HAVE GUN – WILL TRAVEL: THE RADIO SERIES
During the fifties, many radio programs made the transition to the
ever-growing medium called television.
Some more successful than others.
While programs like Boston
Blackie, Inner Sanctum
and Mr. District Attorney
succeeded in short-run syndication, others such as Dragnet
and Gunsmoke became just as
popular as their radio counterparts, with long successful broadcast
Gun – Will Travel, however, was one of the few radio programs
that originated on television first.
In late 1958 (late summer or early autumn), someone came up with the
idea of doing a radio version of the popular high-rated television
western. “There was a
story to Have Gun, Will Travel,”
John Dehner 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 whala,
you have a radio show, not having to pay any money for a new
It isn’t known exactly who came up with the idea of doing Have
Gun on radio, but theories have been tossed around.
Some fans of the program theorize that the Board of CBS Radio
Programming wanted to do another western, just to add to the roster of
weekly radio programming. Larry
Dobkin, actor, commented: “Well, there was a little stirring in
interest in radio westerns because Gunsmoke
held it’s audience in radio, long after Suspense,
Johnny Dollar and all the
other shows died. 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 theory being tossed around is that Norm Macdonnell was
responsible. “I believe
Norm was responsible for Have
Gun coming to radio, and I’ll tell you why,” Ben Wright told a
reporter in an interview, years after the radio series went off the
air. “There were
definite ill feelings between Norm and the television crew responsible
They took that show away from him.
He had no say in who or what went on the air.
He later became a producer for the 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 tried out a couple
of the opening scenes to “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.”
After listening to the auditions, John Dehner was cast as Paladin.
Dehner was the same man who many years before, originally
didn’t want to play Matt Dillon because he didn’t want to be
typecast in a western, now had the role Richard Boone became
recognized for. “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 looked back.
“He was a very serious person, but he did have a sense of
humor. One of my favorite people.
I remember Norman Macdonell – both of them were treasures.
Words cannot express the company I kept.”
Three days after the voice tests, an audition recording 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 (though it would only be the third broadcast
in the series). In the beginning, for the first couple months, there was a
mad dash to record the episodes.
Evidence can be seen in the episode guide enclosed in this
book. The “Strange
Vendetta” script was recorded a second time, one that would pass for
network airing, as opposed to the audition.
It was recorded two days before the premiere.
“Road to Wickenburg,” the second episode of the series, was
performed and recorded only hours before network airing.
(If they ran late, they probably would have aired “Ella
“I started out actually by studying art,” Dehner confessed.
“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, and after a
year I became an assistant animator.
And that gave me a few dollars.
We weren’t payed very much.
Although we were skilled, we were payed eighteen 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. Radio
announcing, and drifted into radio news and was news editor of
stations KMBC and KFWB and I left that because I just drifted back
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. Unlike many
actors, Dehner’s career didn’t start on stage or radio.
He went from being an art student, to an animator for Walt
Disney Studios. John
Dehner was responsible for drawing the owl sequences in Disney’s Bambi
(1942), the Beetoven sequence in Fantasia
(1940), and many Pluto, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse cartoons.
From there he went to becoming a disc jockey and even a
professional pianist. In
1944, he made one of his earliest film appearances as a Norwegian
Sailor in Hollywood Canteen.
He played numerous supporting roles on radio programs such as The
Director’s Playhouse and during the early 1950’s, he wrote a
couple radio scripts for Escape
and Suspense. From February
2, 1958 to November 16, 1958 (the week before Have
Gun premiered), Dehner starred as Jeremy Bryant Kendall in an
interesting and entertaining radio western entitled Frontier
The first thirty-some radio scripts were adaptations of television
dramas, all from the first or second season.
The script-writers who wrote the teleplays were never paid any
residuals when their own scripts, almost word-for-word, were being
rewritten and dramatized for radio.
“We were given a huge stack of television scripts and asked
by Norm [the director] to try and make radio scripts from them,”
John Dawson recalled. “We
had to shorten the twenty-six to thirty page scripts into short
twenty-two 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
aloud 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 programs. “We
were all of a group, that stayed pretty much together,” Dehner
continued. “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.”
Ray Kemper, formerly a sound technician supplying sound effects for
many radio programs, had also turned writer by the time Have
Gun premiered in 1958. “I
do recall an incident on the very first show,” writer Ray 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 twenty episodes, Macdonnell realized the show was
not as successful for radio as it was for television.
“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.”
Some changes needed to be made, so the radio productions would
differ from the television. Virginia
Gregg became a regular, playing Missy Wong, alongside Hey Boy.
“Ben Wright and I did Hey Boy and Missy Wong on the Paladin
show. I came on and did
the role for a couple episodes and then Frank Paris asked me to stay
on as a regular, and 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!
Over the years I have had fans give me tapes and recordings of
my performances on radio and television and as much as 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.”
began his work in radio for the BBC, but never really began an acting career in
radio programs until
after the second World War.
Ben Wright played many supporting and leading roles on radio.
