prostitute). Everyone’s sense of responsibility gets complicated in a suspenser with many elements. There’s a debate about Horace, and the last line is a quiet reference to Moliére.
Another special element in this episode is a hefty black actress (Virginia Capers) who makes a fierce, angry, defensive presence. She pulls a gun on Paladin and knocks a brawler sideways. It’s hard to imagine her showing up in the first seasons during the late-‘50s, but the times they were a-changin’. A gentler, sadder, earth-motherly black woman is played by folk singer Odetta in “Hanging of Aaron Gibbs”, all all-rhetorical show with no onscreen violence, though three people die. Her mere presence is a reminder of the contemporary world.
A change of pace is “A Proof of Love”, with Charles Bronson in a semi-comic role as a mother-dominated farmer who doesn’t want to lose his mail-order bride to a neighbor. We learns that Paladin speaks and dances Greek in this Boone-directed episode by Peggy & Lou Shaw. Bronson returns as an ornery hombre with entirely different wife troubles in “Ben Jalisco”, in which a talkative old sheriff (John Litel) observes “The fall of innocence is a melancholy event. Ain’t that a sour truth?” That’s from scripter Harry Julian Fink, and the series is full of writing like that.
The Shaws also wrote a show with a simple and subtle title, “The Race”, in which tensions between white settlers and Indians losing their land are literalized as a winner-take-all horse race sponsored by the local land baron (future Oscar winner Ben Johnson). Because Paladin accidentally broke the arm of the Indian contestant, he takes his place. In a radical move, he changes the rules at the finish line and tries to lecture the unreceptive crowd on how the contest would be unnecessary if they all got together. He leaves without reason for hope.
I’d like to quote all of Barry Trivers’ script for “The Piano”, in which famous pianist Franz Lister (Keith Andes) has been commissioned by a wealthy matron who used to run the town’s “most elaborate—saloon”. Now the piano has been hijacked for ransom, and the florid Lister declares, “That piano you do not buy like a harlot in the street. You fight for her like a woman you love!” Confronted with such passion, his would-be girlfriend (Antoinette Bower) delivers a rueful speech on how she’s unable to compete with such a mistress. On another matter, Paladin opines, “A woman who would forego ragout buffalo would be incapable of enjoying other rare pleasures.” Later he’s confronted with “You talk pretty flowery, mister. Do you draw the same way?” The gentlemen isn’t referring to Paladin’s way with a pencil.
The outstanding “The Brothers”, one of several episodes by Robert E. Thompson, begins with Paladin capturing a local tyrant (Buddy Ebsen) and takes unpredictable turns in the desert with an old-timer (Paul Hartman) of sinister comedy. “A Drop of Blood” is a sequel to the fourth season premiere, reuniting many of the characters for a simple-minded replay at an Orthodox Jewish wedding. The script of “A Knight to Remember” is credited to Robert Dozier and Don Miguel Cervantes. Hans Conried guests as the old man under delusions of being Don Quixote, with a mute Indian as his Sancho Panza.
Disc 3 begins with Anthony Wilson’s “Blind Circle”, directed by Donner, in which Paladin confronts a weary old cuss (Hank Patterson) in the same line of business. Each gunslinger predicts the other’s future. “How many men have you talked to death?” he asks Paladin at one point, but Paladin has nobody to quote at the end of this sobering adventure. When flummoxed, he purses his lips, furrows his brow, and moves on. Then comes “The Kid”, written by Joanne Court and directed by Elliot Silverstein (Cat Ballou). This is a comic caper about taming a wild young-un, and it might be seen as part of a diptych in Paladin meets old age and childhood. However, the boy isn’t a young Paladin and the tale isn’t used to make him think about the children he doesn’t have.
The largely comic “Lazarus”, by Jack Laird and director Albert Ruben, focuses on a drunk (Strother Martin) who believes he’s about to die, so he decides to confront the local bully. This takes several turns while the old galoot spills over with great lines like “When I was a sprig, how I was going to set the world on fire. Now look at me. I ain’t even struck the first match yet.” And “They ain’t but a little bit of difference between bein’ dead and bein’ foolish. I’ve been dead all of my life. Now with one little bit of foolishness, I come alive for the first time.” And my favorite, “I’ve played the cards so close to my chest, I’ve developed eyestrain from tryin’ to make ‘em out.” When he realizes with alarm that he’s lived through the night, he declares “Alive, I’m an orthodox coward.”
That comes in between two of the more serious, glowering, righteous episodes, one about a land baron (Warren Stevens) who zealously defends his property against squatters (this has the most corpses), and one about a kangaroo court in a town of fugitives, where William Schallert plays a dapper, drunken, disgraced Latin teacher who was accused of corrupting his charges and blasphemy. This opens with unsavory references to some brutality committed on a traumatized little girl. All the characters are vivid.
The set’s last episode, “Mark of Cain”, is a typically intellectual conceit from writer Shimon Wincelberg. Paladin is hired by Dr. Avatar (Phillip Coolidge), a disciple of Professor Lombroso’s theories of phrenology, who wants to measure the head of a natural born killer. This is Jake Trueblood (Roy Barcroft), another of the series’ sad, washed-out specimens who have outlived their time. It’s a model of how this half-hour show can credibly slip in a number of incidents, twists and reversals while resting solidly on revealed character.
Character actors George Kennedy, Tom Conway, Martin Gable, Mike Kellin, Michael Pate, Coleen Gray, Dabbs Greer, L.Q. Jones, and Jacques Aubuchon are among other guests who show up in this set. There are no extras.