A knight without armor in a savage land — Saluting erudite tough guy Richard Boone
Western writer David Rothel penned the authorized Richard Boone: A Knight Without Armor in a Savage Land at the dawn of the 21st century but has seldom discussed the intensely realistic actor in detail until a comprehensive interview debuting now.
Boone earned his credentials over a distinguished 30-year career in film, television, and theater. His name might not ring a bell instantaneously for millennials, but consider a sampling of his best work: the genre-bending television western Have Gun — Will Travel [consistently ranked No. 3 or 4 in the Nielsen ratings during its first four seasons], Budd Boetticher’s oft-analyzed The Tall T, The War Lord with Charlton Heston, The Night of the Following Day with Marlon Brando, and key supporting roles in three notable John Wayne vehicles — The Alamo, Big Jake, and The Shootist.
Westerns unequivocally remain synonymous with the World War II veteran’s legacy. Boone was adept at portraying erudite, crafty, blustery, multi-dimensional villains. He regularly stole scenes from the more widely known protagonist by injecting humanity into normally thankless roles.
Take my high school driving instructor Coach Henderson’s favorite film, Hombre, a character-driven 1967 box office champion starring Paul Newman as the laconic title character raised by Apaches.
Boone doesn’t appear until nearly 30 minutes into the Western, but it’s well worth the wait to witness his convincing portrayal of menacing stagecoach robber “Cicero Grimes.” Boone bursts open the doors of a stage office, carrying his saddle defiantly over his shoulders.
Unsuccessfully attempting to charm away Newman’s ticket for a departing stagecoach, Boone shrewdly sets his sights on an inexperienced cavalryman and challenges him to a gunfight. Guess who got the ticket?
When viewing his films over 35 years after his untimely death from protracted throat cancer, one thing becomes clear — you can’t take your eyes off the sizzling actor who relished both barrels blazing. Keep reading as Rothel, who resides in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Dahlonega, Georgia, perfectly illustrates why Boone deserves your attention.
The David Rothel — Richard Boone Interview
How did you first become aware of Richard Boone?
I first became aware of Boone when he starred in the TV series Medic in 1954, which had the unfortunate distinction of being broadcast on NBC at 9 p.m. on Monday evenings opposite the enormously popular I Love Lucy on CBS. The ratings for Medic were never very good, but the series was a critical favorite.
I was impressed with the series and thought that Boone was outstanding in the role of Dr. Konrad Styner. Also, I recognized his voice as an actor who frequently was cast in radio’s Dragnet.
Later I was able to put the pieces together when I discovered that the originator of Medic, James Moser, had worked with Jack Webb on Dragnet and got to know Boone there. Boone also had an important featured role in the movie version of Dragnet, also in 1954.
Did you immediately become intrigued?
Yes, I immediately became intrigued with Boone as an actor. I was just a kid in high school at the time, but I was very much interested in acting and directing. So I paid attention to a talented actor like Boone and followed his work in television and films as he became more and more prominent.
When Have Gun — Will Travel eventually came along later in the 1950s, Boone was a very familiar actor to me. I felt the role of Paladin cemented his status as one of the leading actors of the time. From then on he could “call the shots,” working in film or TV, as he wished.
How did your early interest in Medic and Have Gun Will Travel ultimately manifest itself into a full-blown book exploring Boone’s life and career?
Sometime in the mid-‘90s I was attending a western film festival in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the publisher of my recent books was also in attendance. In a when-are-you-going-to-get-busy-and-start-a-new-book conversation, I mentioned Richard Boone and that he, in my estimation, had the best western series on television — Have Gun Will Travel — and that I might want to do a book on his life and career.
My publisher thought Boone would be a great subject for a book and just happened to know someone who could put me in touch with Boone’s son, Peter, who lived in Virginia. Soon I had Peter’s phone number, called him, and told him of my interest in doing a book on his father. We agreed to do a phone interview first to explore the book idea.
Peter told me during the long phone interview that he felt very comfortable with me and wanted me to do the book. After a second lengthy phone interview that went exceedingly well, Peter invited me to come visit him and his family for an upcoming weekend so that he could show me some of his dad’s memorabilia and we could talk more.
