On 20 September 1953, one of my favorite old time radio Westerns debuted on NBC — Six Shooter. It was created and written by Frank Burt, who’d also written for The Whistler, The Man Called X, and The Unexpected. It was produced by Jack Johnstone (Buck Rogers, The CBS Radio Workshop, Richard Diamond, Somebody Knows, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, and others). The music director, Basil Adlam, arranged and conducted the theme, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “The Highland Lament.” The announcers were Hal Gibney and John Wald, who introduced each episode with the words “The man in the saddle is angular and long-legged. His skin is sun-dyed brown. The gun in his holster is gray steel and rainbow mother-of-pearl, its handle unmarked. People call them both “the Six Shooter.”
The only recurring character was Britt Ponset – played with greatness by Jimmy Stewart, who’d been interested in starring in a radio drama for some time before Six Shooter. Other actors that frequently appeared on the series included Parley Baer, Virginia Gregg, Harry Bartell, Howard McNear, Jeanette Nolan, Dan O’Herlihy, Alan Reed, Marvin Miller, and William Conrad (though often credited as “Julius Krelboyne” since, at the same time, he was starring on Gunsmoke over at NBC’s rival network, CBS).
Six Shooter is one of the finest examples of the Adult Western (no, I’m not talking about Bareback Mountain or How the West Was Hung). Unlike their juvenile counterparts in which a quick-draw sheriff in all white nearly always disposes of the villain in all black in a duel, Adult Westerns were more concerned with inner turmoil and moral gray areas, leading some to call them Western Noir.
The subgenre first arose in the 1940s with radio westerns like Hawk Durango (1946) and Hawk Larabee (1946) and films like I Shot Jesse James (1949). In the early 1950s, when TV began to erode the audiences of both film and radio with family-friendly fare, both film and radio responded by offering more examples of Adult Westerns with movies like Winchester ’73 (1950) and High Noon (1952) and radio series like Frontier Town (1952) and best of all, Gunsmoke (1952).
Six Shooter had something in its chamber that most radio programs didn’t – a movie star – in this case, Jimmy Stewart. As Britt Ponset, Stewart portrayed the wandering gunslinger as a reluctant, yet highly efficient, ronin cowboy. As is still mostly the case, even than film, radio, and TV stars rarely dabbled in more than one format (as they were and are competitors). Stewart was primarily a film actor, having built a reputation on films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), among others.
His first adult western film had been Destry Rides Again (1939). Beginning with 1949’s Winchester ’73, Stewart also began a fruitful collaboration on a series of noir-influenced adult western films with director Anthony Mann which continued with Bend of the River (1952) and Naked Spur (1953) before coming to radio.
Six Shooter wasn’t Stewart’s first foray into radio. He’d previously graced anthology programs like Lux Radio Theater‘s The Screen Guild Theater as well as Screen Guild Theater, Theater Guild of the Air and others with his widely-imitated, slow, fumbling, South Midland drawl. He also appeared numerous times as a guest on radio variety shows. Six Shooter, however, was his first and only starring radio role.
On 13 April 1952, NBC’s Hollywood Star Playhouse anthology series aired an episode called “The Six Shooter” that — like the series to come — was written by Burt, directed by Johnstone, and starred Jimmy Stewart. A subsidiary of MCA-TV called Revue Productions expressed interest in fleshing out the episode into a series and reunited its participants.
The following year the group produced an audition script with guest stars William Conrad as Sheriff Ed Scofield, Ben Scofield as the sheriff’s son, Parley Baer as Fred Wilmer, and Herb Vigran as ‘Heavy’ Norton, the town blacksmith.
Less than a month later, Coleman Home Heaters became the series’ sponsor. It debuted on 20 September and ran for 39 more episodes. The episodes veered between tense action and light comedy, sometimes in a single program. In most, Ponset found himself drawn into a situation that he often ended up reluctantly shooting his way out of. It seems that the series was popular but Stewart probably found starring on a weekly series and continually making films too time-consuming. Although I haven’t seen any reputable sources to confirm it, by most accounts Coleman oddly dropped their sponsorship and Liggett & Meyers stepped in but Stewart was unwilling to star in a show hawking Chesterfields. It seems to me that, since the program was possible, some other sponsor could’ve been found if Stewart really wanted to continue doing the show. Whatever the reasons, it ended but luckily for modern fans, all episodes of the series remain in circulation today.
Six Shooter moved to television in 1957, re-titled The Restless Gun, and without the involvement of Stewart or Johnstone but with Burt onboard for its two-year run as aconsultant. Instead of Britt Ponset, its protagonist was Vint Bonner — played by John Payne.
Stewart revived the Ponset character for two 1957 episodes of the television anthology series General Electric Theater — “The Town with a Past” and “The Trail to Christmas” (although in the latter his name was for some reason changed to “Bart”). Two years later, the anthology Startime, based the episode “Cindy’s Fella” on Six Shooter’s “When the Shoe Doesn’t Fit” although in it Stewart played an unnamed character rather than Ponset.
Stewart continued making films (including adult Westerns with Anthony Mann) like The Man from Laramie (1955 — co-written by Frank Burt), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and many more. In 1989 Stewart published a collection of poetry titled Jimmy Stewart and his Poems that I used to own a copy of although sadly seem to have long ago lost or misplaced.
Big thanks to the incomparable old time radio researchers at Digital Deli Too.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft Contemporary, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, CurbedLA, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Duolingo, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, and Twitter.