When ''Have Gun - Will Travel'' went viral
The title was meant to be temporary. That changed when audiences heard it.
When Have Gun - Will Travel premiered on CBS in 1957, it faced some pretty stiff competition. Demand for Westerns on television was at an all-time high. There was Jim Bowie, Rin Tin Tin, Wild Bill Hickok — and those were just the shows beginning with "The Adventures of." There was also Annie Oakley, Boomtown, Boots and Saddle, Broken Arrow, The Californians, Casey Jones, and Colt .45 just to illustrate some of the dozens of cowboy shows on TV during the '50s. America, at the time, couldn't get enough big hats on the small screen, and ten-gallon hats populated every studio backlot.
So what's a burgeoning bronco-bucker to do to stand out from the pack? For two first-time producers with their work cut out for them, the viewing public took the ball and ran with it.
When new-to-Hollywood writers Herb Meadows and Sam Rolfe dreamed up Have Gun - Will Travel, they intended to just use that name temporarily. "We had a gag title, Have Gun - Will Travel," Rolfe told the press in a story that was carried by the Newspaper Enterprise Association. "Then we wrote a character to fit, but we never really intended to use the title. It was just a gag [to] us and even when we filmed the pilot reel we figured 'Have Gun - Will Travel' was just a working title. We would change it later, we figured."
That all changed when they started receiving positive feedback. The title was catchy and easy to remember, and so, it stuck. The series went to production, both on TV and on the radio. Richard Boone's Paladin was a popular figure, even amongst the many Westerns populated by other gentleman gunfighters. The stories of his travels around the Old West proved a hit, and tales of this new mercenary riveted audiences.
But the show's title stuck in viewers' minds the most. Soon, Rolfe and Meadows were seeing their title reflected back to them everywhere, reaffirming their decision to keep the throwaway name. Bumper stickers, grafitti, posterboards... Everything and everyone had a play on the name. At Cape Canaveral in Florida, a rocket in a storage shed had printed on the nose "Have Power - Will Orbit." When 1,700 U.S. Marines stormed the beaches of Beirut on July 15, 1958, they had with them a sign emblazoned with the words "Have Guns - Will Travel." The show was in peoples' consciousnesses everywhere. Not since WWII and the proliferation of "Kilroy Was Here" had a snappy saying taken on such a life of its own. Clearly, Rolfe and Meadows' gamble paid off.