He was Sherlock Holmes from September of 1949 to June of 1950.
He was Tulku, a faithful Tibetan servant to The
Green Lama in the summer of 1949.
Ben Wright could also be seen numerous times in supporting
roles on the television version of Have
Gun. He sadly died on
July 2, 1989, two days before Vic Perrin’s death.
Both participated heavily on the radio and television versions
of Have Gun – Will Travel.
After thirty-six episodes, Norman Macdonnell left.
His associate producer Frank Paris took over the producing and
directing, and as soon as the remaining initial radio scripts adapted
from television plays were all used up, only originals were featured.
Ann Doud, Ray Kemper and Frank Paris would write the majority
of the scripts for the series. William
N. Robson, a director of numerous radio programs over the past two
decades would contribute a few. Tom
Hanley, one of the sound effects men on the program also wrote a
handful. Radio actor Jack
Moyles received co-credit for one episode, “Oil,” but only Hanley
wrote the script. Moyles
proposed the idea and Hanley wrote it.
“There was great warmth, as it is to many other shows that we did
in those days,” Dehner commented.
“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
Frank Paris was considered part of the radio family during his Have
Gun years. He was
known for telling jokes
that never ended throughout rehearsals.
A great sense of humor that the radio cast loved.
As Have Gun was
approaching the end of it’s radio stint, Paris began writing more
and more scripts for the program, more than every other episode during
the last few months. He also wrote two radio scripts for Gunsmoke during this time, making him a very, very busy man.
Less than a year after Have Gun would leave CBS radio, Paris would go on to become an
associate producer for the television version of Gunsmoke. Have
Gun on radio did present a few curios.
In August of 1960, a two-part adventure entitled “Viva” and
“Extended Viva” was broadcast, starring Russell Arms and Bill
Idelson. Hey Boy got a
larger role in the radio productions.
In “So True, Mr. Barnum,” Hey Boy went along with Paladin
on a treasure hunt that dug up a real chest with money in it.
In “Shanghai is a Verb,” Hey Boy was kidnapped and Paladin
had to go and rescue him.
With the exception of the early radio productions being adaptations
of the television scripts, the radio shows and television shows were
two separate productions. The
production crew of the television series never had anything to do with
the radio series, and vice versa.
Sadly, after two years and 106 broadcasts, Have
Gun slowly faded away. “There
was no feedback really,” John Dehner recalled.
“And there would have been no way of our getting feedback
really, in terms of fan letters and audio response, it dwindled away
to nothing - like a dead leaf in the wind.
And that was it. We
as actors, were aghast at the brutality of the networks.
I don’t want to sound too dramatic about this, but after all,
it was an industry and an important industry and a very big industry. But all of a
sudden the powers that were in charge of the industry just said
‘the hell with it. We
don’t need you. Good-bye, go home.’ And
they closed the doors and it was that fast.
It was a shock to all of us.”
“I guess I didn’t think much about it, but that happened a
lot,” Lillian Buyeff added. “We
wouldn’t be told in advance that this was going to be the last show
or anything. I guess in
the back of my mind I was always thinking, ‘Oh, this new-fangled
thing called TV. Maybe it
will just dry up and go away.’
But it didn’t. We loved radio and it was a great medium and wonderful
because – how should I put it – as a woman I could still be
married and have a family and kind of a normal life because I knew
what time I had to be at the studio and what time I would come home.
In film, you don’t have that.
You don’t really know how long you’re going to be gone.
Also, the people in radio were very special. The people themselves were just warm and kind and good and we
all liked each other a lot. Definitaly
one of the best moments of my life.”
“The only show that struggled on was Gunsmoke,” Larry Dobkin concluded, “but otherwise, that was
early in the years of labor relations and the actors were employees
and so were the engineers. The
crew were of course, contract employees, and they went from one
newscast to a comedy to a drama, with a total disregard of continuity
of employment – or continuity of showcase.
The actors were different.
They were just day players, and there was no notice given.
When I was replaced as the voice of Ellery Queen, nobody gave
me any notice. They just told me not to come back next week.
They never told me why. I
had done it for two years. I
think I was the ninth or tenth Ellery Queen.”
John Dehner died on February 4, 1992, in Santa Barbara, California,
from complications of emphysema and diabetes.
He was 76.
Kemper: “I had known Frank Paris for years and he was a nice guy.
As stated before he had worked for Norm Macdonnell on many
shows and Norm had complete confidence in Frank.
Norm always seemed happy with the job Paris did.
After Have Gun folded on radio, Frank joined Macdonnell as associate
producer on television’s Gunsmoke.
He remained in that capacity until Norm left the show.
I lost contact with Frank after that and do not know what
happened to him.”
started back in radio in the 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.
It was pretty funny.”
Ray Kemper: “They were marvelous people and I feel honored and
privileged to have worked with them.
John had a wonderful sense of humor and chock full of talent. I don’t know if you are aware of this but he was an expert
fencer and, if memory serves me correctly, held several titles in that
sport. I believe that he,
at one time, represented the U.S.A. in the Olympics in the category of
Ray Kemper: “Virginia Gregg was one of the premier actresses in
Hollywood - a lovely, kind and gentle person.
