Train, a fusion of the popular Western genre and the weekly
star vehicle, premiered on Wednesday nights, 7:30-8:30 P.M. in September
1957 on NBC. The show took its initial inspiration from John Ford's
1950 film, The Wagonmaster. NBC and Revue productions, an
MCA unit for producing telefilms, conceived of the program as a
unique entry into the growing stable of Western genre telefilm,
combining quality writing and direction with weekly guest stars
known for their work in other media, primarily motion pictures.
Each week, a star such as Ernest Borgnine (who appeared in the first
episode, "The Willie Moran Story,") Shelly Winters, Lou Costello,
or Jane Wyman would appear along with series regulars Ward Bond
and Robert Horton. The show, filmed on location in California's
San Fernando Valley, had an impressive budget of one hundred thousand
dollars per episode, at a time when competing hour-long Westerns,
such as ABC's Sugarfoot, cost approximately seventy thousand dollars
presence enticed viewers; powerful writing and directing made the
show a success. Writers with experience in other Westerns, such
as Gunsmoke and Tales of Wells Fargo, developed scripts
that eventually became episodes, Western novelist Borden Chase and
future director Sam Peckinpah among them. Directors familiar with
the Western telefilm contributed experience, as did personnel who
had been involved with GE Theatre, a program influential
in the conception of Wagon Train's use of stars. Promotional
materials suggested that motion picture directors John Ford, Leo
McCarey, and Frank Capra had expressed interest in directing future
episodes; whether wishful thinking or real possibility, Wagon
Train's producers envisioned their Western as television on
a par with motion pictures.
Each episode revolved around characters and personalities who were
traveling to California by wagon train caravan from St. Joseph,
Missouri. Series regulars conducted the train through perils and
adventures associated with the landscapes and inhabitants of the
American West. The star vehicle format worked in tandem with the
episodic nature of series television, giving audiences a glimpse
into the concerns of different pioneers and adventurers from week
to week. Returning cast members gave the show stability: audiences
expected complaints and comedy from Charlie Wooster, the train's
cook; clashes of experience with exuberance in the relationship
between the wagonmaster and his dashing frontier scouts. The recurring
cast's interrelationships, problems, and camaraderie contributed
greatly to the sense of "family" that bound disparate elements of
the series together.
Train lasted eight seasons, moving from NBC to ABC in September
of 1962. In 1963, its format expanded to 90 minutes, but returned
to hour length for its final run from 1964-65. It survived several
cast changes: Ward Bond (Major Adams), the original wagonmaster,
died during filming in 1960, and was replaced by John McIntyre (Chris
Hale); Robert Horton (Flint McCullogh) left the series in 1962 and
was replaced as frontier scout by Robert Fuller (Cooper Smith).
Only two characters survived the eight year run in their original
positions: Frank McGrath, as comical cook Charlie Wooster, and Terry
Wilson's assistant wagonmaster Bill Hawks.
The show's ability to survive a network switch and periodic cast
changes during its eight-year-run attests to the popularity of the
program. In the fall of 1959, two years after its inception, the
show was number one in Great Britain; of seven Westerns in the Nielsen
top ten in the United States, Wagon Train was in constant
competition with Gunsmoke for supremacy. By 1959, the show
was firmly ensconced in the top twenty five programs in the country,
bouncing as high as number one in the spring of 1960, and maintaining
its number one position over Gunsmoke throughout the 1961-62
season. In a field awash with Westerns, Wagon Train established
a unique style reminiscent of the anthology drama, but indelibly
entrenched in Western traditions.
Seth Adams (1957-1961) Ward Bond
Flint McCullough (1957-1962) Robert Horton
Bill Hawks Terry Wilson
Charlie Wooster Frank McGrath
Duke Shannon (1961-1964) Scott Miller
Christopher Hale (1961-1965) John McIntire
Barnaby West (1963-1965) Michael Burns
Cooper Smith (1963-1965) Robert Fuller
Howard Christie, Richard Lewis
HISTORY 442 Episodes
September 1957-September 1962 Wednesday 7:30-8:30
September 1962-September 1963 Wednesday 7:30-8:30
September 1963-September 1964 Monday
September 1964-September 1965 Sunday
Ralph. The Horse, The Gun and The Piece of Property: Changing
Images of the TV Western. Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press,
John. The Six-Gun Mystique. Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular
J. Fred. Who Shot The Sheriff? The Rise and Fall of the Television
Western. New York: Praeger, 1987.
Morrison, C. "Ward Bond and Wagon Train." Look (New York),
27 October 1959.
Richard. Television Westerns: Major And Minor Series, 1946-1978.
North Carolina: MacFarland, 1987.
Gary A. Riding the Video Range: The Rise and Fall of the Western
on Television. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1994.
Gun, Will Travel; Warner
Brothers Presents; Westerns