Friday, November 18, 2011


With the advent of television, many advertising agencies representing high-profile sponsors attempted to convince their clients to branch away from radio. Television was the popular “rave” and they were convinced the boob tube would become profitable only if they jumped in with both feet during the earliest stages of experimental broadcasting. Numerous successful television programs made the crossover into radio, the exact opposite of what would be expected, in an effort to commercially promote products through both markets. Space Patrol, Tom Corbett and Howdy Doody began on television first, then attempted to branch out into radio. On the Western frontier, Have Gun-Will Travel became another statistic.
John Dehner dressed in black in The Rifleman.
“There was a story to Have Gun-Will Travel,” John Dehner recalled months before his death in 1992. “Dick Boone was doing it on television and while he was doing it, we also were doing the radio version. They thought it would be a good idea -- whoever the ‘they’ are -- but they thought it would be a good idea to take the scripts that were being used on television, convert them to radio and whola, you have a radio show, not having to pay any money for a new script.”

It isn’t known exactly who came up with the idea of doing HGWT on radio, but theories have been tossed around. Some believe that CBS wanted to bring another western to radio simply to sell commercial time and make a profit. Larry Dobkin, a supporting actor on both the radio and television version, commented: “Well, there was little stirring interest in radio westerns because Gunsmoke held its audience in radio… It could be that somebody said, ‘That’s a good idea. Why don’t we add another Western?’ But I don’t know that as a fact.”

Another and more logical theory (supported by paperwork that suggests these are the true facts) is that Norm Macdonnell was the man responsible. “There were definite ill feelings between Norm and the television crew responsible for Gunsmoke,” actor Ben Wright explained. “They took that [radio] show away from him. He had no say in who or what went on the [television] air. He later became a producer for the [television] program and that settled a little. I think Norm came up with the idea for doing the radio version of Have Gun, possibly to show them that ‘Hey, look what I can do with your program and I did it even better.’ But don’t take my word for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Norm originated the idea of doing the radio version.” 

On November 8, 1958, Norman Macdonnell conducted three voice tests, hoping to choose the right actor for the role. Harry Bartell, Vic Perrin and John Dehner delivered the lines from the opening scenes of “Strange Vendetta.” “We three were called in for those tests,” Harry Bartell recalled. “I don’t know if it was Norm Macdonnell who suggested us or not. I know we were the only three to do those voice tests.” What should be noted is that none of the four primary actors on radio’s Gunsmoke were tested for the role, suggesting Macdonnell’s involvement.

John Dehner ultimately won the role, ironic when you consider that Dehner was among the men offered the role of Matt Dillon in early 1952, but turned it down because he didn’t want to be typecast in a Western. Dehner chose to play the role of Paladin his own way, without attempting to reproduce the television counterpart. “I didn’t pay any attention to him [Boone] at all. It was whatever came out of me. I knew that it would be deadly if I were to imitate him or do anything that was even vaguely similar to him. His Paladin was strictly Dick Boone. And I am not about to imitate. So I just did it the way I felt it.”

“John Dehner was a very sweet guy. I was fond of him,” Lillian Buyeff recalled. “He was a very serious person, but he did have a sense of humor. One of my favorite people. I remember Norm MacDonnell -- both of them were treasures. Words cannot express the company I kept.” 

John Dehner dressed in black in The Rifleman.
Three days after the voice tests, an audition was cut, acted out by a staff of talented radio actors, to the script of “Strange Vendetta.” The board at CBS approved and four days later, “Ella West” became the first fully-recorded episode of radio’s Have Gun-Will Travel. “Ella West” would, however, become the third broadcast in the series. In the beginning, for the first couple of months, there was a mad dash to record the episodes for scheduled broadcast. “Strange Vendetta” was recorded a second time, one that would pass for network airing, as opposed to the audition. It was recorded two days before the series premiere. “Road to Wickenburg,” the second episode of the series, was performed and recorded only hours before network airing. (Had the recording session been late, “Ella West” would instead have probably aired in that time slot.)

The first 30 plus radio scripts were adaptations of television dramas, all from the first or second season of the television program. The script writers who wrote the teleplays were never paid any residuals for the reuse of their scripts or plots, which at times were dramatized on radio word-for-word. “We were give a huge stack of television scripts and asked by Norm to try and make radio scripts from them,” John Dawson recalled. “We had to shorten the 26 to 30-page scripts into short 22-page radio dramas. We kind of divided the scripts, Frank Michael and Ann Doud and I, by the authors. I was in admiration of Gene Roddenberry’s work, so I grabbed all of his scripts. We were allowed to use any dialogue from the scripts, but I found I had to re-word some of it so descriptive actions could be portrayed.”

Norman Macdonnell directed the episodes himself, using most of the same crew from his Gunsmoke radio program. “We were all of a group that stayed pretty much together,” Dehner recalled. “There was Bill Conrad, Tony Ellis, myself, Norm Macdonnell, John Meston, Parley Baer, Harry Bartell, Virginia Gregg, Larry Dobkin… we saw each other every week. We all got along and we were all very talented, friendly group of people. It was fun, too. You’d arrive on the first sound of Gunsmoke or Have Gun-Will Travel or Frontier Gentleman, we’d arrive in the morning and open up the Danish pastries and pour the coffee and sit for a solid hour shooting the breeze. Then we’d get down and read the script and work out the sound patterns and then we’d take -- very often -- we’d take the dress and that would be it. But it was clean and fun. Boy, that was great.”

(L to R) Ray Kemper, Tom Hanley and Norman Macdonnell.    (Photo courtesy of Roy Bright.)

Ray Kemper, sound technician, had also turned writer by the time Have Gun premiered in 1958. “I do recall an incident on the very first show,” Kemper recalled. “John was really trying hard to do the Paladin character just right. At one point I stopped the rehearsal and asked Norm in a loud voice if he wanted ‘Big Dome’ (referring to Paladin) to wear spurs. Dehner looked stricken and asked, ‘Big Dome?’ In the booth, Norm was laughing like crazy -- he hit the talk back and said, ‘John, you just shrank about a foot.’ Of course, Dehner laughed too.”

After more than 20 episodes, Macdonnell realized that the show was not as successful for radio as it was for television. Perhaps it was because the television audience had a strong impression of what the Paladin character should look -- and act -- like, courtesy of Richard Boone’s treatment for the small screen. More importantly, adapting television scripts into an audio medium was egregious at best. “Well, it turned out they were totally inappropriate for radio, and they were forced to write new and original radio shows which is really what happened,” Dehner recalled. “But they were simultaneously on the air, one on television and one on radio.”

In “The Hanging Cross,” Paladin attempts to thwart a lynching on Christmas Eve, and make peace between the Sioux Indians and the white men on Nathaniel Beecher’s ranch. The television version concludes with Paladin taking down some of the boards from the homemade gallows, and rides off observing the shadow on the ground, from the gallows, depicting a cross. This kind of imagery could have be captured in an audio medium.
Comparing both the radio and television version was fairly easy when you consider the fact that a few of the episodes aired back-to-back on both CBS Radio and CBS-TV. “Death of a Young Gunfighter” aired on CBS Radio on March 15, 1959. The television version aired the night before, March 14. “Maggie O’Bannion” aired on CBS Radio on April 5, 1959. The television version also aired the night before, April 4.

The first person to submit an original script, not adapted from a television episode, was Ray Kemper, one of the six men responsible for the sound effects on the radio version (and radio’s Gunsmoke). Episode twenty-three, “The Gunsmith,” provided an intriguing story of anguish and retribution. In the town of Woodland, nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range, Paladin meets Hans Reicher, a German store keep and former gunsmith who suffers from the abuse of Link Dobey, the town bully. An old friend of Hans died by the hand of his faulty craftsmanship, and swore off making handguns ever since. The sheriff lost respect from the town citizens when he was unable to maintain peace and order with Dobey around. Paladin, after discovering the bully beat Hans in order to acquire the last (and most beautiful) of the gunsmith’s talent, faces off against Link Dobey. Good prevailed, but only because the gun exploded in Dobey’s face. Hans confesses to the man in black that due to recent events, he felt wise to create a flaw in the gun, just in case Dobey got his way.

“I wrote a few scripts for Have Gun-Will Travel, Gunsmoke, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen and other programs,” recalled Kemper. “Writers were paid pretty good money and anyone who wrote a good script could be guaranteed a sale. Norm was always open for suggestions and idea, no matter how fantastic they would be. Years before, I wrote scripts for a series called The Count of Monte Cristo and I was then using a pen name of N. Clint Reynolds on the [script] covers when I submitted them. When I submitted this script -- and I think I did the same for a couple others -- Norm said, ‘Oh, Ray, we know who you are so you’re going to get credit for this. That’s why the cover of some of the radio scripts I wrote have N. Clint Reynolds on them, instead of my name. But that’s me!”

Of the first 39 radio episodes, 35 were adaptations of television scripts. Beginning with episode 40, the series consisted completely of original radio plots. Ray Kemper would ultimately script a total of nine episodes, and the majority of his submissions are now considered some of the best episodes of the radio series. Reference guides continue to inaccurately state Gene Roddenberry was a script writer for five Have Gun-Will Travel radio broadcasts. The correction should be noted: John Dawson adapted all five of those episodes from Roddenberry’s television scripts and Roddenberry himself had no personal involvement with the radio program.

For more information, click on the book.
There’s an old saying, don’t believe everything you read. A number of web-sites are inaccurately stating facts with nothing to found the basis of their claims. The following corrections should be noted: One, John Dehner was not hired to play the role of Paladin because of his role as J.B. Kendall on the Frontier Gentleman series, nor is his portrayal as Paladin an extension of his former characterization. (We can look back at both series and compare the two radio productions and romantically “assume” this is so, but it’s not a fact.) The radio version of Paladin was an adaptation of the television series -- plain and simple. Second, the cost factor to adapt a television script into a radio script was the same as purchasing an original radio script from the open market. Macdonnell’s insistence to dominate the series, in the eyes of CBS, with his radio version was the purpose behind the adaptations in the first place. There was no cost factor under consideration. Third, it’s been reported that half of the television scripts were adapted for the radio program. This was not so. There were 225 television productions and only 35 of them were adapted into radio scripts. Four, the audition recordings are dated November 8, not November 11. I tracked down the person who retains the original CBS masters and the date November 8 was handwritten 8 on the boxes with the tapes. Fifth, Elliott Lewis and Lew Ayres was not among the actors in the audition recordings.

Episode #1  “STRANGE VENDETTA”  Broadcast November 23, 1958
Recording Date:
November 21, 1958, 12:00 a.m. to 12:24 a.m.
Cast: Harry Bartell (Don Miquel Rojas); Lillian Buyeff (Maria Rojus); Howard Culver (Wilkins), Joseph Kearns (Doctor Mayhew); Ralph Moody (Farley, the border guard); and Victor Perrin (Timmons).
Producer/Director: Norman Macdonnell
Story origin: Based on the teleplay of the same name by Ken Kolb, originally telecast October 26, 1957.
Script writer: John Dawson
Commercials: Kent’s Filtered Cigarettes and Pine-Scented Lysol
Opening narration: Sit down gentlemen and sit still. I’ve come to order a coffin for the first one of you who make a move. 

Episode #2  “ROAD TO WICKENBURG”  Broadcast November 30, 1958
Recording Date:
November 30, 1958, 2:30 to 3:00 p.m.
Cast: Lynn Allen (Susan); Harry bartell (Sol Goodfellow); Jack Edwards (Pete Keystone); Frank Gerstle (Sheriff Jim Goodfellow); Eve McVeigh (the lasy); and Victor Perrin (Sheriff Jack Goodfellow).
Producer/Director: Norman Macdonnell
Story origin: Based on the teleplay of the same name by Gene Roddenberry, originally telecast October 25, 1958.
Script writer: John Dawson
Commercials: Kent’s Filtered Cigarettes and Pine-Scented Lysol
Opening narration: There are four of you gentlemen and I’ve only one bullet left in my derringer. So my choice is very simple. I’ll kill the first man who speaks.

Episode #3  “ELLA WEST”  Broadcast December 7, 1958
Recording Date:
November 15, 1958, 8:00 to 8:25 p.m.
Cast: Lynn Allen (Clarisse); Harry Bartell (the barkeep and Tomahawk Carter); Lawrence Dobkin (Mr. Breed); Sam Edwards (Tracy Calvert); Virginia Gregg (Ella West); Barney Phillips (the stage driver); and Ben Wright (the manager).
Producer/Director: Norman Macdonnell
Story origin: Based on the teleplay of the same name by Gene Roddenberry, originally telecast January 4, 1958.
Script writer: John Dawson
Commercials: Kent’s Filtered Cigarettes
Opening narration: I promised I’d avoid a gunfight if possible. But it looks as though it isn’t possible. I have one bullet left. You may draw when you’re ready.

Episode #4  “THE OUTLAW”  Broadcast December 14, 1958
Recording Date:
December 6, 1958, 7:00 to 7:30 p.m.
Cast: Jeanne Bates (the woman and Sarah Holt); Frank Cady (the hotel clerk); Lawrence Dobkin (Manfred Holt); Sam Edwards (Abe Talltree); Joseph Kearns (Ned Alcorn); and Ralph Moody (Sheriff Jake Ludlow).
Producer/Director: Norman Macdonnell
Story origin: Based on the teleplay of the same name by Sam Rolfe, originally telecast September 21, 1957.
Script writer: Frank Michael
Commercials: Kent’s Filtered Cigarettes and Look Magazine
Opening narration: Mister, you killed nine men. I never heard anyone say you made allowances for your opponent’s ability with a gun.

Episode #5  “THE HANGING CROSS”  Broadcast December 21, 1958
Recording Date:
December 13, 1958, 6:30 to 7:00 p.m.
Cast: Dick Beals (Chiwah, a.k.a. Robbie); Virginia Christine (the lady); John James (various ad libs), Jess Kirkpatrick (Tater); Ann Morrison (Maudie); Victor Perrin (Nathaniel Beecher); Roy Woods (Cha-la-te); and Ben Wright (Pete).
Producer/Director: Norman Macdonnell
Story origin: Based on the teleplay of the same name by Gene Roddenberry, originally telecast December 21, 1957.
Script writer: John Dawson
Commercials: Kent’s Filtered Cigarettes
Opening narration: In all my life, I’ve only seen a dozen real killers. But I’ve seen ten thousand people who will sit back and let murder happen. Which is the greater evil?

Trivia, etc. Ralph Moody was originally scheduled to play the role of Cah-la-te, but for reasons unknown, Roy Woods took the role. Woods would later replace Moody again in another HGWT radio episode, “A Matter of Ethics.”

Episode #6  “NO VISITORS”  Broadcast December 28, 1958
Recording Date:
December 20, 1958, 6:30 to 7:00 p.m.
Cast: Jeanne Bates (Clara Benson); Virginia Gregg (Dr. Phyllis Thackeray); John James (the man); Lou Kurgman (Davis, the townsman); and Victor Perrin (Jeremiah Mulrooney).
Producer/Director: Norman Macdonnell
Story origin: Based on the teleplay of the same name by Don Brinkley, originally telecast November 30, 1957.
Script writer: John Dunkel
Commercials: Kent’s Filtered Cigarettes
Opening narration: You came to me with a torch and a gun. You call it righteousness. Call it by its real name... Murder.

In a future blog post, I will discuss the calendar year of 1959. (To be continued...)

Martin Grams Jr. is the co-author of The Have Gun-Will Travel Companion (2000) now out of print. Copies can still be purchased on a number of web-sites including