"Have Gun, Will Travel" reads the card of a man
A knight without armour in a savage land
His fast gun for hire heeds the calling wind
A soldier of fortune is the man called...Paladin
From 1957 to 1963, for six seasons and 225 half-hour episodes, big, mean-looking Richard Boone played Paladin, gentleman gun-for-hire in CBS’ Have Gun - Will Travel. Riding the crest of the more “adult-oriented” TV western wave that started a few years earlier with shows like Cheyenne and Gunsmoke, Have Gun - Will Travel became an instant ratings smash, and became one of the rare programs to inspire a radio version (which debuted in 1958) rather than the other way around.
Have Gun - Will Travel was a well-made show with good scripts and solid direction, but the lion’s share of its success is down to its star, Richard Boone.
Boone had all the ingredients needed to become a great western hero: he was big, looked convincing with a gun and had a deep, gravelly voice that instantly conveyed authority. But he also had something extra. His long, leathery face, Satanic moustache and steely-eyed gaze forever made him a dark, menacing figure; he used these to good effect as a heavy in many films prior to, and after, Have Gun - Will Travel. This slightly sinister aura made a nice contrast with the sophisticated side of the Paladin character: a well-read, well-traveled West Point graduate and bon vivant, who lives in a posh San Francisco hotel, regularly attends the opera, and is as handy with a line of poetry as he is with a Colt .45.
Most episodes start out with Paladin enjoying the life of leisure his high fees afford him. Paladin sees a newspaper story about some trouble brewing somewhere. He sends the beleaguered party his card, emblazoned with his symbol, a knight chess piece: "Have Gun – Will Travel. Wire Paladin, San Francisco". Or, almost as often, Paladin’s reputation for delivering results causes someone in trouble to seek him out and hire his services. Either way, the next thing we know, Paladin has arrived on the scene, no longer decked out in his dandy-ish city clothes, but dressed in his working gear, the quintessential Man in Black.
Paladin might be a mercenary of sorts, but he has a strong sense of moral justice, and will quickly change sides if he finds he’s been hired by someone out to do wrong. Though the series has plenty of action, more often than not, Paladin will work hard to get the two opposing sides in a particular situation to come to some sort of mutually-beneficial agreement.
Have Gun - Will Travel boasts a wide variety of story types. In season one alone we see Paladin settle a dispute between an Irish wildcatter and an Italian vintner (“Bitter Wine”); buy a camel and use it to run circles around a group of baddies chasing him through the desert in a battle for a town’s water rights (“The Great Mojave Chase,” written by Gene Roddenberry); play Pygmalion to an uncouth Calamity Jane type (“Ella West”); assist a female doctor trying to fight a smallpox epidemic (“The Return of Dr. Thackeray”); play lawyer to defend an accused killer (“Deliver the Body”), as well as all manner of other, more traditional western tales.
Luckily for we western fans that like to see the good guy shoot it out with the bad guys, there are still plenty of knuckleheads throughout the series who make the mistake of trying to draw down on Paladin. And he’s always ready to respond in kind.
In “Twenty Four Hours in North Fork,” with the stagecoach he’s riding sidelined due to a looming storm, Paladin finds himself stuck in a small town where the only mercantile store is run by bigoted Irish loudmouth Culligan. The local farmers are suffering from a wheat blight, and Culligan, the only business around for 95 miles, is offering them mere cents on the bushel. Culligan covets a Mennonite family’s farm and so treats them cruelly, refusing to sell them any supplies. Paladin steps in to defend a young woman, Tildy (Jacqueline Scott), taken in by the Mennonites to protect her from the advances of local thug Jud Polk (Brad Dexter).
Refused a room at the only hotel in town by Culligan, Paladin gratefully accepts the hospitality of Mennonite Maxim Bruckner (Morris Ankrum) and his family. He learns Tildy’s sad story: her alcoholic father sold her to Jud Polk, and only the Mennonites would risk Polk’s wrath and come to her aid. After Paladin learns that the Bruckner’s small wheat crop is free from blight, he sees a way to bring the Mennonites and the local farming community together, while ridding the town of the human blight of Culligan and his lackey Polk.
This leads to a great confrontation with Polk. Asked to avoid violence by the peace-loving Mr. Bruckner, Paladin nevertheless is forced to kill one gunman Culligan has employed to ambush him. The cowardly Polk grabs Tildy and holds her at gunpoint. “Hold still, Tildy,” Paladin calmly tells her, then shoots the hat off Polk’s head as a warning.