Peter then put me in contact with other family members and the few people he knew who were associated with his father — one person led to another and then another and presently I had the makings of the book. Richard Boone was highly thought of by his show business co-workers, and I found them happy to talk with me about him.
It took me about a year to research and write the book and another nine months or so for it to go through the publication phase. It has been one of my most popular books of the 13 I have written.
Can you recall some of the memorabilia that Peter showed you?
Peter had a sea trunk that was filled with costumes that his father had worn in films and the various TV series. I remember that his costume from The Alamo — which starred and was directed by John Wayne and where Boone played General Sam Houston — was in the bottom of the trunk — see the leather-fringed coat on page 162 in the book.
The yellow poncho that he wore in Big Jake — again with Wayne — was also in the trunk. That was the costume piece that I was most envious of because I thought Boone was excellent in the film and vividly remembered the bright yellow poncho he wore as the chief villain.
As Peter and I were walking through his house, I noticed an interesting doorstop. It was the Golden Globe Award his father had won for outstanding dramatic TV program for 1963–64 for The Richard Boone Show — see the photo on page 245 in the book.
How would you describe your experiences with Boone’s widow, Claire? Did she regret any of her husband’s escapades?
Claire was a delightful lady during the interviews and comfortable talking candidly about Richard. She was very self-assured and was able to look at her relationship with Richard in a very loving but objective way.
She was aware of his occasional straying, but she knew that he loved her and that he always came home to her. I’m sure she may have regretted some of his escapades, but she was very forgiving and realized that a man with his fame also had many temptations.
Who were you most excited to interview?
I think I looked forward to meeting and interviewing the people for the book with pretty much equal enthusiasm.
I can say that I approached the interview with actress Bethel Leslie with some trepidation because I knew that she and Richard had had a relationship and that I would need to broach the subject with her. When I asked her about it late in the interview, there was a very long, extremely long, pause and then she said, “Next question.”
Did anyone turn you down during the interview process?
Surprisingly, nearly everyone I asked for an interview agreed to make time for me. I think that son Peter and wife Claire’s enthusiastic support for my work on the book helped clear the way for me. The fact that Richard was so well liked by his associates also made it easier to acquire interviews.
Richard’s stand-in/stunt double Hal Needham, who later gained fame directing six films starring Burt Reynolds like Smokey and the Bandit and The Cannonball Run, was an escapee from my interviewing clutches.
A mutual friend promised to set up the interview for me through Needham’s wife, who was also his business manager at that time. I was told the interview was all set, but when I made the call to Needham’s office, I got a cool reception and was told that he was on location with a film and wouldn’t be back for over a month.
I was never sure whether the friend who set it up might not have been in the good graces of Needham at the time, or if Needham didn’t want to talk about Boone — or whether the excuse for not getting the interview was legitimate.
Anyway, this was late in the development of the book. I never heard again from his office, and I didn’t pursue it further. I do regret not getting an interview with Hal Needham for the book, who sadly passed away on October 25, 2013.
During your conversations, was there a unifying theme about Boone that emerged?
If there was a unifying theme that came out in the interviews — and I’m not sure that there was — it would probably be the sense of fun and excitement that Richard brought to whatever project that involved them. The man was just fun to be around.
Boone experienced Kamikaze attacks and hand-to-hand combat in the Pacific theater of World War II. Did you uncover any rare instances where Boone momentarily dropped his guard and discussed or wrote about his World War II service?
To the best of my knowledge Boone never discussed his horrific wartime experiences with anyone. Only a series of poems that he wrote, both during and after the war, vividly reveals the impact the war had on him. He seems to have written them only for himself, a sort of catharsis for himself, and not really for sharing with others or explaining to others how he felt about his war experiences.
Is there a correlation between Boone’s drinking and battle scars? Did he suffer any disturbing flashbacks later in life?
I’m no psychiatrist or psychologist and I don’t know about any post-war flashbacks Boone had, but I don’t think that there is much doubt that his often excessive drinking was related to the demons that still frequently haunted him as a result of his war experiences.
Let’s visit the five or six journeyman years of Boone’s career before he became a household name. Was his acting prowess readily apparent, or did it take a while to manifest itself?
