Friday, August 29, 2014

Best TV Show of All-Time?

The show ran on the CBS television network from September 1957 through April 1963 for an astounding 225 episodes. (A radio show starring a different cast also played for four of those years.) Almost 40 episodes per season, at 26-minutes per, with many locations. (Current half-hour TV series: 20 to 22 episodes a year at 22-minutes each.)

And it is the best western series of all time. Of course, there are problems. Boone insisted on the often silly intros with him in 1870s San Francisco gentry garb, almost always coming on to a girl / rejecting a girl / or sighing with a "what can I do?" expression. (Thankfully these ficelles are not part of every episode.) And that's about it. Out of the 225, maybe 10 are stinkers. But the rest. . . .

No other series is more dominated by a single personality and consciousness than is Have Gun Will Travel by Richard Boone's. His greatness as both actor and director -- and his deeply humanist sensibility -- makes HGWT a model of popular and populist art. Sometimes that sensibility goes awry, wasted on chum. At its best (actually, at its average as well), it was a constant search for what was the right thing to do. Paladin himself is a western superman: brilliant, handsome, rich; a boxer, a gunman, a stud. Yet the character is almost completely devoid of narcissism. Or if it is there at times, it becomes the subject of the piece. In the candy-colored yet morally black-and-white world of the 1950s, this is an astonishingly complex show, in terms of meaning and character.

There are many glories beyond him. Along with his artistic domination, Boone's heart is generous as both actor and director. Some of the best HGWT episodes are directed by Andrew McLaglen, Lamont Johnson, and Ida Lupino -- and he completely gives them their lead. Very literate (sometimes too literate) scripts by the great Herb Meadows and Sam Wolfe (and Gene Rodenberry). An endless succession of special acting turns, by both leads and supporting players: George Kennedy many times, Charles Bronson (amazingly good) many times, Kam Tang as Hey Boy,  Ben Johnson and Ken Curtis fresh off the Ford lot, Charles Aidman, Strother Martin, Ed Nelson, Harry Carey Jr., Shirley O'Hara, Denver Pyle, Jacqueline Scott, June Vincent, on and on. Also, the very lovely Lisa Lu as Hey Boy's replacement, Hey Girl. (Lu's also in several episodes as characters other than Hey Girl, where she also burns a hole in the screen.) Such a slender beauty it's no wonder Henry Miller started stalking her after seeing HGWT.

It is a beautiful show to look at, with a stark sheen. (Many cinematographers are credited, with Stuart Thompson grabbing most titles.) Much of the music is by Bernard Herrmann or based on Herrmann cues. Plus the immortal Johnny Western theme song.

If one comes to knows the series well, what's most remarkable is the continual changes in tone. Alternately leisurely, calm and quiet (and at times very funny); titles tight and tense as a Tohlakai drum; plots so dense they are opaque; stories where nothing much happens at all. We come back, though, to the show's awesome star. No actor has ever surpassed his engagement and commitment to a weekly role. His humor, strength, and charisma get more unique and impressive with each passing year.

One of the many good ones, from Season 2 (April 25, 1959): "The Man Who Lost"