16 October 2010 | dougdoepke
Shakespeare with a Gun
I suspect this series grew out of a radio show of the early 50's called Frontier Gentleman with John Dehner as a polished force for good in the Old West. Of course, a character like that cuts against the stereotype of the western hero, who, whatever his level of gun-slinging skill, is rarely able to quote Shakespeare or distinguish a Rothschild '29 from a swig of whiskey. But, of course, Palladin can. In fact, the guy in black knows all the arts of refinement, which not surprisingly came to separate him from the hundred other Western heroes of that day.
But casting an intellectual gun-fighter for a macho Western series presents a tricky challenge. The actor's got to be authoritative whether slinging a gun or fingering a glass of wine, and also be masculine enough to command respect in both regards. And this is where the series really succeeded. They got Richard Boone, an actor who can make you believe most anything. Plus, his homely, craggy looks are unlike any of the many handsome heroes of the day. At the same time, dressing him in black, with a mysterious background and a mythological name pretty much completes the package that produced big success in the ratings, lasting an unusual six seasons.
The opening sequence in San Francisco usually played up Palladin's refinements and success with the ladies, even dressing him often like a dandy. After that, he'd hire out, change into his black work clothes, and go on the road to some risky situation. My favorite stories are those that have him trying to figure out where the truth lies, because often his employer would shade the truth for various reasons. Then, our knight-without-armor would have to rely on instinct and a sense of honor since he's not a lawman with a duty to perform. What duty he does have comes from a knight's sense of honor that only he is responsible for, reinforcing his image as an ultimate loner.
Wisely, the script would occasionally humanize Palladin's superior skills by having him reflect on the strange ways of the world or on the wisdom of his actions. For example, he might stare off in silence at the end of a particularly troubling story, or quote something wise that would make us think. These were important moments that added a thoughtful dimension too commonly missing from other horse operas of the time. Then too, even weak stories were often compensated by Boone's commanding presence.
I don't know if HGWT was the best series of that six-gun saturated era—the early Gunsmoke (1955-60) was awfully good as was Sam Peckinpaugh's brilliant but short-lived The Westerner (1960). Nonetheless, the guy in black is definitely worth catching up with, along with that catchy title tune.