This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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|THE RELUCTANT WESTERNER
By Stewart Wright © 2012
From Radio Recall
, February 2012)
What do these four CBS Radio adult Western series GUNSMOKE, FORT LARAMIE, FRONTIER GENTLEMAN, and HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL have in common? One actor auditioned for the lead roles in all four series was offered the lead role in the first series, but turned it down and won the starring roles in the latter two series. John Dehner was that actor.
Dehner turned down the role of Matt Dillon in GUNSMOKE because he thought he might get typecast as an actor who specialized in playing Western roles. Yet John Dehner went on to appear in at least 234 of the 480 GUNSMOKE episodes; more than any other guest star. One week he might play a villain, the next a law-abiding citizen. He played cowboys, saddle bums, con men, cowards, and killers; he also played judges, Army officers, ranchers, and merchants.
So frequent were Dehner's appearances on GUNSMOKE that on at least nine episodes in which he appeared he was not even mentioned in the cast credits. On another occasion, the episode "Crack-Up" (which aired on 10/16/1960) his birth name, John Forkum, was used in the cast credits. Dehner also originated the role of the little old man, John, who would make a brief appearance and greet Marshal Dillon, often in the most unusual places like in the middle of the prairie.
John Dehner auditioned for the role of Lee Quince on FORT LARAMIE. Even though Raymond Burr wound up playing Capt. Quince, Dehner appeared in 14 episodes of the series. In the episode "Coward," John Dehner gives an exceptionally fine performance as Lt. Robbie Wendt, who was labeled a coward after he was court-martialled and demoted for failing to come to the aid of his commander during a battle.
As the star of FRONTIER GENTLEMAN, and HAVE GUN - WILL TRAVEL, Dehner played an itinerant English reporter and a complex hired gun. Both of the starring characters, J.B. Kendall and Paladin respectively, were men who had skill with a gun, but preferred avoid its use whenever possible. These were two of the last Western series on radio. The last of the 41 episodes of FRONTIER GENTLEMAN aired on 11/16/1958; the first HAVE GUN - WILL TRAVEL episode aired a week later. HAVE GUN continued for another 105 episodes until 11/27/1960.
Out of the 667 combined network episodes in these four CBS radio series, John Dehner either starred or made guest appearances in an incredible 394 episodes. That's nearly 60 percent of the episodes.
Dehner also had other Western roles on radio. He had the title role in a classic Western radio drama that was produced twice on the series ESCAPE: "Wild Jack Rhett;" in which he played a ruthless gunman who specialized in taming wild towns. John Dehner also appeared on other radio Westerns including WILD BILL HICKOK.
John Dehner also had an active career in television and movie Westerns. He appeared on at least 40 Western television series including THE ADVENTURES OF KIT CARSON, THE ALASKANS, A MAN CALLED SHENANDOAH, BAT MASTERSON, THE BIG VALLEY, BLACK SADDLE, BONANZA, BRANDED, BRONCO, CHEYENNE, CIMARRON CITY, F TROOP, FRONTIER JUSTICE, FRONTIER, HAVE GUN - WILL TRAVEL, THE HIGH CHAPARRAL, LARAMIE, LAW OF THE PLAINSMAN, LAWMAN, MAVERICK, THE MONROES, RAWHIDE, THE REBEL, THE RESTLESS GUN, THE RIFLEMAN, THE ROAD WEST, STAGECOACH WEST, STONEY BURKE, TALES OF WELLS FARGO, THE TEXAN, WAGON TRAIN, WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE, WICHITA TOWN, THE WILD WILD WEST, YOUNG MAVERICK, ZANE GREY THEATER, and ZORRO.
On THE WESTERNER, a highly regarded 1960 series created by Sam Peckinpah, Dehner had the featured role of Burgundy Smith. During the 1965-66 season, he played Morgan Starr on THE VIRGINIAN. Additionally, he played the same role in three episodes of GUNSMOKE that aired on radio and television: Nate Springer in "Crack-Up," Nip Cullers in "Tap Day for Kitty," and Wayne Russell in"Daddy-O." Dehner also appeared in many Western motion pictures including SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER, DIRTY DINGUS MAGEE, THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB, THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL (as the Narrator), THE LEFT HANDED GUN, TROOPER HOOK, and THE FASTEST GUN ALIVE.
Did John Dehner wind up being in typecast as a Western actor? No, not really. He had thousands of roles in radio that were of non-Western types. Also, in the majority of the approximately 150 television series and over 125 movies in which he appeared, Dehner did not play Western roles. John Dehner just happened to be a very talented actor who could play a wide variety of roles.