The first season of Have Gun--Will Travel
makes it easy to see why this Western series was an overnight success. Making its debut on September 14, 1957, the half-hour show ranked no. 4 in the ratings for its entire first season, which ran almost completely uninterrupted (minus a one-week preemption) until June of 1958--a punishing schedule unheard of in present-day television. (It ranked even higher in subsequent seasons, holding the no. 3 spot, behind Gunsmoke
and Wagon Train
.) Richard Boone was perfectly cast in the lead role of Paladin, a cultured gunslinger whose West Point education, impeccable style, literate sophistication, and distinguished Civil War service made him unique among Western heroes, and the prototype for many dashing figures to follow. Based in San Francisco's ritzy Carlton Hotel, he scans newspapers to locate trouble throughout the wild West, then cagily markets his services (via his legendary calling card, "Have Gun--Will Travel") as a hired gun, moral arbiter, voice of reason, and reluctant killer of badmen. Understanding the complexities of frontier justice, Paladin (whose full name is never revealed) could turn on those who hired him if he suspected dubious motivations. He wore black, but he traveled in an ethical gray zone.
Running about 25 minutes each, these 39 episodes are consistently good and economically plotted, since Have Gun boasted stellar talent on both sides of the camera. Each episode began with the memorable theme by legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann, and most of the first season was directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, who worked regularly on Gunsmoke, Rawhide, and Perry Mason before graduating to a prolific big-screen career. Regular writers included Gene Roddenberry (who created Star Trek six years later), and budding maverick Sam Peckinpah co-wrote episode #22, "The Singer." In addition to series regular Kam Tong as Paladin's Chinese-American manservant Hey Boy (a "Coolie" stereotype, but Tong handles it with dignity, especially in "Hey Boy's Revenge"), Have Gun offered a who's-who of 1950s and '60s guest stars, from genre stalwarts like Victor McLaglen (Andrew's father), John Carradine, Strother Martin, and R.G. Armstrong, to promising newcomers like Angie Dickinson, Warren Oates, and Charles Bronson (the last starring in "The Outlaw," one of the season's finest episodes). Each episode is accompanied by background information and guest-star profiles, and while picture quality is quite good overall, the audio quality suffers from a low-level mix with noticeable hiss from aged source materials. Fortunately, this won't prevent anyone from enjoying a first-rate TV series that thrived for another five seasons, until cancellation in 1963. --Jeff Shannon
Richard Boone, Lisa Lu. Meet Paladin, a high-society gentleman who leads a double life as a justice-seeking gunfighter. Includes all 39 first-season episodes from this classic Western TV series: Three Bells to Perdido" (pilot episode), The Outlaw" (with Charles Bronson), Hey Boy's Revenge" and more. 39 episodes on 6 DVDs. 1957-58/b&w/17 hrs/NR/fullscreen.