“She’s too small to hide all of you,” Paladin growls. “Now turn her loose before I start carving pieces out of you.”
Then to further ram his point home, he fires another shot, this time deliberately barely grazing Polk's shoulder. Polk lets Tildy go and throws his gun into the dust. “Don’t kill me, mister,” he pleads, “She ain’t worth the killing.”
Paladin smiles grimly and removes his gunbelt. “If this is a sin, I’m going to enjoy it more than any I’ve committed.” Then he proceeds to beat the tar out of Polk.
Have Gun - Will Travel frequently touches upon the multicultural background of frontier America. A nice touch here shows Paladin fully aware not only of the Mennonite’s history of peaceful prosperity in Pennsylvania, predating the Revolutionary War, but also their roots in the Crimea.
Another neat aspect of the show is how every episode opens with a side profile of Paladin (face unseen) drawing his gun, pointing it at the audience and rumbling out a line that would appear later in the episode, then replacing his gun back in its holster. Cue credits and famed composer Bernard Herrman’s ominous theme, “Dum dum, dum dum…” (Listen to the opening theme here).
“Twenty Four Hours at North Fork,” episode 36 (!!) of the first season, is a typically fun and offbeat outing, with fine performances by veteran supporting players Morris Ankrum, Karl Swensen (who would go on to play Lars Hanson on Little House on the Prairie), Jacqueline Scott and Brad Dexter (most famous to western fans for his portrayal of Harry, one of The Magnificent Seven). The episode, along with many others, was directed by Andrew V. McLagen (son of Victor), who would direct many fine later period westerns, such as Shenandoah, McClintock, Bandolero, The Undefeated and Chisum.
Have Gun - Will Travel wasn’t the first time the intimidating Boone had played a hero in a TV series. He headlined Medic (1954-1956) as Dr. Konrad Styner (recently available on DVD from Timeless Media Group). But it was the role of Paladin that fit him like a glove and made him famous. His presence alone makes Have Gun - Will Travel easily one of the best and most distinctive of 50s and 60s TV westerns.
DVD Note: Paramount initially released the first three seasons of Have Gun - Will Travel on DVD back in the mid-2000s, with transfers that ranged from very good to merely so-so. After a gap of several years, the studio has resumed putting the series out, and has released seasons 4 and 5 with reportedly more pristine picture quality, albeit in the split volume sets dreaded by vintage TV-on-DVD enthusiasts. Time will tell if we'll see the 6th and final season released. (Update: in a welcome move, the sixth and final season of Have Gun - Will Travel was released in one complete season set in May 2013 by Paramount.)
Banacek was a show I had no knowledge of growing up in the 70s. Later, of course, I knew star George Peppard as Hannibal from The A-Team. That program made a much larger impact on popular culture, but watching both now, it's obvious that Banacek is the far superior show.
Banacek was one of three TV-movie length shows featured on the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie (itself a spinoff of the original NBC Mystery Movie, with McCloud, Columbo and McMillan & Wife). In its first season, Banacek alternated with Madigan (with Richard Widmark) and Cool Million (with James Farentino), and with The Snoop Sisters and Tenafly in its second.
Like the other spokes in the NBC Mystery Movie wheel, Banacek was light-hearted rather than its grittier contemporaries Police Story, Baretta or The Streets of San Francisco. There were so many cop and detective shows on TV in the 70s that it was necessary to have a diversity of tones. Banacek stands up today as stylish entertainment, its breezy dialogue, interesting lead character and frequently ingenious puzzle plots providing a nice evening's viewing. All these elements are fully in place in the series' extended-length pilot, "Detour to Nowhere."
The story opens on a lonely stretch of road cutting through the Texas desert. An armored truck carrying 1.6 million in gold, followed closely by a single police car escort, is making its way to the Oklahoma border, where more cops are waiting. Suddenly a sniper shoots out the tire of the cop car, sending it careening off to the side of the road.
The armored truck keeps on driving. The cops change the tire as quickly as they can and speed off. They meet the Oklahoma cops at a road block set up a few miles from the border. Tracks from the armored truck lead off through the sand and end at the side of a cliff. Strewn on the rocks below are the bodies of the two guards, both shot. The truck itself is nowhere to be found.
