David Mamet is reportedly developing a new version of Have Gun — Will Travel for the network that first presented the series in 1957, CBS. It’s a great idea, since the central character Paladin, played by Richard Boone, is very much in the Mamet tradition of well-spoken but violent, meticulous yet profane protagonists. Take off his holster, and Paladin would have fit right in among the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross (Paladin is the only TV Western hero who handed out business cards) or on Mamet’s earlier CBS drama, The Unit.
Have Gun ran from 1957 to 1963, and stood in stark contrast to the most popular Westerns of that era, the squares-ville Gunsmoke and the more tongue-in-cheek Warner Bros.-produced shows such as Cheyenne and Sugarfoot. Have Gun — Will Travel signaled its break with standard TV Westerns right from its opening. Paladin, unlike other heroes, dressed in black. The first thing you saw was not the man but his gun and holster, the latter embossed with a white knight chess piece. You saw Paladin draw the gun, point it straight at the viewer, and heard Boone articulate a kind of credo, that he would not hesitate to kill you if you didn’t do as he said:
The premise was that, for a fee, you could hire Paladin’s services: His business card read “Have Gun — Will Travel. Wire Paladin, San Francisco.” He was a highly educated man who, when he wasn’t in his black work clothes, dressed in fancy black suits and ties, smoked expensive cigars and brooded over works of literature and philosophy. Have Gun was a canny combination of the Western and detective genres; in many episodes, Paladin had to figure out whether the person who’d hired him was telling the truth, and often the job he’d signed on for required investigation and deduction to prove exactly who was the bad guy in any given scenario.
By the time he got to Have Gun, Richard Boone had a resume that was heavy on heavies, most notably in director Budd Boetticher’s great 1957 feature-film Western The Tall T, in which he was one of the few actors who could hold the screen with hero Randolph Scott. In The Tall T, Boone was a cackling meanie who insisted that he and Scott were different sides of the same coin, loners who wouldn’t hesitate to commit violence for reasons that might transcend morality. Boone sold that idea wonderfully, and did it again as Palladin, only in fancier duds.
The series featured a number of scripts written by future Star Trek auteur Gene Roddenberry, and among its episode directors was the to-this-day underrated Ida Lupino, one of Hollywood’s rare female directors in TV and film.
I can see what might have drawn Mamet to this project: The chance to portray the paradox of an intelligent gun-slinger; the chance to work with one main character as he moves from case to case each week; to participate in contemporary TV’s revival of the Western without necessarily joining in on the grungy-realism trope that was put in place by David Milch’s Deadwood.
And yes, I used to own a toy Paladin gun and holster; oh, to have that pistol now, to wear into EW TV meetings…