Have Gun, Will Travel was one of the most original and successful television Westerns.
Richard Boone was tall, athletic, confident and was believably sophisticated. He dressed as a dark knight, but he was more often to quote Shakespeare and outwit an opponent as draw his gun.
Boone returned to series television in 1972 in a limited series of television films. There were ten Hec Ramsey films or episodes over two seasons.
Hec Ramsey was a former gunman, but as he aged, he became a scientific investigator. He carried a brass suitcase full of his instruments and files. His investigative techniques included bullet comparison, fingerprinting, using plaster to form horseshoe impression to identify the person who tried to kill him, collecting boot tracks in the dirt, and how to brand cattle with only a temporary brand. He had a file of known suspects and understood the tribal customs of Native Americans and how cunning White men could use this to blame crimes on a local tribe.
The series begins as Ramsey joins a new fangled police department with a Chief who is wet behind the ears. Ramsey is the new Deputy Chief, who must taken it upon himself to educate the Chief in new policing techniques. The Chief has Ramsey figured as an old school gunman, a relic of the past, in a changing world.
Ramsey is an older version of Palladin, educated and logical, who prefers reason to gun-fighting, but he is not afraid to draw down if necessary. Hec Ramsey was one of the rotating mystery movies produced by Universal, where Webb’s production company had a home. Each episode or movie, was packed with character actors who worked on Universal films and series, and populated other Webb shows.
The Mystery Movie series each had a lead character with a certain quirkiness and who usually conflicted with the company or entity they worked for, but they got results. Each show had a light touch mixed with the drama. In the early 1970s, Westerns were a tough sell after being a very popular staple of the 1950s and 1960s. Long running Gunsmoke and Bonanza were ending, The Virginian had morphed into The Men From Shiloh, Alias Smith and Jones was promising but ended after star Pete Duel died. Westerns were also expensive to produce, even on the Universal backlot.
Hec Ramsey was added to the Mystery Movie collection that featured McMillan and Wife, Columbo and McCloud in the mystery “wheel” as it was informally called.
The series was produced by Jack Webb, an odd choice, not so much for the subject matter, but for a character-drive series. Harry Morgan’s Webb’s partner on Dragnet, was a supporting player, and even directed two of the ten episodes. Rick Lenz co-starred as the Police Chief, who had a challenging relationship with Ramsey.
The pilot episode (Century Turns) quickly introduces Ramsey on his way to his new job, his stagecoach is held up. This event also introduces Ramsey’s use of logic as a criminalist, as he outsmarts the leader of the outlaws. Soon after, he begins an investigation of the murders of a local rancher and his wife. The idea was to throw Ramsey right into the breach and establish his strange approach to solving crime.
The show minimized violence, although not totally free of gun-play. Mostly, this was a series about brains over brawn. Each episode starts with something that appears true, but unravels into a very different truth. The shows were uneven; the secret to these “mysteries” was the writing. The problem with character-driven stories can be the pacing and keeping viewers interesting with clues and moving the story ahead. These mystery series needed a dynaic lead like Peter Falk, Rock Hudson, Dennis Weaver, George Peppard or Richard Boone who elevated the character beyond the typical television personality.
The show was not always a “who dunnit” sometimes it was a quest to find the truth and moved beyond “the crime.” Scare Tissue, guest starring Kurt Russell, looking for his father, is one such episode.
Boone really absorbed this role, he quickly assumed the character, although the show was more than about him. Boone was an actor with an extra gear, and in the best episodes of this series, you see him giving a textured performance. Hec Ramsey could easily have been compatible as Columbo.
The pilot episode is quite good and it was longer than most of the episodes that followed. The amount of science and investigation set the standard for the series, and is the strongest of the episodes. My only complaint in the pilot episode is a side story where Ramsey becomes attached to a widow who was also on the stage. Of course, she disappeared after that episode, but it reminded viewers that Ramsey might have a layer of crust, but still an interest in the ladies. Sharon Acker, Stella Stevens, Angie Dickinson, Diana Muldaur, Sheree North and others fell victim to his charms.
The demise of this series may have been a conflict between Boone and Universal, and somewhat finding a broader audience. At this point in his career, I doubt Boone gave a shit about his relationship with a studio. It is a shame that more episodes/movies were not produced, and that these are not readily available for the home market. You can find poor quality versions on YouTube, but at least they are there.
Long live Hec Ramsey.