Sunday, February 15, 2004

“San Francisco, 1875…the Carlton Hotel…headquarters of the man called Paladin…”

One week after the demise of the tragically underrated Frontier Gentleman, veteran radio actor John Dehner saddled up to star in another CBS Radio western beginning November 23, 1958. For Dehner to choose to participate in another western is a bit perplexing—actually, the fact that he even agreed to play the lead in Gentleman is a bit odd: the actor turned down the lead role in Gunsmoke after a March 9, 1951 audition because he did not want to be typecast in western roles. (He took a pass on Fort Laramie for a similar reason.) But what remains the most curious of all is that he was amenable to headline the western that replaced Frontier Gentleman, one that already was a monster hit on television: Have Gun, Will Travel.

Created by Herb Meadow and Sam Rolfe, Have Gun, Will Travel debuted on CBS-TV September 14, 1957, and starred actor Richard Boone as a cultured gun-for-hire, operating from the stately Carlton Hotel in San Francisco. Paladin, who had attended West Point and was a Civil War veteran, offered his services with a distinctive business card that bore the symbol of a white chess knight (a paladin) and read: “Have Gun, Will Travel/Wire Paladin/San Francisco.” (The joke soon began to get around that the gunman’s first name appeared to be “Wire.”) Despite his occupation as a gunslinger, Paladin was an educated, refined individual attracted to the finer things in life and especially wining and dining the ladies. He was a classy guy, often quoting Shakespeare over the bodies of the men he had just killed—he seemed like the sort of chap you could sit down and have a beer with, provided you didn’t get on his bad side.

“I don’t imitate,” Dehner revealed in an interview years after the radio version of HGWT departed the airwaves, and never a truer word was spoken—Dehner took special care not to be a carbon copy of the television gunslinger. John Dunning describes it as “a steamlined version, perhaps slighter of build but just as deadly.” There were similarities between the TV and radio versions, though: the radio HGWT used the same staccato opening theme, followed by a snatch of dialogue from that night’s episode (“You made a contract with me under false pretenses. Usually, when I get forced into a corner, I can shoot my way out. But this time, you’ve made that impossible.”). The supporting character of Hey Boy (played on TV by Kam Tong, and on radio by British actor Ben Wright) also made the transition, but the radio version gave Hey Boy a girl friend in “Missy” Wong, played by Virginia Gregg. (I don’t remember if Miss Wong was on the TV version; all that I recall is that Hey Boy was replaced by a female counterpart in Hey Girl due to a scheduling conflict that actor Tong had with another series, The Garland Touch.)

When you think about it, it seems unusual that Have Gun, Will Travel made the transition from television to radio, when the norm was usually vice versa. There are a few series that bucked this trend in the annals of OTR history, shows like My Little Margie, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and What’s My Line, to list a few examples. HGWT was probably the most successful of the bunch, and although I mentioned in an earlier post that the show was a notch or two in quality below that of Frontier Gentleman, I’m still fond of the program. It has sort of a Gunsmoke feel to it, which might be due to the participation of producer-director Norman Macdonnell in the show’s early run (later replaced by Frank Paris), along with Gunsmoke scribes Marian Clark and Les Crutchfield, and sound patterns artists Tom Hanley and Ray Kemper. Many Gunsmoke alumni also performed on Have Gun, Will Travel, among them Vic Perrin, Harry Bartell, Sam Edwards, and Howard McNear.

In the first of two programs I previewed last night at work—“Comanche” (originally broadcast July 5, 1959)—Paladin must locate an army deserter named Henry Carver (Edwards) and persuade him to return to his outfit. Carver jumped the fence in order to rescue his girlfriend (Barbara Eiler) from a marriage she was being forced into. This script, adapted by SFX man Hanley from the original teleplay (broadcast May 16, 1959) by Irving Wallace, is an interesting tale that also manages to work in the events at Little Bighorn on its fringes.

The second show was a positive gem; in “That Was No Lady” (2/21/60), Paladin is approached by a man named Felber Fidd (played by McNear), who has an unusual job for the man called Paladin:

PALADIN: What can I do for you, Mr. Fidd?
FIDD: Well, I’ve been sent here by the respectable element of…Brackwater…
PALADIN: Brackwater?
FIDD: Yes, a cowtown…south of the Tehachapis…
PALADIN: Oh, yes…
FIDD: The respectable element has…triumphed in Brackwater, Mr. Paladin…
PALADIN: Oh…
FIDD: Triumphed, I tell you…but…it was not an easy victory…
PALADIN: Well, virtuous victory never is…
FIDD: Well, there remains, however, one pocket of resistance…uh, one holdout…one sink of sin…and that’s where you come in…
PALADIN: Where I come in?
FIDD: Exactly. A.J. Bannion’s the name…
PALADIN: Of whom?
FIDD: The holdout! A.J. Bannion…proprietor of the Paradise Saloon…which I tell you is indeed a cesspool of corruption…this A.J. Bannion refuses to listen to the sweet voice of reason…so, we are compelled to employ the force of your persuasion…
PALADIN: At my usual fee, Mr. Fidd?
FIDD: Of course!
PALADIN: Well, that’s a relief…so often I’ve found that the…respectable element believes that virtue is its own reward…

Paladin discovers to his chagrin that the initials in “A.J.” stand for “Alice Jane,” and that Bannion is a rough-and-rowdy hellcat (wonderfully played by Jeanette Nolan) who mistakes his attempt to sweet-talk her into leaving town as a proposal of marriage. It’s a beaut of an episode, scripted by veteran radio producer-director William N. Robson (Suspense, Escape).

Have Gun, Will Travel was among the last of the great Golden Age Radio dramas to leave the airwaves, wrapping up a two-year run after 106 episodes (all of which are extant today) on November 27, 1960. The last show even provided a final coda to the radio series, with Paladin leaving San Francisco to claim a Boston inheritance. Meanwhile, back at the television ranch, HGWT continued on, providing solid Saturday night entertainment until CBS ended its six-year stint on September 21, 1963.

1 comment:

  1. So what's a twelve-year, two-month delay in posting a comment? Very interesting, thorough, and fun review. I learned quite a bit, and enjoyed reading it. dcweiser@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete