Friday, March 16, 2012


John Dehner in an episode of The Rifleman.
“I started out actually by studying art,” recalled John Dehner, the star of radio’s Have Gun-Will Travel. “I was going to be an artist, but actually became an actor and I went to New York from 35 to 40, went through the depression there, as an actor, and did the usual classical starving, and decided the hell with it. If I’m not going to eat for a while, I went to California. And I tried out for Disney in the art department and they hired me. After a year I became an assistant animator. And that gave me a few dollars. We weren’t paid very much. Although we [the animators] were skilled, we were paid $18 dollars a week. But it gave me enough money to eat a bit. I stayed at Disney for a year or little better and went into the Army, and when I came out I didn’t want to be an artist. I wanted to be an actor. So I went into radio.”

John Dehner was born John Forkum in Staten Island, New York, November 23, 1915. He celebrated his 43rd birthday on the premiere of radio’s Have Gun-Will Travel, a role he would today become synonymous to fans of old-time radio broadcasts. As an animator for Walt Disney Studios, Dehner was responsible for drawing the owl sequences for Bambi (1942), the Beethoven sequence in Fantasia (1940), and a number of Pluto, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse cartoons.

Dehner’s radio career began with radio announcing, which soon drifted into radio news and was the news editor for stations KMBC and KFWB. “I left that because I just drifted back into acting,” Dehner recalled in the early 1980s. Dehner tried his hand as a disc jockey, even as a professional pianist. In 1944, he made one of his earliest film appearances as a Norwegian sailor in Hollywood Canteen. On radio, he played (for a short while) the horror host of The Hermit’s Cave, along with countless supporting roles on The Whistler, Gunsmoke, Suspense, Escape and Screen Director’s Playhouse.

As pointed out in a prior blog post, Dehner was not chosen for the role of Paladin because of his portrayal as Jeremy Bryant Kendall on the radio program, Frontier Gentleman, but it is difficult not to compare the two roles since both programs were Westerns over the CBS Radio Network. Comparing the radio program versus the television version is much more fun. On radio, Virginia Gregg became a semi-regular in the role of Missy Wong (not Miss Wong as many people continue to refer). She worked closely with Hey Boy, played by Ben Wright. When Kam Tong, who played Hey Boy on television, left the series for a season to try out a lead of his own detective series, Lisa Lu was hired to play Hey Girl (for the fourth season). By the time Hey Girl came into the picture, the radio series had expired. Could the television producers have remembered the radio program and been inspired to replace Hey Boy with a female counterpart?

“Ben Wright and I did Hey Boy and Missy Wong on the Paladin show,” recalled Virginia Gregg. “I came on and did the role for a couple episodes and then Frank Paris asked me to stay on as a regular. From then on, I came in and did almost every episode. The television Have Gun had a female Missy Wong for a while. I don’t think she had the same name as mine. But I do know that it was Frank and I who started it first!” The reason the names were not the same might have been to avoid an internal legal issue at CBS. The radio program and the television program were totally separate productions.

“Over the years I have had fans give me tapes and recordings of my performances on radio and television and I love them dearly. It’s not because I don’t like hearing my own voice or the costumes I wore, it’s just something I don’t settle down to do. I played one once only to hear a dear friend’s voice, who had passed on shortly after I received a tape, and wanted to reminisce.”

As for Ben Wright, he began his work in radio for the BBC, but never really began an acting career in radio programs until after WWII. Wright played the role of Sherlock Holmes from 1949 to 1950, and was Tulku, a faithful Tibetan servant to The Green Lama in the summer of 1949. Fans of the television version of Have Gun can spot the actor playing a supporting role on a number of episodes. Sadly, Ben Wright passed away on July 2, 1989, two days before his good friend Vic Perrin died, a regular supporting actor on radio’s Have Gun.

After 36 episodes, Norman Macdonnell left the series to pursue other ventures. His attempt to create better radio productions adapted from the television scripts had failed. CBS, hoping to calm Macdonnell’s disappointment of the television series, Gunsmoke, was asked to produce the television version. Charles Marquis Warren has been producing the television series and Macdonnell was pleased to take over the reins when Warren bowed out. His associate producer, Frank Paris, took over the production and direction beginning with episode 37 and remained with the program until the series concluded in 1960. Under Paris’ guidance, original scripts were written for the series -- a vast improvement compared to the earliest productions. As mentioned in a prior blog posting, sound man Ray Kemper wrote a number of original radio scripts. Not to be outdone by his friend, soundman Tom Hanley began submitting scripts. Frank Paris himself contributed a number of adventures, as well as William N. Robson, producer and director of numerous CBS radio programs. Ann Doud was a major contributor of radio scripts for Have Gun. “As a matter of fact, at one time, Ann Doud and I were in the same creative writing class at UCLA. As you probably know, she was the wife of Gil Doud, who was one of the writers on The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen radio series in the 1940s. Ann and I had some nice chats and I found her to be a warm, friendly person. I was very sad to learn of her death in a boating accident.”

“Macdonnell did a lot of directing for CBS and was loved by everyone,” recalled actress Jeanne Bates. “I don’t know of anyone who didn’t like working under him. He worked with the actors. He never demanded takes of specifics. He joked around now and then.”

“Norm was the best director in the business,” recalled actor Dick Beals. “He told each actor what he and the writer wanted, ad he hired actors he knew he could depend on to make the characters believable. If necessary, Norm quietly and gently suggested changes. His every wish was our command.”

“There was great warmth, as it is to many other shows that we did in those days,” recalled John Dehner. “Because every week we had a different story. We had actors we knew well and loved dearly, directors and producers, and it was a tight-knit group and we enjoyed it very much. And it was clean and it provided us with a steady and rather lucrative income.”

During the calendar year of 1959, a number of episodes hit the high mark on Have Gun-Will Travel. Among the notables were “Stardust” (September 20, 1959), “When in Rome” (October 25, 1959), and “Wedding Day” (November 1, 1959).

On January 18, 1959, “Three Bells to Perdido” was dramatized with Don Diamond cast in the role of Pedro. This was an adaptation of the television episode CBS chose as the series premiere (the pilot episode). Diamond was originally intended to double for two roles, the second as George, the desk clerk. For reasons unknown, William Alland played the bit part. A former actor and film producer, Alland was currently taking a hiatus from Hollywood motion pictures (having produced Creature from the Black Lagoon and This Island Earth) and his casting was a unique surprise. “I created a very famous radio program called Doorway to Life,” Allan recalled. “It was on CBS coast-to-coast for almost two years and I won the Peabody Award for this. It broke a lot of pioneer ground in the area of psychology on radio. Peggy Webber was the female lead [on many radio productions], and I’m still in touch with her once in a while. She was a former Mercury Player. She’s a lovely lady; very active in SPERDVAC, the organization that puts on radio plays from the old days. She keeps trying to drag me into the act again, and I don’t want to be involved [laughs]!” Alland was a cast member of the Mercury Theater’s notorious 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast. “Three Bells to Perdido” is also unique because it was recorded from 11:30 p.m. to midnight and while it was the ninth episode of the series, it was one of the first to be recorded.

Other unique castings included Richard Perkins in the role of Andy Dawes in “Sense of Justice” (March 29, 1959). Richard Perkins was a stage name for script writer Kenneth Perkins, who wrote Hawk Larabee, a CBS radio Western from 1946-48, considered one of the finest adult Westerns on network radio. By 1959, radio drama was dwindling and Perkins began experimenting with acting to supplement his ever-shrinking income. He appeared in a total of one Gunsmoke and two Have Gun episodes during this season.
The radio program is still protected under copyright. Except for products like this above, issued by Radio Spirits, most CD and mp3 sets available on the internet are not licensed products. Don't let attractive packaging fool you.
Jeannette Nolan reprised her television role of Ma Warren in “Gunshy” (May 3, 1959). This was the one and only time the same role was played by the same actor for both the radio and the television version. In “Bitter Wine” (June 14, 1959), Dennis Weaver, best known as Chester on television’s Gunsmoke, can be heard during a commercial about Look magazine. June Foray, best known for her vocal talents on such cartoons as The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show and Bugs Bunny and Sylvester and Tweetie, can be heard in the closing commercial in “Young Gun” (July 12, 1959). Debbie Reynolds promoted Look magazine in a commercial in “Stardust” (September 20, 1959).

“Stopover in Tombstone” (October 11, 1959) revealed a major difference between the Paladin character on radio versus the continuity on television. On the small screen, Paladin never accepted to wear a deputy’s badge, or a sheriff’s badge. There were a number of episodes where a law officer requested Paladin wear a badge or be sworn in as a deputy, but the man in black declined the offers. On the radio program (including this episode), it was not uncommon for Paladin to accept the position. In this episode, Paladin was asked by a law officer to be deputizes, in hopes of legally catching a man on the rune, before vengeful deputies took the law into their own hands.

Olan Soule played the recurring role of the desk clerk in the Have Gun television series. On radio, he played brief supporting roles other than a hotel clerk. In “When in Rome” (October 25, 1959), Soule played the role of “The Professor,” a murderer with a thousand dollar reward on his head.

