The '50s and '60s really were the golden age of western TV series. From Bonanza to The Virginian and Gunsmoke, there were plenty of stories set in the Old West to keep viewers entertained every day of the week. But during its eight-season run, ABC show Wagon Train was not only one of the most popular western series of its time, but the number one show on TV.
The show followed (you guessed it) a wagon train as it travels from Missouri, through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, all the way down to California. It chronicles the adventures of those on the train with many guests being featured throughout the series. Ward Bond led the group as the Wagon Master alongside Robert Horton, who played the scout Flint McCullough (he was replaced by Robert Fuller as Cooper Smith in season 7 and 8), Frank McGrath as the train's cook, Charlie Wooster and Terry Wilson as Bill Hawks. Michael Burns and Scott Miller (also known as Denny Miller) also joined the show as regulars in later seasons as Barnaby West and Duke Shannon respectively.
Here are some things you might not know about the classic TV show.
1. The TV show was famous for its high profile guest stars
Some of the most notable names included major Hollywood stars like Barbara Stanwyck, Ernest Borgnine, Bette Davis, Jane Wyman, Ronald Reagan, Lee Marvin, Louise Fletcher, Leonard Nimoy and James Drury.
Because the studio prioritized being able to afford these high profile guests, the show was filmed in the San Fernando Valley outside of Hollywood.
2. Ward Bond nearly got a child actor removed from the set
Bond was known for his cursing on set, despite being an incredibly nice guy. When a young Beverly Washburn appeared on the show at the age of 12, the welfare worker on set told the producers that she would remove the young girl from the set if Bond didn't watch his language. Luckily, he listened!
3. The show inspired Star Trek
No, really. Gene Roddenberry originally pitched his hit sci-fi television series as "Wagon Train to the stars." Which makes sense. Both shows are on a neverending journey where the main stars meet some interesting characters along the way. Not to mention Leonard Nimoy appeared in both shows.
4. The theme song changed three times
While "Wagons Ho" is definitely the most recognized theme, it didn't come into play until the third season. The first theme was "Wagon Train," a song with no lyrics by Henri René and Bob Russell. The studio decided it sounded too traditional and changed it in the second season to "(Roll Along) Wagon Train" by Sammy Fain and Jack Brooks, performed by Johnny O'Neill.
For the third season, Jerome Moross wrote: "Wagons Ho," inspired by the music he had previously written for the film The Jayhawkers. This time the theme stuck and it remained throughout the rest of the show's run.
5. Ward Bond insisted that two of his friends were cast in the show with him
When Bond was signing his contract for the TV series, he asked the studio to bring on two actors he had become friends with over the years during his time on western film sets — Frank McGrath and Terry Wilson. McGrath had been on numerous John Ford films and was constantly teased because he had trouble remembering his lines. Bond actually helped him improve his acting skills while he played Charlie Wooster, the train's cook. Wilson had previously done his fair share of stuntwork on John Wayne films. His character on the show, Bill Hawks, was only one of two that lasted the entire series.
6. Ward Bond was replaced during the 4th series but no explanation was given
Sadly, Bond passed away while the fourth season was in the middle of filming. John McIntire stepped in to take Major Seth Adams' position as Wagon Master as the character Chris Hale. And that was that. No explanation was given to the show's dedicated viewers. But that didn't stop the series from continuing on for another four seasons.
7. The show is mentioned in the film Stand By Me
In the classic '80s film based on the Stephen King novel, the character Wil Wheaton says, "Wagon Train is a really cool show, but did you ever notice they never get anywhere?"
He actually does have a point.
8. Famed Western director John Ford directed an episode
Due to the show's wild popularity at the time, John Ford directed the 1960 episode, "The Colter Craven Story." He also received a "story by" credit for the episode that was written by Tony Paulson.
Coincidentally, the series was inspired by Ford's 1950 film Wagon Master, which also featured Ward Bond.
9. Ward Bond and Robert Horton were rivals for a time
Apparently, Bond was billed as the show's lead but would get jealous because Horton was the one receiving more fan mail. The producers even tried to cut down Horton's lines so that Bond would stand out more on the set. Despite disagreements, the two apparently made amends before Bond passed away in 1960.
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