For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity. This entry covers Have Gun — Will Travel, which ran for six seasons and 225 episodes between 1957 and 1963.
Legend has it that the adult TV Western was born in 1955. That was the year four Old West dramas that weren’t aimed at children premiered, the three lasting entries being Gunsmoke, The Life And Legend Of Wyatt Earp, and Cheyenne, all of which are still in syndication 60 years later. But to call them all adult Westerns erects an awfully big tent. From the start, Gunsmoke featured strong psychological stories and performances, but Earp’s adulthood lies mainly in its seriousness, and Cheyenne’s update of the action Western for kids extends primarily to its hour running time. They’re not made explicitly for children, but seeing a trend through all three shows is somewhat like lumping together Friday Night Lights, Brothers And Sisters, and The Unit to define network dramas in 2006. Like the latest Golden Age of TV Drama, the “adult Western” is more useful as promotional branding than critical distinction.
Nevertheless, the adult Western, nominal or otherwise, is what TV audiences were looking for in the late ’50s. Have Gun – Will Travel wasn’t the first, it wasn’t the most popular, and it didn’t last the longest. But it was the best. Have Gun picked up the pieces of the adult Western and assembled them into something greater. There was Gunsmoke’s dramatic power, Earp’s pretension, and Cheyenne’s rootless energy. And where those others lost cast members, dipped in quality, or completely transformed, Have Gun stayed steady, a strong half-hour black-and-white adventure leading into Gunsmoke every Saturday night for six years.
It started with the title: In the ’40s, vaudeville performers would take out ads reading, “Have tux, will travel.” New York writer Herb Meadow came up with the violent pun. Mervyn LeRoy and Frank Ross had brought Meadow to Hollywood to work on the screenplay for an earlier, unproduced version of The Robe; instead, Meadow found success writing gnarly genre fare like Edgar Ulmer’s thriller The Strange Woman, Jacques Tourneur’s Western Stranger On Horseback, and several episodes of The Lone Ranger.
Meadow kicked around his title with a younger writer, Sam Rolfe. Rolfe was a couple years off an Oscar nomination for co-writing Anthony Mann’s psychological Western The Naked Spur. Together they came up with the idea of a Big Apple detective who would buy all the papers each morning and comb through classified ads looking for those in need of help. To them he would send his calling card: “Have gun, will travel.” CBS programmer Hunt Stromberg Jr. was interested, but he was looking for a companion to rising star Gunsmoke. So Meadow and Rolfe transplanted the idea to 1870s San Francisco, and voilà: Have Gun – Will Travel became the first show accepted by new CBS development head James Aubrey, who would go on to become a programming superstar and president of the network.
The character Meadow and Rolfe came up with was named Paladin, after the medieval knights who served Charlemagne, according to the Matter Of France. That’s how they envisioned their show: an epic poem of the Old West. Gunsmoke’s creators were intentionally trying to create the West as it was with their lean, mean, hardscrabble stories. Rolfe was after the West of legend. Every week Paladin would roll out of bed with a dame in San Francisco’s ritzy Hotel Carlton, go downstairs, and find someone looking for help in the paper. Once they cough up his going rate of $1,000, he’d be off on a mission. Paladin was good with a gun, of course, and he served in the Union Army. But what sets him apart from Marshal Matt Dillon or The Rifleman’s Lucas McCain or even dandy Bret Maverick is his intelligence. Paladin is a sophisticate who likes to quote Shakespeare and others, speaks several languages including rudimentary Mandarin, and appreciates the finest cigars. He’s broken bread with several different Native American tribes, and he’s traveled all over the world to learn about various cultures. Have Gun later became known as the thinking man’s Western. If that sounds a little rococo, Sam Rolfe thought so, too: “What cowboy actor can play a high-IQ gunslinger and get away with it?”
CBS had ’50s Western mainstay Randolph Scott in mind from the beginning. He turned the project down, possibly sensing his down-home charm wasn’t exactly what Meadow and Rolfe were thinking of when they concocted this Renaissance man. (Anyway, Scott was off to launch his own series of enduring Westerns with director Budd Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy.) Next up was Richard Boone. Boone was a rough-and-tumble sort who had been kicking around all kinds of jobs after getting back from the Pacific theater of World War II: roustabout, bricklayer, bouncer. He got his start in the business by accompanying a friend to her screen test at Fox. A few months later he got a call from Elia Kazan telling him, “Lewis Milestone likes your voice.” So he was cast in Milestone’s Halls Of Montezuma, where he met Dragnet maven Jack Webb, which led to some Dragnet roles, which led to Medic, a hospital drama created by a Dragnet writer. At the time of Have Gun, Boone was known to audiences as the reassuring ’50s father figure, Dr. Konrad Styner. Paladin was a change for the more physical.
