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
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.
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
will travel reads the card of a man A knight without armor
in a savage land.
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.
Have Gun, Will Travel
Richard Boone Hey Boy (1957-1960; 1961-1963)................
Kam Tong Hey Girl (1960-1961)......................................
Frank Pierson, Don Ingalls, Robert Sparks, Julian Claman
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.
Lee. "TV's Rebellious Cowboy." Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania), 6 August 1960.
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:
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.