If you go back and look at his early films for Twentieth Century-Fox, you see an actor who was commanding / authoritative in his roles — even in relatively small roles.
A good example is Man on a Tightrope — directed by the great Elia Kazan in 1953 — in which he plays the villain. When Boone is on screen, you can’t take your eyes off him. He had studied with Kazan at the Actors Studio in New York after the war, and Kazan remembered from those classes what a powerful presence Boone was as an actor.
Right from the beginning of Boone’s film career his talent was noticed, appreciated, and sought after by top directors such as Lewis Milestone — who became a sort of mentor and, later, close friend — Henry Hathaway, Delmer Daves, and others.
I had no idea until reading the book that Randolph Scott, Boone’s costar in director Budd Boetticher’s landmark western The Tall T, was first offered the role of Paladin (Boone accepted the iconic role mere months after completing The Tall T). Can you envision Randolph Scott as Paladin? Also, you encouraged readers to “picture Paladin turned vicious and cruel” in your description of outlaw “Frank Usher,” Boone’s character in The Tall T. Boone’s ability to portray conflicting emotions is on vivid display in The Tall T.
Have Gun would have been a very different show, of course, if Randolph Scott had gotten the role. As fine a Western actor as Scott was, he could never have brought out the depth of emotions and the sophisticated, intellectual attributes of the character as well as Boone did.
As I pointed out in the book, Boone’s playing of Frank Usher is very similar to his playing of Paladin — he’s just gone over to “the dark side” for The Tall T. His ability to play conflicting emotions so well is just an indication of what a d — ned fine actor he was — and any d — ned fine actor should be able to convey conflicting emotions vividly. That’s the theatre director in me talking now [laughs].
Why do you feel that Boone had the best Western series on television with Have Gun — Will Travel?
I think the many-layered character of Paladin as portrayed by Boone made for a great leading character in the series. Then you had strong, compact 26-minute scripts that ranged from shoot-’em-ups, to comedy — sometimes nearing slapstick — to serious drama, to social issues — many of the stories metaphors for current social issues.
The series had outstanding directors. Andy McLaglen, a favorite of John Wayne, directed over 100 episodes. Other top directors included Lamont Johnson, Buzz Kulik, Ida Lupino, and, later, Boone himself proved to be a fine director.
The series also had outstanding guest actors who came to the series because it was a quality production, a good show with which to be associated. Notable actors such as Vincent Price, John Carradine, June Lockhart, Victor McLaglen, Charles Bronson, George Kennedy Angie Dickinson, Harry Morgan, Ben Johnson, Ida Lupino, Robert Blake, Harry Carey, Jr — the list goes on. Bottom line:Have Gun — Will Travel was just a terrific series.
Did Boone attempt any studio recordings during Have Gun — Will Travel’s heyday?
He made one commercial recording during his career, “The Guns of Rio Muerto,” which was on the flip side of the original 1958 forty-five rpm single of “The Ballad of Paladin,” written and recorded by Johnny Western.
Johnny told me that he, Boone, and then story editor on Have Gun Sam Rolfe sat down together on the day Johnny recorded “The Ballad of Paladin” and wrote “The Guns of Rio Muerto.” When they had it completed, Johnny did the singing, Boone did the narration, and they cut the record.
Johnny felt that he owed his whole career to Boone for his support when Mitch Miller, the head of Columbia Records, wanted to take Johnny off the recording of “The Ballad of Paladin” and give it to popular singer Jerry Vale to record. Boone heard about it and made a blistering phone call to the label impresario that resulted in the song going back to Johnny — thus a successful recording career was born.
Boone directed 28 episodes of Have Gun Will Travel and a further five of his ill-fated Richard Boone Show. As he had no prior directing experience, did Boone have to undergo a lot of arm twisting with CBS/Paramount to convince them that he could direct?
By the time Boone informed CBS/Paramount about his desire to direct some episodes of Have Gun, he had the clout of a hit show behind him and tremendous popularity with the public and with co-workers. Nobody was going to tell Boone “No” [Author’s Note: Broadcast during the middle of the third season on Feb. 6, 1960, “The Night the Town Died” was the first episode with Boone behind the camera].
