THE RESTLESS GUN — 10 Unforgettable Episodes Of John Payne’s 1950s Western Series
Westerns have always been populated by stock characters. The Restless Gun combines two archetypes of the genre — “The Retired Gunman” and “The Drifter” — into one uniquely complex anti-hero.
John Payne — the lawyer who saves Santa in Miracle On 34th Street (1947) — stars as Vint Bonner, a notorious gunman who’s not looking for trouble in post-Civil War Texas. (It always finds him, of course, because otherwise there would be no show.) Bonner is part guardian angel, part reluctant mercenary, traveling from town to town dispatching desperados the local law can’t handle. And, despite his skills with a sidearm, his distaste for killing makes him more likely to wound than kill. In that regard, The Restless Gun is a departure from many of the primetime shoot-em-ups of 1950s.
You can see when we mean every Saturday, as getTV brings this classic series out of the vaults for fans old and new! Six episodes of The Restless Gun binge every Saturday morning from 6a to 10a ET.
The Restless Gun began life as The Six Shooter on radio, a medium that brought us a number of Western dramas with complex characters. Film icon James Stewart starred for one season on NBC radio in 1953-54, with Payne taking over when it made the transition to TV. Payne first played the character — then called Britt Ponsett — on a March, 1957 episode of the anthology series The Schlitz Playhouse Of The Stars (in a pilot that featured 20-year-old Michael Landon as a snickering bad guy). When The Restless Gun debuted as a weekly half-hour series six months later, Ponsett became Bonner and Payne became a TV star. Pretty much everything else stayed the same, including the lead character’s narration of his own adventures. And many of the TV episodes were adapted from radio scripts by creator Frank Burt.
While the pilot had the corny theatrics of a Saturday serial, The Restless Gun series was a slightly more thoughtful affair. But it still attracted a kid audience, who enthusiastically scooped up Restless Gun coloring books, board games, trading cards, comic books, and toy guns. Guns weren’t treated like toys on the series, though, especially by the hero.
“The whole Frontier knows how you feel about killing,” a varmint says to Payne’s character in the first episode. For two seasons and 78 episodes, Vint Bonner was a gunfighter who sought peaceful solutions first. Sometimes he was successful; often he was not.
Best of all, The Restless Gun is like a parade of great character actors from classic film and television, from up-and-comers to veterans. Here are ten episodes featuring faces that remain familiar more than 60 years later.
1. Duel At Lockwood (Season 1, Episode 1 — Airdate: Sept 23, 1957)
The series begins with no origin story, just Bonner getting shot at while riding his trusty horse Scar. The man doing the shooting is preening punk Wes Singer (Vic Morrow, playing a meaner variation on Michael Landon’s pilot character). Needless to say, young gun Wes ends up in a face-off with old gun Bonner — surprisingly, at the urging of Wes’s kindly grandma (Olive Carey). Look for Frank Gorshin (The Riddler on Batman) as Morrow’s flunky and Walter Coy (The Searchers) as the Sheriff.
2. Trail To Sunset (Season 1, Episode 2 — September 30, 1957)
Episode two establishes the “different town every week” format, as Bonner encounters on-the-lam Link Jerrod (Jack Elam) on the trail to Sunset. Bonner has to protect the outlaw from a blood-thirsty lynch mob, including future Sheriff Lobo star Claude Akins, Malcolm Atterbury (Henry J. Fate on The Twilight Zone), and Roy Roberts (Bewitched, Petticoat Junction, etc) as a reluctant physician.
3. Jody (Season 1, Episode 7 — November 4, 1957)
If you’re going to buy the premise of The Restless Gun, you have to accept this: Bonner has a ton of friends he keeps up with, despite having no permanent address where he receives mail about their major life events. This episode finds him visiting the wife (Jeanne Bates) and son (Rip Torn) of a deceased fellow gunfighter. The son is a hothead, of course, and Vint makes it his business to convince him not to follow in his father’s path. Look for Martin Garralaga (Pancho from the 1940s Cisco Kid movies) and Dan Blocker, clearly a favorite of producer David Dortot. He cast Blocker five times — as five different characters — in The Restless Gun and he remembered him when he was hiring for his next series: Bonanza.
