Directed by: Andrew V. McLaglen
Written by: Don Brinkley
Paladin – RICHARD BOONE
Dr. Phyllis Thackery – JUNE LOCKHART
Reverend Jeremiah Mulrooney – GRANT WITHERS
Mr. Jonas – WHIT BISSELL
(Episode Synopsis: After discovering a Typhoid Fever-stricken family stranded in the wildnerness, noble gunslinger Paladin must face down a fanatical religious leader)
Being born in 1983, I woefully missed out on a ton of cool pop culture treasures. Among them were classic TV Westerns from the late 50s and early 60s. Instead, I was raised as a 90s kid and enjoyed that decade’s programs, including Lonesome Dove, the CBS television remake of The Magnificent Seven, and my personal favorite, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. Don’t get me wrong: they were all fine additions to the genre, and really, how can you go wrong with cult pop favorite Bruce Campbell sporting a ten-gallon hat and a country drawl to match that frontier-sized chin of his?
Years later, however, I gained a newfound fascination towards classic Western of the so-called “Golden Age of Television.” This fascination was born during the 2020 Covid-19 shutdown, when I needed a new outlet to alleviate my quarantine-induced boredom. So I decided to brush up on a few vintage TV Westerns with the help of YouTube and IMDB. In my explorations I discovered several action-packed, highly-entertaining programs that further ignited my lifelong love for this genre of fiction.
One such program is Have Gun - Will Travel, a half-hour Western adventure-thriller that originally aired on CBS from 1957 through 1963. Like probably many others of my generation, I first became familiar with the show from the great 1986 coming-of-age film Stand By Me. In it is a pivotal scene where its four young heroes enthusiastically sing Have Gun’s theme song while walking the train tracks during their journey (“Have gun, will travel reads the card of the man! A knight without armor in savage land!”). I became enthralled with the song and its origins. Later I would understand the kids’ passion for the show. Have Gun – Will Travel owes its success to its hero, a suave, sharply-dressed, yet tough and morally-upright mercenary named Paladin (Richard Boone, 1917-1981).
Unlike your more typically rugged Old West gunfighters, Paladin was in a unique class all his own. For one, he had an impeccable fashion sense: his civilian wardrobe consisted of clean riverboat gambler-style suits complete with a top hat. And while on the job, he donned menacing yet stylish black suits complete with a matching black Stetson. As if he wasn’t slick enough, he came equipped with his own business cards that read, “Have Gun Will Travel – Wire Paladin, San Francisco.” The backs of the cards, along with his black gun holster, were symbolically adorned with a Knight Chess Piece.
It was befitting that Paladin would choose the Knight Chess piece as his signature emblem, since he took a more chivalrous approach to conflict resolution compared to other TV gunslingers. While he would be armed with the customary pistols, Paladin’s most powerful weapons would be his intellect and strong personal code of honor. He primarily relied on his wits and logic to outsmart his enemies, before ultimately resorting to violence when necessary. Even more notable was his iron-clad moral fiber. Sure, Paladin’s strutted in flashy clothes. And ordinarily he charged hefty prices for his trouble-shooter services to anyone who could afford them. But beneath that superficiality, Paladin had a deep-rooted compunction for justice. He was an avenger, a warrior who fought for those who couldn’t fend for themselves. So driven Paladin was to aid victims of evil-doers that he often tackled crises that required his skills free of charge, just to see justice served. If that doesn’t describe what an Old West knight should resemble, what in hellfire could?
There are plenty of episodes in Have Gun’s six year run where Paladin was forced to put his special gallantry to the test. One particular that stood out in my mind is “No Visitors,” the 12th episode of the show’s first season from 1957, directed by veteran genre master Andrew V. McLaglen. Our hero had faced his share of dangerous situations and battled villains of varying natures before. But in “No Visitors,” we see a furious, more desperate side in Paladin as he locks horns with an especially vicious and unorthodox enemy. In my eyes, it’s quite possibly the most gripping TV Western episodes ever unleashed.