Richard Boone was a very smart man and knew the business of acting and had worked with some fine directors from whom he had learned much. Boone greatly admired director Lewis Milestone, and I think he would be the first to state that Milestone had a considerable influence on him as a director.
Boone quickly established himself as a competent director. He seemed to have a fondness for and liked to inject a noir quality into his direction at times. “The Walking Years” and “Sweet Lady of the Moon” are two fine examples from the final season of Have Gun. “All the Blood of Yesterday”  would be a good example of the noir touch from the later Richard Boone Show.
But to be accurate, he directed a variety of episodes, from comedy to brutal, action-filled shoot-’em-ups. The same was true for The Richard Boone Show anthology series. That series was Boone’s baby, and he had pretty much complete control on the series for as long as it lasted — unfortunately only one season, yet it was a great one.
How did his fellow actors rate Boone’s skills behind the camera?
The actors I talked to about Boone were all complimentary regarding his ability. I think every actor in Hollywood would have been happy to work with him.
Robert Fuller, who starred in three popular television series during the ’60s and ‘70s — Laramie, Wagon Train, and Emergency! — told me about being in an acting class that Boone conducted in the mid-1950s in Hollywood and how much he learned from Boone during that time. Those acting classes went on for a number of years. Fuller told me that sometimes Boone showed up for the class still in his Paladin costume.
Was there a reason why Boone didn’t pursue movie directing further?
I don’t really know why Boone didn’t move on to feature film directing. My guess is that by the time he completed his four television series he was having some health problems and just wasn’t up for what that would entail. Anyway, he was known primarily as an actor to most of the public and to most in the industry. He was in his late fifties. It was too late; his time had passed.
What Boone projects would you encourage young adults to investigate?
I would want, of course, to recommend the Have Gun series, but since teenagers seem to have problems with black and white visuals, I would probably first recommend Boone’s role as the villain in the John Wayne film Big Jake. Boone was the consummate bad guy. It was a role that showed Boone’s ability to portray the darkest side of human emotions and cruelty.
In contrast, I would suggest his cameo performance as the courageous, troubled, and compassionate Sam Houston in another Wayne film, The Alamo.
At this point I would spring the black and white Paladin on our teenager and show him Boone as the western hero who “does what a man has to do” to see that justice prevails — as troubling as the task is for him in most cases.
I find that most people have forgotten Boone’s marvelous one-season television series, The Richard Boone Show.
This one-hour weekly anthology series had an outstanding repertory company of actors (Robert Blake, Guy Stockwell, Harry Morgan, Bethel Leslie, and Jeanette Nolan, among others) who played the roles, big and small, in all of the eventual 25 episodes that were produced and aired on NBC in 1963–64. There were comedies, dramas, period pieces — just a wide variety of stories with Boone appearing in different roles — as did the other actors — each week.
It is hard to find episodes of the series today. They were never released on VHS or DVD, but I had a kind person make the entire series available to me when I was writing the book. Someone needs to make this series available to today’s viewers.
Boone’s later Hec Ramsey series [1972–74] was good, but, in my opinion The Richard Boone Show was right up there with Have Gun in quality television programming.
Was Boone approachable in public?
Yes, Boone was approachable in public. He realized and appreciated the fact that it was the fans who had made him a TV and film star — that he wouldn’t/couldn’t exist without them. He didn’t, however, suffer fools well and, as with most public figures, he found the overzealous and “gushy” fans an annoyance. No surprise there!
I can’t cite a specific instance as an example of his approachableness, but my interviews with family and coworkers certainly support these comments. He was a big, burly, and frequently, gruff person, but he was smart enough to know that he needed all those folks “out there” if he was to continue successfully in the business of “show.”
What is your favorite Boone death scene in a movie?
My personal choice for favorite death scene by Boone may not be his best one, but it is my favorite — and it is from Big Jake.
As I point out in the book, one of the casting problems in a John Wayne picture of this latter part of his career was to find an actor who had the menacing stature to play the villain in such a way as to make the conflict with the towering Wayne convincing. Boone could handle that task with ease.
