HAVE GUN – WILL TRAVEL: THE RADIO SERIES
BY MARTIN GRAMS, JR
 
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 runs.  Have 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 script.”
 
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 for Gunsmoke.  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 West” instead.)
 
“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 into acting.”
 
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 Whistler, Screen 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 Gentleman.
 
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.”
 
Ben Wright 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 lucrative income.”
 
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.
 
Ray 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.”
 
Lillian Buyeff:  “I 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 fencing.”
 
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.”
 
Larry 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 Gun.”
 
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.”
 
Russell Arms:  “Jeanne 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 ERA label.”
 
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.”
 
email me:
Copyright © 2002 by Martin Grams, Jr.  All rights reserved.  Printed in the United States Of America.  No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.