THE RESTLESS GUN – 10 Facts About The 1950s Western Starring John Payne
What happens when a gunfighter doesn’t want to be a gunfighter anymore? That’s the story of The Restless Gun, an innovative Western series celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
John Payne stars as Vint Bonner, an aging cowboy looking to retire his six-shooter in post-Civil War Texas. Bonner drifts from town to town on his trusty horse Scar, trying to find work and avoid trouble. Sometimes he’s successful, sometimes he isn’t.
With the lead character’s commitment to peaceful conflict resolution, The Restless Gun is a departure from the typical violent shoot-em-ups of the era. Plus, the unique storytelling format – a new cast of supporting characters in each episode – gives the series the feel of an anthology. And it provides a showcase for fine character actors, including Angie Dickinson, James Coburn, Claude Akins, Denver Pyle and Chuck Connors.
At the center of the action is Payne, a leading man with a quarter century of film credits under his (gun) belt. The veteran performer combines two Western stock characters, “The Drifter” and the “Retired Gunman,” and crafts a complex anti-hero with a powerful backstory.
Best of all, The Restless Gun now airs on getTV every day of the week! Here are some fun facts about this underrated series and its star:
1. John Payne got his start as a singer.
After studying voice at New York’s Julliard School, the Virginia native was hired by the Shubert Organization as a stock player for touring theatrical productions. Payne signed his first film contract with Warner Bros. in 1937, appearing in musicals opposite stars like Olivia de Havilland and Pat O’Brien. He moved to 20th Century Fox in 1940, where he was paired with their most popular leading ladies – Alice Faye, Betty Grable, and Sonja Henie – in big-budget musicals.
2. He saved Santa Claus.
Ironically, the film Payne is best remembered for at Fox is one in which he didn’t sing. In Miracle On 34th Street, he plays young lawyer Fred Gailey, the man who proves that Edmund Gwenn is Santa Claus and wins the heart of Maureen O’Hara. With its timeless charm and Christmas setting, Miracle On 34th Street has been a holiday season staple for decades. Payne later said it was his favorite film.
3. He’s a film noir icon.
After 34th Street, Payne asked Fox to release him from his contract, and the actor became a freelancer at age 35. Over the next decade, he reinvented his screen persona in gritty crime films often made for independent producers. “John Payne was like a completely different performer in his film noir features – seething, brooding, the kind of guy who could impale you with his eyes,” Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, author of Bad Boys: The Actors Of Film Noir, told getTV. “Whether he was playing a cynical taxi driver, an embittered ex-con, or a ruthless mobster, Payne was made for noir.”
4. The Restless Gun was based on a radio show.
With his movie career slowing, Payne did what many film stars of the era did: he moved to television. On March 23, 1957, he headlined an episode of the CBS anthology series The Schlitz Playhouse of Stars entitled The Restless Gun. Payne portrayed Britt Ponset, a character originated by Jimmy Stewart in the 1953-54 radio series The Six Shooter. When the show was picked up by NBC as a series, the lead character’s name was changed to Vint Bonner. More than two dozen episodes were based on scripts for the radio show, created and written by Frank Burt.
5. Payne wasn’t just the star.
Payne was executive producer of The Restless Gun and his Window Glen Productions held an ownership stake in the series. He also wrote or co-wrote four episodes, including the season one Christmas show The Child (nominated for a Writer’s Guild of America Award). Payne’s script for the season two premiere explains Bonner’s backstory and why he chooses to avoid violence. It also set up a unique acting challenge for the actor….
6. Payne played dual roles. Twice.
In Jebediah Bonner, Payne plays both Vint and his grandfather, an elderly gunman who lost his son and daughter-in-law – Vint’s parents – to violence. (Vint as a child is played by Dennis Holmes.) Payne must have enjoyed playing dual roles, because he did it again just five months later. In Dead Ringer, he plays Gene Baroda, a lookalike gunfighter who frames Bonner for bank robbery and murder. That episode ends with a gun fight between John Payne and John Payne! (SPOILER ALERT: John Payne wins.)
7. His daughter was a guest star.
In the season two episode The Pawn, 18-year-old Julie Payne guest stars as the deaf daughter of a cattle rustler. Julie was John’s daughter with actress Anne Shirley, and her daughter Katharine Towne (John’s granddaughter) is also an actress in films like Mulholland Drive.
8. You could play a Restless Gun board game.
Despite the show’s thoughtful, older-skewing stories, The Restless Gun was heavily marketed to kids. There were 45 RPM records of the show’s theme, action figures, a gun and holster set, trading cards, a board game, coloring books, a novelization for young readers, and a five-issue Dell comic book.
9. The Restless Gun lived on. Sort of.
Despite drawing an audience of more than 27 million viewers every Monday night at 8 p.m., The Restless Gun did not return for a third season. But the show’s DNA lived on in one of TV’s most beloved Westerns. Just three months after the finale, series writer/producer David Dortort created Bonanza for NBC. He hired two Restless Gun veterans as members of the Cartwright family: Michael Landon (Little Joe), who had played a villain in the pilot and Dan Blocker (Hoss), who guest starred on five different episodes. More than 200 actors and creative staff members from The Restless Gun worked on Bonanza during its 14-season run.
10. John Payne was almost James Bond.
While Vint Bonner wasn’t a lawman and (technically) didn’t have a license to kill, Payne almost played a guy who did. “It was John Payne who first saw 007 as a bankable film property,” Bond historian James David Patrick told getTV. “The actor optioned Ian Fleming’s third Bond novel Moonraker in 1955, but relinquished the rights when studios told him the material was too titillating for mass consumption.” How times have changed!
The Restless Gun airs weekday mornings and weekend afternoons. For airtimes, visit the getTV schedule.