At home, Paladin is decked out in the finest duds. But out on a mission, he always wears the same suit of armor: an all-black ensemble of trail clothes, hat, boots, and belt. Reportedly, that’s the only available outfit that fit when Boone did his screen test, and the black knight look worked so well, the producers decided not to mess with it, except for two silver adornments. First-season producer Julian Claman added silver conches to the hat, and Meadow added a silver piece to the holster with the image of chess knight. Not only because Paladin was a knight of the Old West, but also because the knight is the most calculating, unpredictable piece on the chess board. From there they added the knight to the business card and the Paladin iconography was complete.
That’s one story, anyway. Another is that the title, business card, and character of Have Gun – Will Travel come from a rodeo performer named Victor DeCosta. He went by “Paladin” in the decade before the show, and distributed his own business cards, complete with both the title phrase and the all-black getup. He also wore a mustache, like the kind the previously clean-shaven Medic star supposedly showed up with out of the blue for Have Gun. When he saw Boone in action, DeCosta brought a law suit against CBS that took decades to resolve. Long story short, the law seemed to believe that the producers did get their ideas from him. But the legend stuck.
Bernard Herrmann’s opening theme sets the mood for the show. As Paladin draws his Colt .45, aims it at the camera, and recites some tough ultimatum from the upcoming episode, Herrmann goes from a short, tense barrage to an intriguing tail that draws the viewer in. That’s exactly how the show operates: Paladin gets cut-and-dried instructions, then finds out things aren’t what they seem. So he susses out what’s motivating everyone involved and figures out what needs to be done. Paladin isn’t a law-enforcement officer like Marshal Dillon, and he isn’t representing his own interests like Lucas McCain. He’s a private party motivated by profit. So while he always does the right thing—or helps others do the right thing, as the case may be—he does come into some tricky situations.
For instance, in “The Lady On The Wall,” written by Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson and directed by Ida Lupino, Paladin stops in a near-ghost town for the night on his way back to San Francisco. He finds four old-timers and a bartender standing around admiring a beautiful painting. Well, the painting gets stolen, and the old men pay Paladin to get it back. It’s the bartender’s property, but Paladin threatens to live up to his contract even if the bartender took it. (He did, but then it gets stolen from him. Have Gun is at heart a detective show.) In the end, Paladin winds up gently coaxing everyone involved to do the right thing, and the painting ends up back on the wall. At multiple points Paladin’s actions threaten to become illegal, immoral, or amoral, but everyone winds up satisfied with the possible exception of some fat cat, and even he seems to agree that this is the best solution. The idea is that Paladin is playing several moves ahead of everyone. He’s read his share of political philosophy and stands up for liberal democracy. He’s an enlightened agent, a forerunner to a television character like Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Gene Roddenberry liked to claim he was head writer on Have Gun – Will Travel. That position didn’t actually exist, but Roddenberry did tie for writing the most episodes, and he worked on all six seasons. He also won his only Writers Guild Award for a Have Gun script about an Armenian wine-maker searching for his runaway daughter. An early Roddenberry script, “The Hanging Cross,” brought out one of Paladin’s distinguishing characteristics: It was the first season’s Christmas episode, and in place of the traditional standoff opening, this time Paladin unbuckles his holster and hangs it up. The story involves settlers getting riled up about Indians, with Paladin standing in the middle preaching non-violence. That became an essential part of Have Gun – Will Travel. None of the Western good guys ever wanted to draw their guns, but they always would. Paladin was usually the same way. After all, audiences are tuning in for a Western. But in episodes like this, Paladin stands apart as the rare hero who walks the walk of peace. Sometimes there were whole episodes without Paladin firing a gun, a rarity for the genre.
The other recurring character on Have Gun — Will Travel was Kam Tong’s Chinese bellhop, Hey Boy. (It’s easy to guess how he got that name.) As ever, the writers’ consistent attempts to address racial inequality had its blind spots. Hey Boy was a subservient character who often found work for Paladin, so he usually appeared in the opening of episodes, and only occasionally at that. The one redeeming angle is an episode in which Hey Boy is the one in need of Paladin’s services, and Paladin works hard for his friend. Next week, however, it’s back to carrying bags and serving breakfast.
The final formative influence on Have Gun – Will Travel is Andrew V. McLaglen, the 6-foot-7-inch son of John Ford regular Victor McLaglen. All the Westerns have a giant; he was Have Gun’s. After McLaglen directed two Gunsmoke episodes, CBS put him under contract. He worked with Meadow and Rolfe from the start, directing the first 23 episodes and ultimately 116 of the 225 total. McLaglen brought a classical look to the show, favoring theatrical, indoor wide shots and saving his visual flourishes for the open range.