In Big Jake there is a long and vicious climactic scene between Wayne and Boone and their cohorts that lasts until Boone is finally shot from his horse and falls violently to the ground. Dying, he asks Wayne, “Who are you?” Wayne replies, “Jacob McCandles.” Boone says, “I thought you was dead.” Wayne, “Not hardly,” and Boone crumples over dead. It is the strength of their final conflict that makes the death scene so powerful, not just the final lines.
While Boone received Emmy nominations for his television work — Medic, Have Gun Will Travel, and The Richard Boone Show — he never won the coveted award. On the movie front, the Oscars inexplicably never recognized his immense talent…even with a nomination. Was Boone deserving of an Emmy or Academy Award?
I’m not really surprised that Boone never was awarded the big prizes for his film and television roles. Much of his best work was in Westerns, a genre that doesn’t usually get much respect at awards time — although there are exceptions, of course, such as Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
I think he came closest in films with Hombre and Big Jake in the supporting actor category. Certainly Have Gun was his best shot at an Emmy. He did win a Golden Globe for outstanding TV dramatic show for 1963–64 for The Richard Boone Show.
Did Boone’s propensity for total control over his work cause him to lose any significant roles?
I don’t really know the answer to the question. There’s no question that Boone could be “difficult” at times, and he was certainly demanding, as far as wanting to be associated with quality work. Nevertheless, people wanted to work with him because he did good work.
I am intrigued by your “Citizen Kane approach to biography” as illustrated in Richard Boone: A Knight Without Armor in a Savage Land. What book project did you first apply this method?
I also used my so-called Citizen Kane approach in the book that immediately preceded the Boone book, my book on actor Tim Holt. He was a famous film star — e.g. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Magnificent Ambersons — B-movie cowboy, as well as a war hero of World War II.
In the Citizen Kane film you first get the “newsreel” coverage of Kane, which summarizes the main events of his life — my Q & A section. Then the film tells the story of Kane through the reminiscences of his friends, enemies, and colleagues — my interview section.
Through this interaction Kane also gets the chance to state his own feelings/beliefs/etc. — my quotes section. The audience — the reader — thus gets a “rounded” picture of Kane — Boone/Holt — with many different views/aspects included.
What project(s) are you currently working on?
Actually, I’m trying to retire again but seem to get pulled back into book and theater projects. In 2013 I was approached by Riverwood Press in Nashville — in association with The Lone Pine Western Film History Museum — about repackaging/republishing two of my early books — Who Was That Masked Man? The Story of The Lone Ranger and Those Great Cowboy Sidekicks — that had been out of print for some years. That was done, and I was very pleased with the results.
They then proposed the republication of two more of my books that were out of print: Tim Holt, which was originally published in 1994, and The Singing Cowboys in 1978. This was accomplished in 2015–16, and both books are now available in softcover on Amazon.
My book on Richard Boone is out of print at this time, and I am not sure there will be a republication or digital copy made available. There is a possibility that it will be the next republication by Riverwood Press and the Lone Pine Museum, but I don’t know that for sure.
Towards the end of his life, was Boone a contented individual — both personally and career-wise?
No, I wouldn’t describe him as a contented person during the last years of his life. I mentioned to his son Peter that I had a sense of the restless Lion in Winter about Boone’s last years when he lived in St. Augustine, Florida. He agreed with me. Peter said that his father started painting again, “a very reclusive sort of thing, an activity involving only himself and the canvas.”
When Richard went out to Los Angeles looking for acting work in the late 1970s, the people he talked with were in their twenties and weren’t familiar with his fine work over the years. Peter told me that his father came back from LA “just distressed, extremely distressed. They didn’t know who he was. That’s what he told me; they didn’t even know who he was. It was devastating to him.”
Then came the throat cancer in 1980, and his death followed in January of 1981. Richard was only 63 years old.
Whenever I hear the name “Richard Boone,” I immediately conjure an image of an imposing, intelligent, battle-scarred cowboy who excelled at playing villains. His zest for life was contagious, particularly as it seemed like the earth shook when Boone’s deep laugh erupted. How would Boone have liked to have been remembered?
I think you’ve nailed him pretty well in that description. I feel that’s a whole lot of the way he would want to be remembered and is remembered. And let me emphasize that he is remembered — especially for Have Gun Will Travel and his character of Paladin.
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