When Richard Matheson published Journal of the Gun Years in 1991, he won the Golden Spur Award for best novel from the Western Writers of America straight out of the gate. This was quickly followed by The Gun Fight, the collection By the Gun, the horror-tinged Shadow on the Sun, and the fact-based The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickok. Many readers might not know that, rather than representing yet another new facet to the ever-protean author’s oeuvre, these books marked a return to territory he had trod at the beginning of his career on both page and screen.
While recuperating in a British hospital from combat-related injuries suffered in Germany with the U.S. Infantry in World War II, Matheson read two Westerns a day. He did not neglect the genre when he began publishing stories in a wide variety of magazines a few years later. His contributions were “They Don’t Make ’em Tougher” (Dime Western, May 1951), “The Hunt” (West, March 1952), “The Conqueror” (Bluebook, May 1954), “Too Proud to Lose” (Fifteen Western Tales, February 1955), and “Son of a Gunman” (Western Magazine, December 1955).
At the time Matheson and his friend Charles Beaumont eagerly plunged into the burgeoning medium of television, Westerns ruled the airwaves; 29 sagebrush series reportedly aired in prime time in 1959 alone. The fledgling screenwriters decided that they would benefit from a little mutual support outside their normal bailiwick of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. This led them to collaborate on episodes of various oaters and the now-obscure detective shows Bourbon Street Beat, The D.A.’s Man, Markham, Philip Marlowe, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective.
They fared better with Westerns, co-writing episodes of the classic series Wanted: Dead or Alive (“The Healing Woman”) and Have Gun—Will Travel (“The Lady on the Wall”), as well as the lesser-known Buckskin (“Act of Faith”). Matheson went solo on one episode of the long-running Cheyenne (“Home Is the Brave”) and six for Lawman, more than he wrote for any series except The Twilight Zone. Producer Jules Schermer ensured that his teleplays, including two based on unsold stories later published in By the Gun, were filmed as written, and used talented directors.
Other series to which Matheson contributed are readily available on DVD, including Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and now Thriller. But Encore Westerns has been airing episodes of Lawman weekdays at 9:00 AM, giving viewers a chance to catch some of his work that might previously have eluded them. The show features John Russell—who later popped up in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Honkytonk Man (1982), and Pale Rider (1985)—as the titular lawman, Marshal Dan Troop of Laramie, Wyoming, with Peter Brown as his young deputy, Johnny McKay.
In the second season’s “Thirty Minutes,” adapted from “Of Death and Thirty Minutes,” Jack Elam is the heavy who holds the occupants of a saloon hostage, demanding that Troop disarm. Matheson won the Writers Guild Award for his first of four third-season episodes, “Yawkey,” with a gunman (Ray Danton) stating his intention to meet Troop in the street and kill him. Stuart Heisler directed both “Yawkey” and “Samson the Great,” in which Walter Burke offers fifty dollars to anyone who can stay in the ring for two minutes with Mickey Simpson, previously seen in “Home Is the Brave.”
“Cornered,” based on “Little Jack Cornered,” puts Johnny at center stage as he is forced into a fatal confrontation with Frank DeKova, and then endures pressure to face up to his presumably vengeful son. “Homecoming” evokes the real-time structures of both “Thirty Minutes” and the classic High Noon as Troop awaits the arrival of escaped convict Marc Lawrence (also the director of “Cornered”). In the show’s fourth and final season, John Carradine made a memorable guest turn as “The Actor,” an alcoholic Shakespearean who brings dramaturgy and tragedy with him to Laramie in equal measure.
Long ago, Matheson adapted The Gun Fight into an unproduced screenplay with his friend William R. Cox, stuck the then-unsold novel into a drawer…and forgot he had written it in prose form, until he stumbled across it after the success of Journal of the Gun Years. I remember him telling me that he’d heard Martin Scorsese was interested in the genre, and he hoped to get a copy of Journal into Scorsese’s hands, but I don’t think anything ever came of it. He later adapted it for a miniseries to have been directed by Dan Curtis, only to have the project fall apart, yet we can still savor Lawman.