Enter Thomas Banacek.
Banacek is a freelance "recovery agent" based in Boston, and makes a very nice living on his 10% finder's fee. He likes the finer things in life, has a large house filled with antiques, smokes expensive cigars and tools around town in a mint-condition 1942 Packard. He also has some fancy (by 70s standards) gadgets, like a remote control that engages a panel to slide up, revealing a large TV screen. Banacek pops in what looks like an 8-track tape and watches news footage about the armored truck heist. When the announcer says that the insurance company, National Meridian, has had no luck finding the missing car and the gold, Banacek smiles smugly to himself. He's going to enjoy this case, as he has a special grudge against National Meridian.
At National Meridian's headquarters, McKinney is getting chewed out by his boss, Cavanaugh. Seems McKinney has 11 agents working the armored truck case, with no leads after 2 months' work. But Cavanaugh knows that what McKinney really wants is to keep Banacek from getting involved.
McKinney: I ran Banacek through the computer system once. He's got a success factor of less than 65%.
Cavanaugh: I read that report. It was 66%. That's a lot better than we do.
Banacek saunters into the office and starts looking at the case file. A worried McKinney goes out to meet him, putting on a front that he's got the case all sown up.
McKinney: On second thought, I wouldn't mind seeing you on this case too. Might learn a little humility.
Banacek: You, or me?
Banacek decides to play with McKinney a bit. He asks for a copy of the agent list, then goes out to the elevators and watches McKinney freak out. Banacek smiles, crumples up the useless copy, dumps it in the wastebasket and departs.
Next stop: his friend, bookshop owner Felix (Murray Matheson), who acts as Banacek's personal Wikipedia. An attractive woman browsing the shelves shows an inordinate interest in their conversation.
Banacek hits her with one of his lines. "You don't look married. Are you?" She gives her name as Carlie Kirkland (Christine Belford), and arranges a "meet cute" later that day, outside Banacek's gym. They head back to his place for dinner, and he tells her what he does for a living. They end up discussing the case, and we get the first of Banacek's famous Polish (1) proverbs: "If your socks are not in your shoes, don't look for them in heaven." Meaning, the truck didn't just disappear...it has to be somewhere.
We also learn a little more about Banacek's personal philosophy.
Carlie: (looking around at all his antiques): Don't you like anything new?
Banacek: You're new. At least to me.
Carlie: You know what I mean.
Banacek: It's not a question of old or new, it's a question of good or bad. We've got about...maybe, 10 years of new. And thousands of years of old.
Banacek: Well, the odds are, there are more good old things than new ones.
By this point, Banacek lays his cards on the table. He knows Carlie works for National Meridian. "An insurance investigator, That must be very interesting work."
Carlie gets angry that he's known for over an hour and acted otherwise. She storms out, and we get another of Banacek's "cat who ate the cream" grins.
The next day, Banacek arrives in Dallas and meets limo driver Jay Drury (Ralph Manza), who he instructs to drive him to the small town of Vantage, where the armored truck went missing. Jay is a short, talkative second generation Sicilian who has changed his name from Ducinello.
On the long drive through the desert, we learn, albeit obliquely, why Banacek has it in for the National Meridian corporation. His father was a mathematician who worked for the company faithfully for 20 years, before being replaced by a computer. Jay also queries Banacek about his old-world name.
Jay: You ever think about changing your name, Mr. Banacek? Like to Banning or something. You could do it real easy. Nobody would ever know you was Polish.
Banacek: I would.
These two confessions, rare from the aloof Banacek, tell us a lot about what kind of person he is. He's not just a frivolous playboy. He's proud of his cultural heritage, and his lavish lifestyle is partly his way of paying back the big corporations for screwing the little guy. His arrogance comes from putting in the hard work necessary to be the best at what he does. In other words, he has his own personal code of honor, like all good detectives.
They arrive in Vantage and Banacek meets local reporter Earl Lewis (Russell Wiggins). Banacek's interested in a seemingly-unrelated killing of a local drunk, Charlie Burns. Burns allegedly attacked the local sheriff with a knife and the sheriff killed him in self-defense. Banacek goes with Earl to the town saloon, to get some more information about Charlie from the bartender. The bartender and Earl wonder why Banacek thinks the two cases are linked. "The odds," Banacek says. "Other than hunting accidents, there hasn't been a killing in Vantage in 16 years. Yet within the last 8 weeks, you've had 3."
