Based on John Ford's 1950 movie Wagonmaster, Wagon Train became one of the most successful small screen Westerns ever, dominating the ratings on both sides of the Atlantic and later becoming the inspiration for Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek.
Starting out each season from St. Joseph, Missouri, and making it's way west to California, the Wagon Train, a group of 19th century settlers, had to negotiate it's way through endless deserts, the towering passes of the Rocky Mountains and the vast Indian controlled Great Plains. Along the way the regular characters, led by Ward Bond as Major Seth Adams, faced a number of perilous adventures as they were joined briefly by some of Hollywood's finest. These "guest stars" who brought with them their hopes, experiences and troubles to ensure a different story each week, included such luminaries as Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef, James Coburn, Lou Costello, Bette Davis, Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Mickey Rooney, Barbara Stanwyck, Shelley Winters, John Wayne (in an uncredited cameo as General Sherman-his only dramatic appearance in a TV show), Jane Wyman, and future US President Ronald Reagan.
The writers (who included future blockbuster producer Aaron Spelling), borrowed from such literary classics as 'Great Expectations' and 'Pride and Prejudice,' as well as using stock Western cliches such as warpathing Indians. Ensuring that the Trains progress was not hampered was Robert Horton as frontier scout Flint McCullough, until Horton left the series in 1962 saying that he was fed up with Westerns, only to turn up again in 1965 as the star of A Man Called Shenandoah.
Horton was replaced by 'Laramie' star Robert Fuller as Cooper Smith. Another major cast change took place when Ward Bond died of a heart attack whilst on location in Texas on 5 November 1960, and John McIntire, who later went on to star in The Virginian replaced him. In 1962 the series was expanded from it's 52 minute, black and white format to 90 minutes in colour, however this proved less successful and the show's days were clearly numbered, even though it struggled on for another three years.
Published on February 11th, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus (2000) for Television Heaven.