3. Silver Threads (Season 1, Episode 13 — Dec 16, 1957)
John Payne sings! This episode finds Bonner meeting up on the trail with a guitar-playing cowboy (Chuck Connors, a year before The Rifleman). When a man (Pierre Watkin) is shot by a singing gunman, Bonner suspects his crooning trail buddy. Gregg Barton (The Gene Autry Show) makes the first of his three appearances on the series, all as sheriffs.
4. Imposter For A Day (Season 1, Episode 22 — Feb 17, 1958)
Bonner rides into the town of Grizzly Hill looking for a relaxing shave (from Vince Barnett, doltish Angelo in the 1932 Scarface) and discovers that someone masquerading as him has killed a man. His investigation leads him to the dead man’s widow (26-year-old Angie Dickinson), who reveals that her husband’s death was a paid hit. Vint eventually comes face to face with the bogus Bonner, with tragic results for one of them. (Guess which one.)
5. The Gold Star (Season 1, Episode 35 — May 19, 1958)
Sheriff Jeb Barnes (Edgar Buchanan of Petticoat Junction), yet another F.O.B. (Friend of Bonner) is retiring and Vint comes to pay his regards. But while the town is celebrating, robbers are making off with $30,000 in gold from the bank. Look for longtime Western heavy I. Stanford Jolley and James Anderson (Bob Ewell in To Kill A Mockingbird) as the crooks, with Dick Elliott (It’s A Wonderful Life) as the mayor.
6. Jebediah Bonner (Season 2, Episode 1 — September 22, 1958)
The season two opener — written by John Payne — is the closest thing we get to an origin story. In a flashback to roughly 30 years earlier, we meet Marshal Jebediah Bonner (Payne, with old age makeup and a gravelly voice). Grandpa Jeb saves the sheriff (Don C. Harvey) from another young hothead (James Best, Rosco on The Dukes Of Hazzard) and we discover why Vint has an instinctual aversion to killing. Watch this episode first, if you can.
7. Incident At Bluefield (Season 2, Episode 26 — March 30, 1959)
When Bonner visits the town of Bluefield to pay respects to (another) dead friend, he discovers his death may not have been an accident. Look for Alan Hale Jr. (Skipper on Gilligan’s Island) as the sheriff, Dan Seymour (Casablanca) as a boozy judge, and John Litel (Nancy’s father in the 1930s Nancy Drew movies) and Morgan Woodward (Shotgun Gibbs on The Life And Legend Of Wyatt Earp) as the father-and-son killers.
8. The Pawn (Season 2, Episode 27 — April 6, 1959)
When another friend of Bonner’s (Onslow Stevens) is accused of rustling and threatened with hanging, our hero has to rescue his deaf-mute daughter from the actual criminals. Look for Denver Pyle (The Dukes of Hazzard), Stuart Randall (Laramie) and James Coburn as the bad guys. Coburn — in his second appearance on the series — is unforgettable as a would-be rapist who (SPOILER ALERT) ends up with a knife in his back.
9. Mme. Brimstone (Season 2, Episode 31 — May 4, 1959)
A lady blacksmith (Bea Benaderet of Petticoat Junction) hires Bonner to bring her grandson (Don Grady, a year away from My Three Sons) home from prep school, but the boy ends up falling prey to embezzlers (Leslie Bradley and Don C. Harvey again). This episode is a bit of departure for The Restless Gun, with Bonner playing social worker for a troubled family.
10. The Hill Of Death (Season 2, Episode 38)
Vint and his friend Dr. Lem Shepherd (1930s leading man Regis Toomey) investigate the beating of a young man. All evidence points to a fire-and-brimstone preacher (Jerry Brent) as the culprit, so Vint goes undercover to seek the truth. After 77 episodes, the saga of Vint Bonner came to an end with a (literal) bang, but no farewell. The episode ends with Vint riding off to his next adventure, forever restless.
The Restless Gun airs weekends on getTV. For more, visit the getTV schedule.