Next, we get a very entertaining version of that old chestnut from cowboy movies, the saloon challenge. A local troublemaker is roughhousing with one of his buddies and crashes into Banacek, spilling his drink. Banacek tells the man the least he could do is buy him a new beer to replace it.
Local tough (snarling): It was an accident.
Banacek: That's why I'm smiling.
The man orders a beer and slowly pours it down Banacek's shirt.
"I really wish you hadn't done that," says Banacek calmly, then knocks the thug unconscious with a quick backfist to the face.
The bartender tells Banacek that Charlie Burns was buddies with Joe Hawk (Victor Mohica), a petty thief now locked up in jail. Banacek heads to the jail and asks Sheriff Jessup (Don Dubbins) if he can talk to Joe alone. The sheriff refuses. "Joe's dangerous."
Banacek has Jay drive him out to the scene of the crime. When they return to the motel, Banacek finds a surprise waiting for him. Carlie, in a nightgown. "I wanted to apologize for last night." They share a nightcap.
Carlie: But remember, I do work for McKinney. And I'm gonna beat you to that armored truck.
Banacek: No you're not. As good as you are at your job, I'm better.
Banacek: You know what just ended? (Leans in to kiss her) The small talk.
Next morning, Jay drives up with a old beatup truck Banacek had him buy. They drive out to the prison work detail, and Jay distracts the deputy with a cold beer so Banacek can have a private word with Joe Hawk. Joe grudgingly tells Banacek that there's no way that old Charlie would have pulled a knife on the sheriff. Charlie had been beaten so bad by the sheriff once that he went out of his way to avoid him.
Jessup walks up and tells Banacek to take a hike. The sheriff tells Joe that he'll get released today if he gives Banacek a good thrashing, to teach him to quit asking questions. Joe goes after Banacek, who thumps him around a little and then offers him $100 if he'll come talk to him later that night. Joe agrees, and they stage the fight to make it look to the watching sheriff like Banacek had his hash cleaned.
Banacek drives out to the old shack where Joe and Charlie were staying. He finds a few curious tools, then hears a dune buggy roar up outside. He walks outside to see Geoff Holden, the last player in this game, pointing a rifle at him. Seems Holden owns most of the land around these parts, and has big plans to put in a huge retirement community.
Land developer and good ole boy Geoff Holden (Ed Nelson). Once he knows who Banacek is, Holden grins wide and invites him out to his ranch for a cool drink. "I'm glad I'm the one that found you," he says. "Got a couple of fellas working for me, they're the type to shoot first and ask questions later...know what I mean?"
Holden takes Banacek to his palatial ranchhouse, replete with huge swimming pool and a bevy of bikini-clad babes and other hangers-on. They meet Earl there, driving another red dune buggy. Holden is Earl's uncle, and owns the newspaper which Earl runs. Banacek compliments Holden on his taste, especially when, in actual fact, Holden is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Holden laughs this off, telling Banacek that living on the cutting edge like he does makes it even sweeter when he succeeds.
Holden introduces Banacek to various ladyfriends around the pool, including his main squeeze.
Holden: "What kind of name is Banacek, anyway? Pollack?
Holden (sensing the temperature drop 10 degrees): I'm sorry. No offense.
Banacek: Not if you didn't mean any.
Poolside, Banacek sees none other than Carlie. Apparently, when Banacek left her early in the morning, she met Holden in the hotel restaurant and he swept her off to the ranch. Carlie is annoyed when Banacek doesn't seem the least bit jealous. They drive back to town together.
Later that night, Joe calls and tells Banacek to meet him at the shack. But before Joe can tell him anything, he's shot down by a sniper's bullet. Dying, Joe shoves something into Banacek's hand.
A grim Banacek returns to the hotel, sees Carlie asleep, and calls Felix back in Boston. Seems Charlie and Joe were using a geiger counter to loot Kashada (made-up name alert!) Indian graves. Charlie found the armored truck buried under the sand and was killed for it. "Come back to Boston, Thomas," Felix warns. "Soon," Banacek replies.
A tired and rumpled Banacek awakens at 6 a.m. the next morning to find both Carlie and Jay gone. Seems both overheard his conversation the night before, Jay having bribed the receptionist to let him listen in on Banacek's call. A rueful Carlie tells Banacek that Jay beat her to the punch. Jay has called in the FBI and a local construction crew and is digging all over the area where Banacek said the truck was buried. Jay apologizes to Banacek; it was his one chance at the brass ring. Banacek wishes him luck.
