It was on TV from 1957 to 1963. It was the reason that we kept Netflix streaming when we dropped the disk subscription. We watched it all 221 episodes, mostly over dinner. Have Gun - Will Travel may have been the best TV show of its era.
HG-WT starred Richard Boone as Paladin, a gentleman, man of fashion and learning and a gunfighter. He lived in post-Gold Rush San Francisco. It still showed some rough edges as a frontier town, but the Carlton Hotel, where he resided, was the peak of civilization. When he was in town, he dressed in elegant brocades and opera cloaks, ate gourmet meals and intrigued with fashionable ladies. But he also read newspapers from every frontier territory in the west. When he found a problem that he thought he could solve, he sent a note along with his business card.
The card shows a chess knight and the words "Have Gun - Will Travel/Wire Paladin/San Francisco". The card has its own theme, written by Bernard Hermann, that is played when the card comes out, which happens in every episode.
When he is on business, he wears his working clothes, all black, with a black hat and a black holster with silver (possibly platinum) chess knight on it. He is very good with this gun. Possibly the fastest in the West.
Boone is wonderful in this role. His lumpy face, with its big nose and silly little mustache, does not look like either a lover's or a fighter's, but he was very convincing as either. He was at his best when he was concerned, peeved or outraged. He hated injustice or cruelty. He had a great sense of humor and a large, uninhibited laugh. But when he was worried, his fingers twitched by his gunbelt, ready for action.
He knew how to use his fists as well (although confidentially, a blow to the back of the head would take him out of action for a few hours). Paladin's spirited scrapping probably owes more to stuntman Hal Needham. He went on to double for John Wayne and to direct Smokey and the Bandit, he got his start doubling for Boone.
He wasn't the only great supporting actor on the show. We see Lee Van Cleef, James Coburn, George Kennedy and Charles Bronson, Whit Bissell, Mike Connors, Strother Martin and Ken Kurtis, Duane Eddy, L.Q. Jones and Jack Elam, even Vincent Price playing a ham actor. But even when the faces aren't familiar, the actors, and especially the actresses, seem to be delivering a lot more than expected.
It might be the directors - Andrew McLaglen did the honors most often, and he was indeed Victor McLaglen's son. Others were directed by Sam Peckinpah, Ida Lupino and Boone himself. Lupino's work was notable for the great fight scenes. Boone's episodes often had small touches of classic black-and-white cinema, close-ups with beautiful studio lighting that really stood out among the 2- and 3-light shots.
We also get shown some beautiful scenery, with whole episodes taking place in the wilderness, mostly around Bishop, Lone Pine or Bend OR. Admittedly, we do see the same 2 or 3 Old West town back lot sets over and over, but that doesn't really make any difference. Some of the best episodes are set on a single soundstage set, perfect little one-act plays.
Because the real star of the series was the writing. The stories tend to be as sophisticated as Paladin himself. They are often tragic - the classic plot is: A father hires Paladin to find his son and bring him to justice. Usually, the job is to make sure he is hung by the authorities and not lynched. The father doesn't want Paladin to free the son, not if the son is guilty. But he wants him punished with dignity. Sometimes the son is innocent, and Paladin can help him. Sometimes, he is guilty due to a momentary lapse, and, although it is terrible, he must pay. Even when he is just plain evil, Paladin makes us see the tragedy of his inevitable doom.
Of course, not every episode is tragic. Some have happy endings, with the bad guys gettting a come-uppance, or the enemies reconciled and everyone sharing a laugh and a feast. Some of them had women at the core, deceitful yet alluring women. Not too surprisingly, these are often written by Gene Roddenberry.
Another repeated theme is prejudice - against Armenians, Mexicans, Indians, Chinese, Jews, Gypsies and even African Americans. I felt that they were pussyfooting around the civil rights fights with Armenians or Chinese standing in for blacks, but several episodes were very specifically about equal rights for the recently freed slaves. A lot of these scripts are written by Shimon Wincelberg, with sensitivity and understanding of prejudice and oppression.
Since I mentioned Chinese, I have to talk about Hey Boy. In San Francisco, Paladin's factotum and comic foil is the Carlton Hotel's Chinese bellboy called Hey Boy. He is not ashamed of the name - when someone calls him Hey You, he corrects him. Although he is pretty much the stereotyped bowing Chinese gofer, as played by Kam Tong, he has a real personality, and a life in his immigrant community. A few episodes deal with his family and the San Francisco Chinatown. If he is a stereotype, he is a well-rounded one, and when he mutters in Chinese, Paladin knows enough of the language to reply in kind.
I would love to tell you more about this series, my favorite episodes, like the one based on Paladin's knowledge of molybdenum, or the one with Odetta. I could talk about Paladin's knowledge of cooking or his discernment of fine whiskey - he may have encouraged Jim Beam to bring his beverage to a wider audience in one episode. I could mention the love of his life, a bluestocking lady doctor, played by June Lockheart.
But really, you owe it to yourself to just watch these. Start at the beginning - the series is strongest in the first few seasons.
Now, I assume everyone has heard of Hec Ramsey?