Lillian Buyeff played the role of Magda Salvar in “Fair Fugitive” (November 15, 1959), working alongside her good friend Virginia Gregg. “I started back in radio in 1944 or 1945. Have Gun was very, very late -- how strange. I do remember Suspense and Gunsmoke on at that time, but radio programs were shrinking. Virginia Gregg was one of my favorite people in the world. She was a marvelous actress, but she was a better human being. She was wonderful. When I was first starting, I didn’t have a car at the time and she would come and pick me up to take me to a rehearsal. That kind of thing. She’s been gone now for quite a few years and I miss her a lot. An amusing thing about Virginia: She was pregnant with her second child and I with my first, at the same time! We were only six weeks apart, and I just had this vision -- I can’t remember what the show was -- but the two of us at the mike at the same time! [laughs] We couldn’t get that close [to the mike]. It was pretty funny.”

“Ginny is probably the woman who I consider my best friend in radio. I adored her,” recalled Larry Dobkin. “As an actress, she was in my view an equal of Jeannette Nolan, who is normally considered the greatest radio actress on the East Coast. I thought Ginny was splendid. I remember early on while the mess of racial integration was still among us, which was frequent in the papers. One Saturday morning for a Gunsmoke rehearsal, Virginia was a little tardy. She had had a rowl with a parking attendant, who happened to be colored. She was full of amazement at herself. She said, “I didn’t know that I was that liberated. I yelled at him just as it he had been white.’ She died too young. Cancer.”

Notes of Interest 
“Stardust” (October 23, 1960) was the same script broadcast on September 20, 1959. They are two separate productions. The cast remained virtually the same except Laurie Gallagher was played by Anne Whitfield in the second version. Norma Jean Nilsson played the role in the 1959 version. Regardless of what web-sites claim, they are different productions and recordings. This is the only episode of the radio program to have the same title and plot.

The broadcast of January 11, 1959 is titled “The Englishman,” adapted from the television episode of the same name. A number of internet web-sites incorrectly claim the title is “British Courage.” The origin of many incorrect titles is because the announcer never gave the titles during the broadcasts. For years, collectors were forced to create their own descriptive titles. Recently, a number of individuals who swear everything listed in the newspapers is 100 percent accurate (and we all know that is not so), turn to the New York Times which, for space limitations, chose to list a description of the episode instead of the actual title, and some people mistake this as the title of the broadcast.

The correct title was verified by consulting the radio scripts at the CBS Radio Archive in New York City, the Thousand Oaks Library in California, scripts registered for copyright at the Library of Congress, and various scripts in private collector hands. In short, I consulted as may as four copies of the same script to verify the spelling of the title (and fictional characters and other details).

The broadcast of June 21, 1959 should be “North Fork,” not “Trouble in North Fork.”

The broadcast of July 12, 1959 should be “Young Gun,” not “Drought.”

The broadcast of July 19, 1959 should be “Deliver the Body,” not “Search for a Suspect.”

The broadcast of October 4, 1959 should be “Contessa Marie Desmoulins,” not “The Contessa.”

“Brother Lost” was broadcast on November 8, 1959, not October 18, 1959. Station logs in the CBS Archives verify that “Brother Lost” was originally intended for broadcast on October 18, but pushed ahead to November 8 instead.

The broadcast of December 20, 1959 should be “Ranse Carnival,” not “Rance Carnival” or “Range Carnival.”

The broadcast of January 31, 1960 should be “The Boss,” not “Bad Bart.”

The broadcast of August 7 and August 14, 1960 should be “Viva” and “Extended Viva,” not “Father O’Toole’s Organ” (parts one and two).
On the subject of correct titles, I will not take the time to list all of them due to space restrictions. But where am I finding all these errors? On the internet. What I listed above is only half of the corrections I saw upon quick observation. To cite which web-site is listing all of these inaccuracies would not put the owner of that site in good light, nor would it make me look good doing so. And that’s just one web-site. I don’t have time to check them all and continue to list corrections. In the days it would take for me to do so, I could finish another write-up that would benefit the hobby. Needless to say, there is a one-stop source for a complete and accurate log. 

And I did avoid nit-picking whether the title begins with “The” or “A”, whether “Gun Shy” should be “Gunshy” (it should be the latter). My book, The Have Gun-Will Travel Companion, published in 2000, features all of the correct titles, based on the actual scripts and CBS master recordings. For a sample of the log, click here and scroll down to the bottom of the page. What surprises me is how, eleven years after my book was published, mistakes like incorrect script titles are still popping up on web-sites.

This is the second of a three-part feature about the radio program, Have Gun-Will Travel.
Click here to read Part One.