Gunsmoke Have Gun Will Travel John Dehner Old Time Radio Western William Conrad

“Have Gun, Will Travel” and “Gunsmoke”

Two very high quality Westerns from the Golden Age of Radio are Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel. Comparison of the programs should prove educational and entertaining.

And they are both very entertaining, but adult oriented programs. And both were, to a greater or lesser degree, products of both Radio and the junior medium, Television. Gunsmoke came to the radio in the spring of 1952, and from the start fans began asking when the show would come to TV. The TV version of the show began airing in the fall of 1955, and go on to have the highest number of scripted episodes of any US primetime series. Have Gun, Will Travel is unique in broadcasting because the series began on television during the 1957 fall season and came to radio on Nov 23, 1958.

In both cases the old time radio shows and the TV programs had a somewhat different “feel.” Part of this is due to different casts on radio and TV, but other differences may be due to differences in the medium.

The heroes on each program contrast. William Conrad’s “Matt Dillon” is the hardened product of a hard life, with a strong sense of justice and duty to the law he is sworn to uphold. He tries to keep the peace, but the listener won’t be surprised to hear him flatten a no-good with his fists. “Paladin,” first portrayed by Richard Boone on TV and later on the radio by John Dehner, is highly educated. In his back story we find that he was educated at West Point, and served as an officer in the Union Calvary. (Dehnermade several appearances on Gunsmoke, usually as a Bad Guy, but not as a recurring character.) Although he carries an impressive arsenal of weapons, it is his education that usually saves the day. Matt Dillon is a representative of the US Government, but Paladin charges highly for his services (however he usually winds up defending the “little guy.”)

Marshall Dillon is the lead character, but Gunsmoke is an ensemble story. Chester Proudfoot is the somewhat slow-witted but likable Deputy. Doc Adams is the grumpy town doctor; somewhat mercenary ion early episodes, he becomes more warm-hearted as the seasons pass. Kitty Russell is a saloon girl who may or may not be a love interest for the Marshal; she does provide a feminine perspective on Dodge City.

The only recurring characters besides Paladin in Have Gun, Will Travel are “Hey-Boy”, the Chinese bell-hop at Paladin’s Carlton Hotel headquarters, and his girlfriend Miss Wong. The Chinese bookend each Radio Episode, helping to define the setting in San Francisco, and also function as a Greek Chorus, commenting on Paladin and the situations he encounters.

Gunsmoke has been praised for its “realistic” treatment of the Old West. Have Gun, Will Travel is more fantastical, Paladin sometimes called a Western James Bond for his sophistication. Dehner’s “Paladin” is both more refined and more formidable than Boone’s TV “Paladin”. William Conrad‘s “Matt Dillon” is much closer to the Radio Noir/Philip Marlow roots of the program; James Arness comes closer to the mid-50’s matinee ideal for a western hero. Most of the women that Paladin encounters fall into the “damsel in distress” role (unless they turn out to be a female Bad Guy, and even then they usually start out appearing as Damsel in Distress). Miss Kitty on Radio’s Gunsmoke works in a saloon, drinking with and “entertaining” customers. On TV she is the good hearted owner of the Long Branch Saloon.

One last Radio/TV difference: there were only 106 weekly episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel on the radio; the TV program lasted until 1963. However on the closing Radio Episode, Nov 22, 1960, we receive the resolution of Paladin’s character. We find out that he retires in the East to manage the large estate he has inherited.