Wagon Train (1957–1965)
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So popular did the show become that it attracted an impressive array of "guest stars" -- Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Rhonda Fleming, Barbara Stanwyck, Leslie Nielsen, Lee Marvin, etc.
The earlier shows in the series were probably the best since they featured Ward Bond as the leader of the wagon train and Robert Horton as his scout. Ward's death in 1960 and Horton's departure in 1962 weakened the series though it maintained a respectable level of production for several more years.
While the TV westerns that arose in the Eisenhower years are now nostalgically regarded as fine "family" entertainment, it's curious that they often showed their leading actors stripped half-naked and subjected to various forms of torture. "Wagon Train" was no exception. On the 1-15-1958 episode titled "The Gabe Carswell Story," for example, a bare-chested Robert Horton is staked out spreadeagle-style under the scorching sun and left to die by a villainous "half-breed." And in the 12-13-1961 episode titled "The Traitor," Horton is stripped to the waist, tied to a wagon wheel, and whipped across his bare back. In both cases the sado-masochistic nature of these sequences is emphasized rather than muted and the exposed muscularity of the actor is openly exploited.
While Ward Bond could never be replaced, many viewers looked kindly on his successor, John McIntire. Robert Fuller, however, never quite seemed adequate as Robert Horton's replacement.
At the Western Film Festival in Tombstone Arizona (2004) - Mr. Horton stated that since the writers often changed from episode to episode - he wrote the biography for Flint McCullough - to ensure consistency for his character across all episodes. For example - one writer would write his character as an expert horseman - and the next would write his character as being less than expert with horses.
Take a look at the film credits of Ward Bond. You can hardly find a player, male or female, who at one point did not work with Ward Bond. All the more remarkable when you consider his rightwing politics and championing of the blacklist. The man was hated in some circles, but apparently no one denied his talent.
It was a simple concept, Ward Bond as Major Seth Adams and his team led a group of hardy pioneers across the plains and mountains to California post Civil War. EAch episode focused on those traveling in a particular wagon or someone they met on the way who was usually a name guest star.
Wagon Train was enormously popular. When Ward Bond died in November of 1960 it was national news. It was quite a month, his death and that of Clark Gable almost put the election of a new president named Kennedy out of the headlines.
Bond's death also allowed Wagon Train to pioneer what Law and Order later perfected, the revolving change of regulars. Only Frank McGrath and Terry Wilson stayed with the show for the entire run.
Frank McGrath and Terry Wilson were a pair of stunt men who worked a whole lot for John Ford and though they had done some roles with dialog in front of the camera, Wagon Train made their faces familiar to the public. McGrath was funny little guy as cook Charlie Wooster who must have kept them all amused because the regulars were forever complaining about his lousy cooking.
Wilson played Bill Hawks and comments have been made about the horrible continuity Wagon Train had. It sure did and the most glaring example was that when the show first started, Hawks had a wife named Emily in that first season. She was not only dropped. but later on Hawks referred to himself as a bachelor. Couldn't do that today.
John McIntire replaced Bond and was more than adequate as the father figure wagonmaster. There was a good episode that introduced McIntire as a temporary and sadistic wagonmaster played by Lee Marvin takes over and at the same time, the train picks up McIntire who's just seen his family massacred by Indians. McIntire is a former wagonmaster and he and Marvin have a confrontation.
Robert Horton was scout Flint McCullough and several episodes featured him in the lead and they took him to the places he was scouting with guest stars there for him to interact with. Supposedly political differences were pretty rife between him and Bond. He quit as he was planning to do anyway as I remember even after Bond died. Bad career move though, he never got anything as good as Flint McCullough again.
After that a host of new regulars came on the show, Robert Fuller, Denny Miller, and Michael Burns. The train came to an end in 1965. I was sorry to see it end.
Hallmark channel runs Wagon Train sometimes, here's hoping they start them again.
Each episode is beauty, as of now i am in season 1 episode 7. Brilliant. I can say this is one of the best TV serials i watched so far.
And also surprisingly in parallel i am also watching, Andromeda, Game of Thrones and Rome all are related to different periods.. cool.. i love this life. :) Thanks Youtube for Wagon Train complete episodes.
The Genre's greatest exponent and possibly the earliest example lies in GRAND HOTEL (MGM, 1932) with Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Berry, Lionel Barrymore, et al. It's cousin or sort of Wartime example of the type (sharing Playwright Vicki Baum); is HOTEL BERLIN (Warner Brothers, 1945) with Faye Emerson, Helmut Dantine, Raymond Massey, Andrea King, Peter Lorre, Alan Hale, Kurt Krueger, George Coulouris, Peter Whitney, Steven Geray, Hank Daniell* and a whole lot of other regular Warners Players.
