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Richard Boone

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Posted: Wednesday, April 22, 2009 12:00 am

Craggy Determination

by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry

A seventh-generation nephew of pioneer Daniel Boone (and a cousin of actor/pop singer Pat), Richard Boone was often noted more for his craggy features than his acting chops; articles written about him during his 30-year career rarely failed to mention his pockmarked face, one even labeling it “magnificently ruined.” But in performances that ranged from Honest Abraham Lincoln to a cultured gunslinger, Boone proved that he was more than just a not-so-pretty face.

Los Angeles native Richard Allen Boone was born on June 18, 1917, the second of three children of Cecile and Kirk Boone, a corporation attorney. “I was born with a lot of horsepower,” Boone said years later. “There was a lot cooking inside me, a lot of energy, and Dad was a strong man by will and by intelligence, and the combination of us was almost bound to result in periodic explosions.”

Following his schooling at the San Diego Army and Navy Academy, Boone enrolled at Stanford University in 1934. While there, he joined the school boxing team, winning the amateur light heavyweight boxing championship in two consecutive years. Then, during his junior year, Boone’s flair for the dramatic emerged when he joined his fraternity brothers in building a life-sized dummy, smearing it with ketchup, and leaving it in the road in front of the fraternity house. When a car came along and bumped the “body,” Boone ran into the street screaming that the driver had killed his brother. As luck would have it, the driver of the car was the wife of former president Herbert Hoover, a celebrated Stanford graduate, who exited the vehicle in such distress that she sprained her ankle.

“The dean and I had a long chat over this and other items,” Boone told The Saturday Evening Post in 1963, “and we both agreed that I should terminate my career at Stanford.” After his rather ignominious departure from Stanford, Boone took a job as a truck driver and laborer in the Southern California oil fields. Around this time he met and married his first wife, painter Jane Hopper, and moved with her to Carmel, California. There, her father, James, was among a group of artistic Bohemians who established an artists’ and writers’ colony in the 1920s that included Jack London and Sinclair Lewis.

In the close-knit community of Carmel, Boone tried his hand at short story writing and painting and took classes at the Chouinard School of Art, but he was forced to pay the bills through a variety of less artsy vocations, including bouncer, bricklayer, and bartender. By the start of World War II, Boone’s marriage was over and he abandoned his painting pursuits to join the Navy. He spent four years in the service, mostly as an aerial gunner in the South Pacific.

His creative spark still ablaze, Boone turned to acting upon his return to civilian life in 1946 and enrolled under the GI Bill at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse. During this lean period, he lived in a $65-a-month apartment that was once so cold that he reportedly burned his landlady’s furniture in the fireplace to keep warm.

Before long, Boone was appearing in a number of plays, but his career advances were often thwarted by his confident, strong-willed personality. In his Broadway debut, Boone played a soldier in Medea, and served as understudy to star John Gielgud, but left the production when he failed to move into the lead role after Gielgud’s departure. Next, he landed the role of “Yank” in a road company production of The Hasty Heart, but life on the road left him less than satisfied. “It was quite a rancid experience,” Boone told The Saturday Evening Post in 1960. “A chow dog which was the darling of the company was fed hot condensed milk in a pie plate. The dog would knock over the plate and the milk would spread and sink into the floor heaters of the bus. The smell was horrible. I got sick of living with it, so I quit.”

He had a similarly ignominious departure from a production of Macbeth, in which he played a minor Scottish nobleman. After mocking the play’s star, Michael Redgrave, Boone was fired.

Around this time, Boone landed a job ad-libbing sports announcements for CBS-TV in New York. He also performed in the short-lived television series, The Front Page, appeared on the ABC dramatic anthology series Actors’ Studio, and made a second—also unsuccessful—attempt at marriage, this time with singer Mimi Kelly. Between these activities, he took classes in modern dance with Martha Graham and studied at the Actors’ Studio with Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan.

While at the Actors’ Studio, Boone was asked by a student actress to read a few lines to her while she took a screen test for the 20th Century-Fox movie studio. Although Boone did not appear on camera, his voice caught the notice of director Lewis Milestone. This serendipitous viewing led to a contract for Boone with 20th Century-Fox, and a role in his first Hollywood feature, Halls of Montezuma (1951), directed by Milestone.