Ben Wright and I often played chess together and he asked me to
his home to see his very special chess set.
I must say I have never seen such a beautiful set - each piece
was hand carved out of black or white ivory.
He was very proud of it, as well he should have been.
He kept it in a locked case for viewing only.
What a work of art.”
Dick Beals: “As a
free-lance radio actor we had to report to the studio on time, mark
our scripts, take direction and perform our assigned tasks.
Being in the studio was just another assignment, another call,
another job, etc. The
title of a script is an unknown quantity.
We note the parts we are to play, find them in the script, mark
them, and go to work when the director says, ‘Let’s read this
thing.’ Norm was the
best director in the business. He
told each actor what he and the writer wanted, and 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.”
Dobkin: “Frank Paris was the assistant producer.
If Norman was quiet, Frank was quieter.
Frank defined quiet for Norman.
He was about my height, 5’ 10”, oval faced, rimless glasses
or wire-rimmed glasses, clean shaven, brown hair cut short, he had a
pleasant manner. I think
the additive would be divident. Frank
kind of directed the radio shows later on when there really wasn’t
any radio shows left to direct. By
the time Norman left CBS for television, there was very little radio
left. The last radio show for two years, otherwise silence, was Gunsmoke,
which Norman did and Frank did.”
Dick Beals: “John
Dehner was tall, distinguished looking somewhat like David Niven, and
all business. Now you
have to remember that radio drama and on-camera drama are two separate
entities. A radio show is
fast moving and with the best voice actors in the voice business
making it work. Television
is slower with many unknowns in the key roles.
Boone was a totally different Paladin than Dehner, but Norm was
after a “voice” rather than a face.
So I definitely favor the radio version of Have
Larry Dobkin: “Ginny is probably the woman who I consider my best friend
in radio. I adored her.
As an actress, she was in my view an equal of Jeanette [Nolan],
who is normally considered the greatest radio actress on the east
coast. I though Ginny was
splendid. I remember
early on with 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 if he had been white’.
She died too young. Cancer.”
Bates was in the first of four Have
Gun radio shows I did. She
was a high school classmate where we played in several stage shows
together. Frank Paris knew this and arranged for her to be on the show
and as a surprise for me .
. . and it was! I was
also on the Your Hit Parade
for six years live from New York on Saturday nights.
That’s my big claim to fame, actually.
I got two record contracts from that as well as a lot of
personal appearances in night clubs, dinner theaters, fairs, and so
on. Incidentally, I did
have one hit record, a melody of my hit called “Cinco Robles on the
Trivia: “I didn’t have a great deal of participation on that
program because I went to Japan,” Peggy Webber commented. “I was married in Japan.
I got married to a doctor and I stayed there overseas for about
two and a half years. That
was around the time they were doing the radio version of Have
Gun – Will Travel and it was only when I would come home on
vacation that I work on those shows.
So I wasn’t there for about two or three years.
It wasn’t one of my regular shows, but boy – I remember
doing twenty-two shows a week!”
Russell Arms: “Frank Paris who was an assistant producer on the
television Gunsmoke, was
also a writer for the radio shows.
When he saw my work on Gunsmoke
TV, he liked it, and he called me and asked me if I wanted to work on
the radio episodes of Have Gun
and I got to do about four before it went off the air.
Paris was rather slight, curly dark hair, rather good looking
for the ladies, dressed well and boy was he a nice, smooth guy.”
Larry Dobkin: “John Dehner and I held each other in considerable regard.
Somebody interviewed John for some other book and mentioned my
name, and they came back to me and said that nobody ever paid a great
compliment than Dehner. John
took his work quite seriously and held it very high esteemed.
He cared about acting. He
made some unfortunate career choices, which all of us are prone to do
from time to time. You know John starred in the pilot for a show called Gunsmoke
and I think we did an episode of Suspense
or Escape and they offered him the series and he refused.
They gave it to Bill Conrad.”
Jeanne Bates: “Well I think Gunsmoke
was the last radio show that remained successful, in my opinion.
I was on the last episode recorded and then I did a couple
television Gunsmokes with
James Arness. But
television was pretty much taking over.
They all went off on the same day with one swoop.
They had Suspense, Johnny
Dollar, and a few others. A
lot of radio drama lost it to the disc jockeys.
That was very popular and perhaps cheaper compared to the radio
dramas. I don’t think
we were really aware that radio was dying until it died.
The Whistler was a transcontinental and that was even before Gunsmoke. But once they began recording the shows, putting them on
tape, they found that they didn’t have to do them twice in one day.
Because with The Whistler, we would do one show for the East Coast, go out to
dinner, and come back to do the other for the West Coast.
During the war, when they put them on acetate, it was terrible
and nerve wracking. If
you made a mistake, even in the second part, the whole show had to be
redone so we were very careful and it was nerve-wracking.”