Sunday, January 12, 2014

Johnny Western -- "The Ballad of Paladin" (1958)

His fast gun for hire heeds the calling wind
A soldier of fortune is the man called Paladin

Have Gun -- Will Travel was a half-hour Western that aired on CBS from 1957 through 1963.  I was in grade school during the run of Have Gun -- Will Travel, and I was a huge fan of Paladin, the one-named hero of the show portrayed by Richard Boone.

The paladins were the foremost warriors of Charlemagne's court -- the French equivalents of the Knights of the Round Table.

In epic poems such as The Song of Roland, the oldest surviving major work of French literature, they are Christian heroes who battle the infidel Muslims.

Like the medieval knights errant, Paladin is a paragon of chivalry.  He may work as a hired gun, but he doesn't work for just anyone.  Rather, he is happiest when retained to help an underdog who is a victim of injustice.

There were 225 episodes of Have Gun -- Will Travel, so we know almost everything about Paladin except his first name.

For example, we know that Paladin was a West Point graduate who fought in the Union Army in the Civil War.  It also appears that he was trained as a lawyer.

Paladin was very well read, and was fond of quoting Plato, Aristotle, St. Paul, Julius Caesar, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Byron, and Oscar Wilde.  He was an accomplished pianist, and enjoyed the opera and the theatre.  He was a gourmet and a wine authority, and savored fine cigars.  Not surprisingly, he was a master of chess and a feared opponent at the poker table.

Richard Boone as Paladin
When he was at home in the posh Hotel Carlton in San Francisco, Paladin usually wore either a frock-coated suit or a stylish smoking jacket.  When he was working, Paladin dressed in black from head to toe -- boots, trousers, shirt, and Stetson.  

While Paladin preferred to handle his clients' problems without resorting to violence, he excelled at fistfights and was a skilled swordsman.  He was also, of course, an expert with firearms.

But Paladin didn't prevail over his opponents due to superior strength or marksmanship -- he prevailed as the result of his superior knowledge of the art of war, which he gained from his extensive reading and his training and experience as a cavalry officer.

Paladin at work
Paladin's primary weapon was a custom-made .45-caliber Colt revolver, which he carried in a holster decorated with a silver chess knight.  Strapped to his saddle was a lever-action Marlin rifle with a stock decorated with additional silver chess knights, but he rarely used it.  He did resort regularly to the derringer that was concealed in his belt.

Paladin's famous business card -- it read "HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL" is large type, with "Wire Paladin, San Francisco" in smaller type below -- was also decorated with the figure of a chess knight.  In one episode, our hero drew a parallel between his modus operandi and the chess knight's moves: "It's an attack piece, the most versatile piece on the board.  It can move eight different ways [and] over barriers."

There was no one like Paladin on television back then, and there certainly isn't anyone like him on television now.  I suppose the character who is most analogous to him is James Bond, the elegant, cultured, and deadly spy created by Ian Fleming.

Paladin and Bond shared one particular interest: they both appreciated the fairer sex.  

Here's one episode of Have Gun -- Will Travel.  Note especially the show open, where Paladin draws his gun and points it at the camera while delivering one line from that episode.

Take a close look at the closing credits of that episode of Have Gun -- Will Travel while you listen to Johnny Western singing "The Ballad of Paladin."

The episode was produced by Sam Rolfe, who co-created the series.  Rolfe was nominated for an Academy Award for his original screenplay for the 1953 Western movie, The Naked Spur, which starred Jimmy Stewart.  Rolfe also produced The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  (Ian Fleming had come up with the "Napoleon Solo" name for the show's main character, but wasn't able to become more involved in the series due to his contract with the producers of the James Bond movies.)

Maureen O'Hara, Andrew McLaglen, and John
Wayne on the set of McClintock! (1963)
It was directed by Andrew McLaglen, the son of British actor Victor McLaglen, who is best known as John Wayne's co-star in several John Ford movies.  Andrew McLaglen, who directed about half of the Have Gun -- Will Travel episodes,  went on to direct a number of Western movies (several of which starred Wayne).  Other Have Gun -- Will Travel directors included actors William Conrad and Ida Lupino, the brilliant and mercurial Sam Peckinpah, and Richard Boone himself.

This particular Have Gun -- Will Travel episode was written by the best-selling novelist, Irving Wallace.  (Wallace and his son, David Wallechinsky, also wrote The People's Almanac and The Book of Lists.)

Other Have Gun -- Will Travel writers included Gene Roddenberry (the creator of Star Trek), Bruce Geller (the creator of Mission Impossible), and Harry Julian Fink (who along with his wife created the "Dirty Harry" character).

Besides Boone himself, the only actor who appeared regularly on Have Gun -- Will Travel was Kam Tong, who played "Hey Boy," the Chinese bellhop at the San Francisco hotel where Paladin resided.  Guest stars included Victor McLaglen, Pernell Roberts (better known as Adam Cartwright on Bonanza) June Lockhart (better known as the mother on Lassie and Lost in Space), legendary stuntman Hal Needham (who appeared in 26 episodes), Harry Carey, Jr. (thirteen episodes), George Kennedy (six), Denver Pyle (eight), and Charles Bronson (five).

Johnny Western (who was born Johnny Westerlund in a small town in northern Minnesota in 1934) was a country singer-songwriter who started performing professionally when he was 13.  After playing a supporting role in a first-season episode of Have Gun, Will Travel, he wrote "The Ballad of Paladin" as sort of a thank-you note to Richard Boone.  The song's first verse accompanied the show's closing credits in all subsequent seasons.

Here's Johnny Western's recording of "The Ballad of Paladin":

Click below to order the song from Amazon:

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