Dangerous passage on Commercial Airliners was a popular variation on the "Troubled Microcosm" type story and THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (Wayne-Fellows/Warner Brothers, 1954) with "the Duke" and a huge supporting cast headed up this parade of Winged Tragedy. The Troubled Skies would soon grow crowded. Read on.
Arthur Hailey's novels provided fodder for adaptation; leading off with HOTEL (Warner Brothers, 1967). Following it by three years, we saw AIRPORT (Universal, 1970). Once again we have a film with a top notch cast featuring: Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jean Seberg, Jacqueline Bisset, George Kennedy, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin, Maureen Stapleton, Barry Nelson Dana Wynter, Lloyd Nolan, Barbara and our old friend from Courts' Hollywood Collectibles Shows here in Chicago, the very talented and personable Mr. Paul Picerni.
Arthur Hailey's AIRPORT, which has been called "HOTEL with Wings", is a unique movie. The one feature that sets it apart is that the film not only sired several sequels; but also a bastard of the line in the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker production, the send-up, AIRPLANE (Paramount, 1980).
AS it turns out, AIRPLANE! is a fracturing of another airliner disaster microcosm film, ZERO HOUR (Paramount, 1957) with Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell and Sterling Hayden; which in turn was scripted by the same Arthur Hailey!! So when the "Microcosm of Mankind" idea is to be applied to Network Television, what sort of a series would be the lucky recipient? THE WINNER is a Western, of course! Remember, Schultz; this was 1957 and the Horse Opera ruled Supreme!
WITH all of this expositional comparison and lead in done; we can now dig in to our victim of Today's "Roast", which is of course "WAGON TRAIN" (Revue Studios/Universal TV, 1957-65). The Series started off a winner and stayed out in front in the ratings race for most of its run on the Networks; being NBC, 1957-61 and ABC 1962-65.
It's simple, yet one that is deeply seeded in the Collective Psyche of the American People. We all know about pioneers, striking out from the relative safety of settlements in Colonies (Later States) located near either the Atlantic or the Gulf Coast and transporting whole families and their household possessions Westward; hoping for a new start, a better life and a chance to give their families what they never had for themselves. And all of this enduring of hardship was complicated by the uncertainty of their dealing with Hostile Indians, floods, snowy blizzards, mountains desserts and potential near starvation in "impassible passes."
The WAGON TRAIN Series began with a solid foundation. The cast was headed up by Ward Bond as Major Adams (1957-61) and was replaced after his death by John McIntire as new boss Christopher Hale (1961-65). Both men were properly autocratic and enough of a Father Figure to pull it off as THE Big Kahuna of the operation. Other regulars were: Terry Wilson (as Bill Hawks 1957-65), Denny Miller (as Duke Shannon1961-65), Robert Fuller (Cooper Smith 1959-65), Michael Burns (Barnaby West 1960-65), Robert Horton (Flint McCullough 1957-62) and last, but not least; everybody's Favourite Frank McGrath (Charlie Wooster 1957-65). Mr. McGrath's and Terry Wilson's being the only two players to go coast to coast with the weekly convoy of horse drawn "Ships of the Plains."
AS for Guest Stars, WAGON TRAIN never wanted for any; and it was designed to have at least one or two per weekly visitation in our homes. The list of visiting dignitaries from Hollywood's top Stars and Character Actors is as long as your arm. It included Dan Duryea, Carolyn Jones, Everett Sloane, Dana Wynter and Art Linkletter!
Each Hour-Long Drama was like a "B" Movie, telling the stories of yet again yet a different journey from oh, say Missouri to California, or the Oregon Territory, which as we all know includes the present day State of Washington as well as Oregon.
Now that mad for an awful lot of trips taking months and months; but we didn't care, as each story came to an acceptable, if not exactly always happy ending.
NOTE: * Okay, we give up! It should be Henry Daniell, not Hank Daniell. Boy, what a difference a little nickname makes! Just call it an early April Fools Joke, courtesy of Schultz and Myself!
Even though (at a 50-minute running time) a number of the episodes did tend to wear a little thin at times - (For the most part) - The overall majority of these 39 episodes were quite tightly scripted and believable.
I also found the "Old West" settings seemed authentic and the actors could usually be counted on to give convincing performances.
All-in-all - For anyone who enjoys watching top-notch TV Westerns from the 1950s - Wagon Train (filmed in b&w) was right on the mark. I especially liked actors Robert Horton and Terry Wilson.