After this initial foray onto the silver screen, Boone was seen, mostly in villain roles, in a series of action/adventures and Westerns, including Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951), with James Mason in the title role; Red Skies of Montana (1952), which showed the perilous lives of smoke jumpers; and Way of a Gaucho (1952), directed by Jacques Tourneur. He appeared in four features in 1953, including two that led to his falling out with Fox execs. Boone was playing Pontius Pilate in the studio’s CinemaScope production of The Robe when he was directed to double up by playing in another film, Vicki, at the same time. The actor refused.

“I walked out and closed them down,” Boone said. He was eventually found by studio honchos, sunning himself at the beach. “They murmured something about holding up progress on a movie that would revolutionize cinema. Then they muttered something about suing this crazy New York actor. Finally they gave in. They punished me afterward, though. They gave me a part in a thing called Beneath the 12 Mile Reef. They said I’d play with Terry Moore, and I liked that fine. So they made me her father.”

Soon after the 12 Mile debacle, Boone was assigned to Kangaroo: The Australian Story (1952), which was filmed on location in Sydney, Australia. While there, he attended a cocktail party where he met Claire McAloon, a former ballet dancer, who was in the country visiting director Lewis Milestone and his wife. Claire later stated that Boone “took my hand and looked me in the eye, and we were married as soon as we got back to the States.” For the actor, the third time would be the matrimonial charm; he and Claire later welcomed a son, Peter, in 1953, and remained married until the actor’s death.

Meanwhile, Boone expanded his performance repertoire to include the medium of radio, appearing on a number of Dragnet shows, produced by Jack Webb, whom Boone had met working in his film debut. In 1953, Boone was contacted by Dragnet writer Jim Moser, who had penned a new television medical series and offered Boone the lead. With four years more to go on his contract with 20th Century-Fox, Boone ditched the studio and took on the role on Dr. Konrad Styner in Medic. During the show’s two-year primetime run on NBC, Boone earned two Emmy nominations.

“I was a father figure,” he said, explaining the appeal of his role. “I used to get letters by the hundreds. Many of them asked me to diagnose some illnesses; those that didn’t said I had an interesting face.”

During Medic’s run, Boone was seen in a number of feature films, including The Raid (1954), a Confederate-era actioner, and Man Without a Star (1955), starring Kirk Douglas. A year after Medic left the air, Boone was offered the starring role (after Randolph Scott turned it down) in the television series that would endear him to millions of fans, Have Gun, Will Travel. In this unusual Western drama, Boone played a cultured gunfighter for hire who named himself Paladin, after the legendary knights of King Charlemagne’s medieval court who were known for their defense of the weak and oppressed. A gourmet and connoisseur of fine wine, fine women, and artifacts from the Ming Dynasty, Paladin was not only quick on the draw, but he could quote Shakespeare, Keats, and Shelley. The show was easily identified by Paladin’s calling card, which showed the image of the white knight chess piece and the inscription, “Have Gun, Will Travel . . . Wire Paladin, San Francisco.” The show was a big hit for CBS and ran from 1957 to 1963, earning two Emmy nominations for Boone, and one for Best Western Series. Boone, who co-wrote the Have Gun theme song, directed a significant number of episodes.

“It’s the director who has all the fun,” Boone once said. “Any time a camera is involved, it’s the director who tells the story, more than the writer, producer, or anybody else.”

As he did during the production of Medic, Boone alternated his Have Gun duties with appearances on the big screen. The most popular of these was The Alamo (1960), in which he portrayed General Sam Houston. Boone refused a salary for his two scenes in the star-studded Western epic, asking only for the buckskin coat he wore in the film. In addition to the coat, star John Wayne gave Boone a Rolls-Royce. Boone traded the Rolls for a Maserati, which he crashed a few years later, suffering extensive facial cuts and bruises. To the press, Boone quipped, “You can’t damage a face like mine.” Also during Have Gun, Boone returned to his roots on Broadway, where he portrayed Abraham Lincoln in The Rivalry.

