Richard Boone: Mad Man in the Old West

My introduction to actor Richard Boone (1917-1981) was no doubt atypical. Instead of initially encountering him through the many westerns for which he is best known, I first saw him in the 1977 Japanese/American tokusatsu film The Last Dinosaur. The movie, which also features Joan Van Ark and Steven Keats, originally aired on ABC TV, and I would occasionally catch it on television for years afterward. It’s a sci fi story in the “Lost World” genre. Boone plays a millionaire big game hunter named Maston Thrust, Jr. who has bankrolled a new invention called the polar borer. He and a crew take the invention to Antarctica to drill for oil, and emerge in hothouse jungle full of dinosaurs, cavemen and death. Boone made a huge impression on me in the film, gleefully chewing the scenery. His character is a son of a bitch but he’s having such a good time being one. It’s one of those movies where’s he’s kind of the villain (he’s the guy who put them in this predicament and doesn’t seem to care) but also one of the people you care about (he’s in the same predicament as the others and trying to get them out, in his own way). As I later learned he specialized in these kind of double-edged roles. At any rate, the title of The Last Dinosaur could have applied to Boone himself. This was one of his final films.

Originally from Los Angeles, Boone was descended from one of Daniel Boone’s brothers (which also makes him distantly related to singer Pat Boone). He saw action in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II, then attended the Actors Studio on the G.I. Bill. This Method orientation is important I think. I’d use Boone as an example of one of the controversial system’s greatest success stories, artistically at least. He had his psychology on tap and it could lead him to some monstrous places. There is something of Nietzsche in both his heroes and his villains. And yet, unlike Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger, he never lost sight of the performance. He got to scary places but he was always in control. He could “go there” but he was not a real cuckoo. That’s the sweet spot, I think.

Boone’s career progressed rapidly. He was a spear carrier in Medea on Broadway in 1947, followed by another small role in a play called The Man (1950), for which he was also assistant stage manager. He broke into film and TV around the same time. You can see him in minor but meaty roles in movies like Halls of Montezuma (1951), Man on a Tightrope (1953), The Robe (1953), and Dragnet (1954). He was the narrator of the 1955 screen version of Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife (1955).

Boone starred in his first TV series, Medic from 1954 through 1956, playing a hospital surgeon. The show was critically acclaimed. Boone was nominated for two Emmys. Immediately following came his best known role, that of the mysterious, philosophical hit man Paladin in the western series Have Gun – Will Travel (1957-1963). This was the ultimate “thinking man’s western”, and real prestige TV. The character is sort of a high priced fixer, living a life of luxury in San Francisco between jobs. A former Union officer in the Civil War, he is an apparent expert in all fields (especially various combat arts), but is also a connoisseur of things like fine food, wine and opera, an expert chess player, etc. He prefers to avoid violence if he can, but it never works out that way. Paladin’s dandyish-mustache suggests the Jack in a deck of playing cards; his name is that of one of Charlemagne’s knights. It was a show that stimulated the imagination. Boone directed over two dozen of the episodes of the show himself. This, and Boone’s three Emmy nominations, gave him the juice for his next program The Richard Boone Show (1963-64), a dramatic anthology series. Boone appeared in about half the episodes and directed a few himself.

Paladin was an enigmatic western hero. Yet in western films Boone more often seemed to play the villain, and here is where he did some of his more interesting acting. By virtue of this exceptional, idiosyncratic work Boone may just be my favorite actor in westerns. Chalk it up to his Method training, but when he is a bad guy, he is almost always complex, sometimes likable, which doesn’t make him seem less dangerous, just crazy. Or you can see his own justifications for the evil he does. It doesn’t make you sympathetic to his choices necessarily, it just makes a much richer story. He can be menacing, cynical, wounded, highly intelligent, and physically a beast. He is literally an actor whose performances are worth the price of admission. This combination of skills would have made him a perfect guy to star in horror films, but he’s only in one (I Bury the Living, 1958). The fact that he brought the skills to bear in the service of westerns sometimes brings a little “horror feel” to the genre.

He is terrific, for example in the Budd Boetticher/ Randolph Scott western Ten Wanted Men (1957). He plays a rancher who calls in the titular bad guys to terrorize a town so he can expand his ranch and win the love of his life (who instinctively hates him just like everybody else does). And yet Boone, as always, is tremendous. You feel for him even as he does the most despicable acts – he seems to be thrashing out at a world that hates him, so he hates it right back. In The Tall T (1957), another Boetticher/Scott western, Boone is, as always compelling as the leader of a ruthless gang of robbers. His malevolence seems as inevitable and implacable as death…but at the same time there appears to be something to him. He dislikes his fellow gang-members, but he DOES like the hero played by Randolph Scott. He knows character when he sees it. In Rio Conchos (1964), he plays a Confederate vet whose wife and kids have been killed by Apaches, making him demented and genocidally murderous. He’s at his villainous best as yet another robber in Martin Ritt’s Hombre (1967), taking an almost sensuous pleasure in his own villainy. Though the film also stars such heavyweights as Paul Newman and Fredric March, Boone’s is easily the most compelling and entertaining character. Other westerns he shone included Return of the Texan (1952). City of Bad Men (1953), Siege at Red River (1953), Man Without a Star (1953), The Raid (1954), Star in the Dust (1956), The Alamo (1960), A Thunder of Drums (1961), Big Jake (1971), Against a Crooked Sky (1975), The Shootist (1976) and God’s Gun (1976).

Adding to Boone’s effectiveness in westerns was the fact that he aged hard. Never exactly a handsome man, but with a face that always radiated intelligence, he’d developed some barnacles on his leathery hide by the 1960s. You saw and heard every cigarette and glass of whiskey in his performances. In westerns, this is what you might call a production value. Most actors try to forestall aging. Boone started to look like he’d fallen off the back of quite a few moving stagecoaches.

His face a production value

In 1972 he got yet another shot at a series. In Hec Ramsey he played a detective in the Old West. The setting was unusual, the early 20th century. His character was a former gunman, who now solves crimes using his wits. Produced by Jack Webb (with whom Boone had worked on Dragnet), Hec Ramsey was part of the NBC Sunday Night Mystery series, in a rotation with Columbo, McMillan and Wife and McCloud. It ran through 1974. That year, Hec Ramsey made the cover of TV Guide, and there is a great interview with fellow cast member Harry Morgan, himself a graduate of both the Group Theatre and Dragnet. Morgan compared him fellow holy terror George C. Scott: “Like Scott, Dick has a sponge-like brain for acting. His instincts and technique are perfect. Only he and Scott, among all American actors today, can dominate the screen with such power. And Dick can do it, morning after morning, no matter how enormous has been his carousing the night before.”

In The Night of the Following Day (1969) he teamed up with his old Actors Studio cohort Marlon Brando, and Rita Moreno, to play a latter-day villain, a ruthless kidnapper. Boone co-directed the film as well. Other interesting later films include Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement (1969) and the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep (1978) with Robert Mitchum. He was the voice of Smaug the dragon in the 1977 animated version of The Hobbit. His last role was that of Commodore Perry in The Bushido Blade (1981).

Boone was 63 when he died, contracting pneumonia while suffering from throat cancer.