Carlie: Incredible. Him you congratulate. But me...and I didn't even get here first.
Banacek: Well, I don't know if this explains it, but...all Jay and I shared was a limousine.
However, to Jay's consternation, they fail to find the truck. "Friends?" A sheepish Jay extends his hand. "Sure," Banacek says, shaking it.
Looking casually around, Banacek sees the dune buggy tracks and has one of those "eureka" moments so beloved in detective fiction. Suddenly, the whole crime and how it was done has snapped into place in his mind. Trouble is, the sheriff, Earl and Holden have noticed him putting two and two together.
As Banacek is driving back to town, the sheriff pursues him, and runs him off the road near some rocks. Earl pulls up in his dune buggy and is zeroing his rifle in on Banacek when Jay comes zooming in from out of nowhere and crashes the limo into the dune buggy, sending Earl sprawling. Banacek nips around the rocks, grabs the rifle and holds it on Sheriff Jessup.
Banacek: I'm just glad you came back.
Jay: I had to come back. I remembered all of a sudden, you still owed me 2 days rent on this thing."
The case wrapped up and Earl and Jessup behind bars, Banacek leads the others (including the innocent Holden, plus Carlie and Jay) through a step-by-step reconstruction of the crime. This is one of the highlights of every Banacek episode, as he demonstrates yet again why he's the master at his job. I won't reveal the full details of the heist here, except to say that it's suitably clever and the explanation (mostly) makes sense.
"Well, you've told us everything but exactly where (the truck) is," Carlie says.
Next to the roadblock, on the opposite side from the tracks leading to the cliff, Banacek explains. "And tell McKinney, I expect my check by the end of next week."
We finish with Carlie talking to a TV news crew at the site of the truck's recovery.
Reporter: Amazing, Ms. Kirkland. I mean, it was found just where you said it would be.
Carlie (flatly): Yes. Amazing.
Reporter: Your company must be very pleased.
Carlie: Yes, of course.
Reporter: Your investigator did a good job, didn't he?
Carlie: Well, um...he wasn't our investigator. As a matter of fact, he doesn't even work for our company.
Reporter: Really?...Wait a minute, I have his name somewhere here. Polish or something...
Carlie: I'm sure I don't remember...
Reporter: Here it is. Bana-sek. That's right...T. Bana-sek.
Cut to Banacek, back rowing on the Boston river, looking directly to camera.
"Detour to Nowhere" serves as a great introduction to a pleasingly proud, ethnic character. Peppard tempers his smugness with just enough likeability and toughness to get the audience on his side. In his own, very 1970s American way, he's carrying on in the tradition of famous private sleuths like Lord Peter Wimsey or Poirot, his superior "little grey cells" showing up the slower-witted authorities. Peppard has a way about him, a slight standoffishness that fits the character perfectly. We'll never know for sure what's going on behind that cool facade, but it's sure fun following him around.
Banacek would go on for another sixteen 73-minute episodes. Christine Belford later would return as Carlie Kirkland for most of the second season (Belford isn't as glamorous or attractive as most Banacek love interests would be, but at least she's not Diana Muldaur, who mars every viewing of McCloud for me), and both Felix and Jay became regular characters. The pilot doesn't boast the sort of bigger "name" actors that would often crop up in later Banacek stories (like Sterling Hayden, Broderick Crawford, Victor Jory, Stella Stevens, Anne Francis, Pernell Roberts, Scott Brady, Anne Baxter, John Saxon, Stephanie Powers and Cesar Romero), but the supporting cast do their jobs well. The story is tight and the script witty.
A sort of bridge between the more colorful and flashy detective heroes from the 60s and the more gritty, realistic depictions common in the 70s, Banacek comes highly recommended.
(1) Funnily enough, all of his "Polish" sayings were made up by the writers.
Talking about all sorts of television, especially the good old stuff...
Be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed below, to be informed of new postings!
Neat-O Keen-O TV Blogs
Double O Section
From the Archive
(a British Television Blog)
The Classic TV History Blog (Stephen Bowie's site)
The Stupendously, Amazingly Cool World of Old TV
Cathode Ray Tube
Other Cool TV Sites