At the show’s beginning we see Paladin riding through a prairie when he comes upon a seemingly abandoned covered wagon. Inquisitively he investigates the wagon and encounters an armed woman threatening to blow his head off. To his shock, Paladin learns that the woman, Clara Benson, is mother to a crying baby afflicted with the dreaded typhoid fever inside the wagon. Benson explains they were both left to die in the wilderness by their wagon-master, a certain Reverend Jeremiah Mulrooney. Paladin’s Good Samaritan instincts naturally kick in as he rides off to fetch a doctor at the nearby town. He is met with paranoid hostility by both the townsfolk and the wagon-master himself, Mulrooney (Silent Film actor Grant Withers). The reverend boldly insists he was forced to abandon Benson and her baby in order to protect the rest of their wagon train from being stricken with typhoid. Mulrooney decrees it was the “Lord’s will” to sacrifice the mother and child as a means of preventing their alleged typhoid infection from becoming an epidemic.
Therein lies the stunning beauty of “No Visitors”. Rather than a standard shoot-em-up Western, we’re slammed with a heart-wrenching societal dilemma, a grim slice of reality wrapped in an Old West situation. From their own POVs, both Paladin and Mulrooney feel they are doing the right thing. Paladin wants to save Benson and her baby from their horrible, lonely fate. Clearly, he has nothing personally vested in their situation, with no profitable gain to be made. But being the moralistic figure that he is, Paladin will not idly stand by and let innocents die in the wilderness. The Bible passage-sprouting Mulrooney, on the other hand, feels it is ultimately the best interest of his town to let the two typhoid-sufferers die, just to save everyone else. Despite his cruelty, Mulrooney also feels a responsibility to his flock, or so he seems.
Their feud raises agonizing questions. Does Paladin have the right to endanger the surrounding populace by getting Clara and her child to safety? And what of Mulrooney, whose delusional John the Baptist-like ravings have stirred the local settlement’s fears with an alleged pestilence? Who is Mulrooney to make that brutal judgement call, to sentence Clara Benson and her babe to death? To Paladin, the “gospel according to Mulrooney” is nothing more than murder falsely represented as divine will.
Adding a much-needed depth of humanity to the fray is Phyllis Thackery (June Lockhart of Lost in Space fame), the town’s only lady doctor who Paladin recruits to provide treatment for the mother and child. Dr. Thackery is Paladin’s strongest ally and second voice of reason in the entire episode. Amidst the growing fog of hysteric paranoia created by Mulrooney and his flock versus Paladin’s headstrong heroism is Thackery’s gentler, more humane approach to the crisis. Lockhart’s presence may remind Western audiences of a certain 1990’s Western drama called Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman, also about a humane frontier doctor (played by Jane Seymour) who uses proper medical expertise during times of historically rugged uncertainty.
As per the classic heroic television formula, Paladin manages to best the heavy odds against by defeating the torch-bearing Mulrooney and rescuing the Bensons in the process. After all, Paladin’s adventures continue for six more years in the airwaves. But TV conventions aside, “No Visitors” is an outstanding character-driven thriller thanks to some striking performances. Special guest star Grant Withers is fantastically vile as Mulrooney, whose forked tongue facade as a frontier prophet made you truly love to hate him. Nothing chaps my ass more than a religious fraud who uses the Bible as a shield for their hate, and Withers delivers that frontage wholesale. As for our series star, Richard Boone was always a tremendous actor, from his big screen film appearances to his most famous pop culture contribution with Have Gun – Will Travel. But in “No Visitors,” Boone is at his most powerful. He encaptulates goodness with unstoppable yet convincing bravery. I couldn’t help but be hypnotized by his driven defiance against the sanctimonious Mulrooney. When words prove insufficient, Paladin exhibits a thunderous prowess with a bullwhip which he wields Indiana Jones-style to disarm the trigger-happy Mulrooney. No wonder Washington DC-based crime novelist George Pelecanos once described Richard Boone as a “proto-badass;” I couldn’t convey a better description than that.
For those curious to explore TV Westerns of yesteryear, there’s plenty of quality material to choose from. But for anyone interested in a show that’s two parts action and character, then I recommend you give Have Gun – Will Travel a serious whirl. Vintage heroism was never deeper and exciting than this.