In 1963, after Have Gun, Will Travel ended, Boone launched The Richard Boone Show, a repertory theater program that presented original plays performed by the same group of actors each week, including Boone himself and such performers as Robert Blake, Lloyd Bochner, Harry Morgan, Jeanette Nolan, and Guy Stockwell. Noted Broadway playwright Clifford Odets was slated to serve as the series’ show editor and occasional writer, but he died suddenly, about a month before the series debut.

Although the series was slammed by some for poor scripts, most critics held The Richard Boone Show in high regard. In a typical review, TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory wrote that the program’s “range is wide, the characterizations are as original as the idea, and the acting is nothing short of superb.” It was even voted the “best dramatic program on the air” by Motion Picture Daily, but The Richard Boone Show was canceled in January 1964, before its 24 scheduled episodes had aired. Boone took the news about his pet project particularly hard—he’d learned of the program’s termination through a trade paper. Ironically, later that year, the program won a Golden Globe award for “Best Television Series.”

“This was a completely cavalier pulling out of the rug,” Boone said. “Of course, a thing like this is hard to separate out. There is a great deal of personal hurt, disappointment, chagrin, professional embarrassment, and a hell of a lot of anger and resentment that the thinking people of this country are being disenfranchised by Nielsen’s nitwits.”

Following the demise of his show, Boone packed up his family and moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where he started his own production company, Pioneer Productions, and returned to Hollywood for occasional films including The War Lord (1965), Hombre (1967), and The Night of the Following Day (1969), the last scenes of which were directed by Boone at the insistence of the film’s star, Marlon Brando.

In 1971, he moved to his wife’s hometown of St. Augustine, Florida, where he taught acting classes at Flagler College. He returned to series television the following year, starring in the title role of Hec Ramsey, one of four rotating programs that comprised the popular NBC Sunday Mystery Movie, along with Columbo, McMillan and Wife, and McCloud. This series, executive produced by Jack Webb, focused on a grizzled, turn-of-the-century lawman with a fascination for the new science of criminology; Boone characterized him as “Paladin, from Have Gun Will Travel, grown older.”

“I like this Hec Ramsey. He’s dead honest,” Boone said. “He walks through all the ridiculous standards of Victorian America. If Paladin had lived all those years, he would have run out of patience with the idiots and would’ve gotten as grumpy as Hec. He would have said to the dame, ‘Lady, you’re not in distress. You’re just stupid.’”

When Hec Ramsey left the air after two years, Boone began teaching at the Neighborhood Playhouse—where his own acting instruction had started—and shared the directorship of the school’s acting department with his first teacher, Sanford Meisner. Throughout the 1970s, he alternated his teaching duties with continued appearances in a handful of feature films including Against a Crooked Sky (1975), in which he starred as a broken-down prospector named Russian; The Shootist (1976), starring his old friend John Wayne; The Big Sleep (1978), a weak reworking of the classic Humphrey Bogart starrer, and Winter Kills (1979), a political thriller with a roster brimming with notables from Hollywood’s heyday, including John Huston, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Dorothy Malone, and Ralph Meeker. Boone was also seen in a number of television movies, including The Great Niagara (1974), in which he portrayed an embittered old man obsessed with conquering Niagara Falls.

His last appearance was in the 1979 Kung Fu feature The Bushido Blade, where he played Commodore Matthew Perry. Before the film was released in this country, however, Boone died in St. Augustine of throat cancer. At the time of his death, 10 January, 1981, he was serving as cultural ambassador for the State of Florida.

In hundreds of television appearances and nearly 50 feature films, Richard Boone demonstrated that his was a talent with which to be reckoned. Although he was often typecast as the villain, he made the most of every role, and created a character in Paladin of Have Gun, Will Travel that is still remembered by fans today.

“Maybe success was necessary for me,” Boone said in a 1961 interview. “I believe that unless I achieved it, I would be a pretty miserable beast. Maybe I am a miserable beast. But now that I’ve got success, in some measure, I can decide what I want—and what I want, in a word, is to do the best work I can under the best possible conditions.”