By the beginning of the 1950s, television had started to make major inroads as the preferred home entertainment source for household families…leaving radio to play the unenviable role of middle child. The small screen was a most ungrateful sibling when you consider that most of its content originated from the aural medium; comedians like Jack Benny and George Burns & Gracie Allen were slowly making their transfer to the boob tube, and popular programs like The Lone Ranger and Suspense were also becoming TV favorites. And yet, a television show would occasionally go in the opposite direction: for example, two years after the series’ small screen debut, the cast of ABC’s Space Patrol wound up emoting in front of a radio mike, later joined by What’s My Line? and My Little Margie. On this date in 1958, another TV-to-radio rarity premiered over the CBS Radio Network: Have Gun—Will Travel.
The television incarnation of Have Gun—Will Travel debuted on CBS on September 14, 1957. Created by Sam Rolfe and Herb Meadow, the show starred Richard Boone as Paladin, a professional gun-for-hire. Paladin’s services did not come cheap; hence, his fee of $1000 (the going rate as a rule) tended to attract more well-to-do patrons…and yet, the gunfighter would offer his gun to more downscale clients on a pro bono basis whenever the need arose. Paladin was a cultured gentleman (he spoke several languages, and frequently quoted from the classics), who loved good food and fine wines…and often found himself the center of romantic attention from the opposite sex. His base of operations was the luxurious Carlton Hotel in San Francisco, where his needs were attended to by an Asian bellhop (played by Kam Tong) answering to “Hey Boy.”
Paladin’s origins would remain a mystery for most of the TV run (the story of who he was and how he came to be would eventually be dramatized in “Genesis,” the premiere episode of the series’ sixth and final season. Viewers would eventually learn that he was a West Point graduate, who served as a Union cavalry officer and was a veteran of the American Civil War. He was not an individual who reveled in violence—in fact, he tried to avoid gunplay whenever possible, but when required he proved quite handy with his fists (not to mention an impressive mastery of the martial arts). Have Gun’s loyal viewers never learned whether or not Paladin had an actual first name (his moniker was inspired by the principal knights of Charlemagne’s court). In fact, because the business card that he carried around read “Have Gun Will Travel, Wire Paladin, San Francisco,” more than a few people joked that their hero’s first name was “Wire.”
Have Gun—Will Travel premiered on television at a time when viewers couldn’t get enough of Westerns; it ranked #4 among all TV shows in its first season (according to the Nielsens), and was the third most-watched program for three seasons from 1958 to 1961. (It was ranked #29 in its fifth and sixth seasons, still a solid favorite.) As such, CBS thought a radio version might revive their fading aural fortunes, and so a little over a year later (November 23, 1958) veteran actor John Dehner took on the role that Richard Boone was still playing on TV. To Dehner’s credit, his approach to the role could be boiled down to “Richard who?” “I don’t imitate,” he forcefully stated in an interview about the series, and indeed the radio Paladin was a little more no-nonsense than his boob tube counterpart (Boone took pains to at least give his Paladin a sense of humor). Character great Ben Wright played the radio version of Hey Boy, and a secondary character was added in “Missy Wong,” Hey Boy’s girlfriend (played by Virginia Gregg). (It should be noted that the Miss Wong character appeared before the TV version introduced a “Hey Girl” character [portrayed by Lisa Lu] in its fourth season; regular Kam Tong had landed a gig on a series called The Garland Touch, but returned to HGWT when Garland folded after one season.)
At first, the radio Have Gun—Will Travel borrowed liberally from previously telecast episodes (adapting many scripted by future Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry) …but eventually transitioned to original scripts penned by the likes of William N. Robson, Ann Doud, and Frank Paris (who directed and produced the radio version). (Sound patterns artists Tom Hanley and Ray Kemper also contributed the occasional script, as did actor Jack Moyles!) One distinction between the radio and TV HGWTs was that the radio incarnation provided a finale. Toward the end November of 1960, the CBS Radio Network said “fare-thee-well” to several of their long-running shows (including the daytime dramas Ma Perkins and The Romance of Helen Trent). On November 27, “From Here to Boston” found HGWTs protagonist leaving Frisco for the East Coast to settle his late aunt’s estate in Beantown. (Meanwhile, Paladin continued to offer his gun for hire on television for several additional seasons.)
My good friend and fellow Radio Spirits colleague Martin Grams, Jr. wrote the book on Have Gun—Will Travel…literally. In 2001, a paperback (co-written with Les Rayburn) entitled The Have Gun—Will Travel Companion was published, an extensive documentation of the history behind both the TV and radio shows. (It’s out-of-print, so you might have to pore through the stacks of your local library to find it.) As such, Martin was the perfect choice to write the liner notes for the Radio Spirits collection Have Gun—Will Travel: a 10-CD set containing the first twenty broadcasts of the radio series. It’s essential “must-hear radio” for fans of both radio drama and the classic TV series, so we invite you to spend a little time with the adventures of “a knight without armor in a savage land.”