The look of Have Gun – Will Travel was never quite like any of its rivals. Its signature shot was an outdoor action pose, like a panel from a comic. Gunsmoke was spare, all lines and portraits. The Rifleman was expressionistic, with its high contrast and extreme compositions. Maverick was conspiratorial, James Garner’s grin against the din of the world. Have Gun was Romantic: exotic landscapes, inviting scenes, and exciting heroics. Unlike most Westerns of the day, Have Gun shot all over the West, especially as it went on: evergreen Oregon, sandstone Utah, wide open New Mexico.
Have Gun – Will Travel was an immediate hit, landing in fourth place for its first season and staying third for the next three years. It was that rare TV western that spun off a radio show rather than the other way around. Under Claman, the strong first season was relatively formulaic, although that formula applied to everything from outwitting competitors in a camel race to helping safeguard a tight-rope walk.
But as the series went on, Have Gun kept stretching itself. As producer of most of the next two seasons, Rolfe took the show closer to the mythic vision he had in mind. (Meadow was off to develop another Western, The Man From Blackhawk.) The first episodes of season three are moody, theatrical spotlights that seem to take place out of time in ghostly sets in out-of-the-way towns. “Episode In Laredo” is like a Twilight Zone version of The Gunfighter: Paladin is stuck in a hotel with a gunfighter eager to outdraw him, and honor prohibits the guy from backing down or Paladin from shooting first. Can they both walk out of the room?
Toward the end of that season, Rolfe got into a fistfight with Boone and walked out. Boone was what is politely called “a character.” He’d been kicked out of Stanford, he burned his landlady’s furniture for the heat, and he aspired to Hemingway in his creative writing. On Playhouse 90 he turned his back on producer Fred Coe for interfering with the director, and for six years Have Gun – Will Travel ran on the tension between Boone and its then producer. But it was a productive tension. Boone helped pull the show to his favored locations, like Lone Pine, California, and his connections brought directors like Lewis Milestone and Elliot Silverstein. In season three, Boone started directing episodes, too.
Frank R. Pierson, hired as a story editor in 1959, stepped up to replace Rolfe in season four. According to him, he was the one who knew where Rolfe was going with the show, and he honored Rolfe’s vision, with Paladin quoting Aristotle and discussing political philosophy in his seduction of a Montenegro princess. His first episode as producer is about a Russian Jewish fatalist under threat for testifying in court who refuses to hire a gunfighter like Paladin for protection. It’s everything the show’s about: a racial subculture settling the West, a philosophy to expound on, and the realities of non-violence.
But Pierson’s run pushed the show, too. As Have Gun moved more and more outdoors, it also started to rely on an Altmanesque ’60s zoom, Paladin’s distant reconnaissance narrowing in on whoever was across the way. The show became grander in that sense, with bigger set-pieces to go with its bigger natural settings. Season four also featured the show’s only two-part episode, a dark, violent number in the tradition of Rolfe’s moody examinations of gun power. It doesn’t take a fatalist to know Pierson wasn’t long for Have Gun and why. With one episode to go in the fifth season, Pierson left to get out of Boone’s way.
By that time, the show had shed approximately a third of its viewers, dropping to the bottom of the top 30, less due to the quality of the series than to Western fatigue. The shortened sixth season opened with a Sam Rolfe story—Rolfe and Meadow kept contributing scripts—about Paladin’s origin, but it’s the season with the most dry spots. It held its position on the Nielsen charts, but the show was done. At 225 episodes of black-and-white half-hour adventures, it’s a miracle the show was so consistent for so long.
Just as Paladin improved the lives of everyone around him, Have Gun – Will Travel stands out for both its own virtues and its influence. Richard Boone continued his devotion to dramatic acting with The Richard Boone Show and returned to the West in the 90-minute forensic forerunner Hec Ramsey. Herb Meadow went on to create the first 90-minute show, Arrest And Trial, while Sam Rolfe helped bring James Bond to the small screen with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The spy craze that followed the Western is right up Paladin’s alley, with covert mystery-solving in the name of democracy. Another Have Gun writer co-created Mission: Impossible, and still another co-wrote Dirty Harry, which boasts a legendarily Paladinesque opening. With Pierson’s contributions to Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon, that makes two New Hollywood luminaries passing through the Hotel Carlton. And near the end of his life, he was a consulting producer for Mad Men and The Good Wife, writing one episode of each show. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek franchise is the child who looks most like its father, with its intrepid problem-solving explorers sizing up local disputes and spreading their own vision of justice and compassion across the frontier. Roddenberry famously pitched the original Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars,” but it’s not. It’s Have Phasers – Will Travel. Paladin didn’t ride off into the sunset. He rode off into the stars.
Next time: Honorary Winchester brother Eric Thurm takes on Supernatural.