The series debuted in the fall of 1957 at number 15 in the Nielsen ratings, rose to number two in the next three seasons,and peaked at number one in the 1961-1962 season. When it moved to ABC in the fall of 1962 the ratings began to decline and "Wagon Train" never again make the top 20 listings. The series starred Ward Bond as Major Seth Adams(Seasons 1-4) and was replaced upon his death by John McIntire as Christopher Hale(Seasons 4-8),and Robert Horton as Scout Flint McCullough(Seasons 1-5),and was replaced by Scott Miller(Seasons 6-8),and Robert Fuller(Seasons 7-8) along with Michael Burns(Seasons 5-8). Actors Frank McGrath and Terry Wilson were the only cast members that were with the series throughout it's entire run.
An array of directors included Virgil W. Vogel (who directed over 80 episodes of the series), along with Joseph Pevney, Jerry Hopper, Allen H. Miner, Earl Bellamy, Herschel Daugherty, David Butler, Christian Nyby, Sutton Roley, Sidney Lanfield, Andrew V. McLaglen, Mark Stevens, and William Witney. Fantastic writers included Norman Jolley, Jean Holloway, Aaron Spelling, Thomas Thompson, Calvin Clements, Gene L. Coon, David Swift along with Harold Swanton and John McGreevey contributed to some of the stories. "Wagon Train" was so popular it became the attraction for an impressive array of guest stars ranging from Bette Davis, Rhonda Fleming, Barbara Stanwyck, Lee Marvin, Ronald Reagan, Leslie Nielsen, Joan Crawford, Ernest Borgnine, Carolyn Jones, Robert Culp, Agnes Moorehead, Glibert Roland, Charles Bronson, James Caan, Burgess Meredith just to name a few. And lists goes on and on...."Wagon Train" kept on rolling in as the new regulars were added to the episodes until the train came to an end in the Spring of 1965.
The wagon train that should have had great stories foundered with the most predictable clichés during the run in which Ward Bond and Robert Horton were the mainstays. The writing was simply a rehash of every Hollywood formula ever. It looked to be written for women instead of men, as any gorgeous babe was killed off during this spree. One got the idea that the directors and writers were being jilted by (or for) such women.
The writing got much better for the later wagon master, and the later romantic muscle man, Duke. The stories became much more unpredictable, and had a taste of true theatrics to them.
The series had some action, but most was implied, and the "stage presentation" was of the utmost importance. That's why the writing was so important. It isn't because of the actors, who all did their jobs well. It was the direction and writing that plagued this series for too long. The subject matter was such that this should have been much better. This turned out to be one of the biggest disappointments in TV series history.
There were great "B" listers and superb character actors (Agnes Moorehead (Endora), Cesar Romero (the Joker), Elizabeth Montgomery (Samantha), Chuck Connors (Rifleman), Ryan O'Neil (Love Story), Robert Loggia (the Soprano's), Andy Devine (Twilight Zone), Angie Dickenson (Police Woman), Wally Cox (Underdog), Richard Deacon (Dick van Dyke), Dawn Wells (Gilligan), Russell Johnson (Gilligan), Hal Smith (Andy Griffith), Francis Bavier (Andy Griffith), Betty Lynn (Andy Grifith), Jack Cassidy (He and She), Ed Begley (12 Angry Men), James Gregory (Barney Miller), Robert Culp (I Spy), Don Grady (My Three Sons), Jay Silverheels (Tonto), James Whitmore (Twilight Zone), Archie Moore (Boxing Champ), Glenn Yarbrough (Singer), Yvonne Craig (Batgirl), Allen Hale Jr. (the Skipper), Fabian (Singer), Linda Evans (Dallas), Jay North (Dennis), Kim Darby (True Grit), Barbara Bain (Mission Impossible), Martin Landau (Mission Impossible), Ann B Davis (Brady Bunch), Annette Funicello (Singer), Warren Oates (Gunsmoke), Jack Albertson (Chico and the Man), Burgess Meredith (the Penguin), Nancy Reagan (First Lady), Joe Flynn (McHale's Navy), Dan Blocker (Bonanza), Bobby Darin (Singer), Cloris Leachman (Frau Blucher) Johnny Cash (Singer) and Leonard Nimoy (Spock) to name some of the hundred great "B" list stars).
This is not to minimize the contributions of Ward Bond, Robert Horton, John McIntire, Terry Wilson, Frank McGrath, Denny Miller, Robert Fuller and Michael Burns. Most were great actors/character actors in their own right, and deserve great credit for being able to work with the wide variety of guest stars that appeared each week.
Great casts and writing make for great shows, and this was a great cast (adequate to good writing). Only very rarely did a guest star fit poorly into the storyline, and the producers and directors integrated the guest stars into the show seamlessly. For someone who prefers science fiction and suspense to westerns, this is still one of my all-time favorite shows. Wagon Train can now be seen Tuesday through Saturday on MeTV. MeTV plays two episodes on Saturday; a 1 hour b/w show early in the morning, and a 1 1/2 hour color episode later in the day.
David Fruhling, TOHS Class of 1973