It was a showdown worthy of the Old West, but it was taking place in a Rhode Island courtroom. On one side of the legal shootout was a 65-year-old mechanic named Victor DeCosta, on the other, the massive Columbia Broadcasting System—worse odds than High Noon. But in real life as in legend, the lone challenger came through. The court last month ruled that CBS was a program rustler.
DeCosta claims that the network stole the idea for its famous and successful series Have Gun, Will Travel from his own exploits and history. He has been suing CBS ever since the show began in 1957 to prove it.
The effort took a lot of ornery persistence, which DeCosta began developing early. His parents dead, he was a 21-year-old factory worker in Providence when the Depression hit. He hoboed his way west, learning to cowboy in a Chicago meat-packing yard. From there he went to Abilene first to become a ranch hand and later a rodeo performer, riding broncs and bulls throughout the southwest.
Finally lonesome for his brother and sister, DeCosta returned to Rhode Island, where he took a mechanic’s job, although his heart was clearly still in the saddle. He set up rodeos and horse shows and performed at hundreds of children’s benefits, wearing an all-black costume he devised to go with his thick mustache. In 1946, he says, he heard a spectator yell in Italian, “Paladino”—champion of knights. He adopted the name (minus the “o”), as he did the slogan “Have gun, will travel,” which he says two youngsters also yelled at him. In 1948 he had calling cards printed bearing the name and the slogan. In all, he gave away 250,000 of them. One, he believes, fell into the hands of an enterprising CBS employee.
In 1957, DeCosta turned on his television set and was astonished to see actor Richard Boone playing what looked like a mirror image of himself. He reached for his phone to call a lawyer. The legal wrangles—sometimes with his own attorneys—were monstrously complex, but DeCosta persevered. In 1962 he retained his present counsel, Alan Dworkin, who had sufficient confidence in DeCosta’s case to agree to work without fee—in exchange for half of any judgment. In the years that followed there were legal setbacks, adverse rulings, maddening delays. They made last month’s victory all the sweeter. In short, the district court magistrate found that CBS “deliberately appropriated” DeCosta’s image and calling card. The network will have to hand over a share of its “unjust enrichment”—an unspecified figure at the moment. While CBS will surely appeal, the amount conceivably could reach into millions.
That would please DeCosta, but the prospect hasn’t changed him. He still works for the state at $3.78 an hour. He lives on a 13-acre spread west of Providence with his wife Phyllis. His beloved black stallion, Tony, died two years ago and is buried there beneath a circle of flowers. DeCosta now keeps just a pony for his 14 grandchildren. When the settlement finally comes, he says, he is going to set up a western style camp for kids. “I’ve done just about everything I want,” says the man who faced down the CBS gang. “There’s nothing else I care to do.”