Wagon Train

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents




Wagon 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 per episode.

Star 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.

Wagon 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.

-K.C. D'Allesandro


Major 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


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 8:30-9:30

September 1964-September 1965   Sunday 7:30-8:30


Brauer, Ralph. The Horse, The Gun and The Piece of Property: Changing Images of the TV Western. Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press, 1975.

Cawelti, John. The Six-Gun Mystique. Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press, 1984.

MacDonald, 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.

West, Richard. Television Westerns: Major And Minor Series, 1946-1978. Jefferson, North Carolina: MacFarland, 1987.

Yoggy, Gary A. Riding the Video Range: The Rise and Fall of the Western on Television. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1994. 

Leonard Nimoy on a significant guest appearance on Wagon Train in the episode "The Estaban Zamora Story"
Richard Donner on directing the series Wagon Train
Ann B. Davis on her guest appearance on Wagon Train
Abby Singer on assistant directing Wagon Train
Gene LeBell on how he and George Reeves would have been cast on Wagon Train had Reeves lived
Who talked about this show

Earl Bellamy

View Interview
Earl Bellamy on directing Wagon Train

Ann B. Davis

View Interview
Ann B. Davis on her guest appearance on Wagon Train

Richard Donner

View Interview
Richard Donner on directing the series Wagon Train

George Clayton Johnson

View Interview
George Clayton Johnson on Gene Roddenberry's vision for Star Trek and how Roddenberry was inspired by the program Wagon Train

Gene LeBell

View Interview
Gene LeBell on how he and George Reeves would have been cast on Wagon Train had Reeves lived

Richard Lewis

View Interview
Richard Lewis on producing Wagon Train, starring Ward Bond
Richard Lewis on the directors of Wagon Train
Richard Lewis on what distinguished Wagon Train from other Westerns
Richard Lewis on leaving Wagon Train and the death of star Ward Bond
Richard Lewis on the guest stars of Wagon Train
Richard Lewis on the budget of Wagon Train

Hal Needham

View Interview
Hal Needham on various westerns he did stunts for

Leonard Nimoy

View Interview
Leonard Nimoy on a significant guest appearance on Wagon Train in the episode "The Estaban Zamora Story"
Leonard Nimoy on a significant guest appearance on Wagon Train in the episode "The Estaban Zamora Story"

Cliff Robertson

View Interview
Cliff Robertson on appearing on Wagon Train

Sid Sheinberg

View Interview
Sid Sheinberg on shepherding various shows at Universal Television including The Virginian and Wagon Train

Abby Singer

View Interview
Abby Singer on assistant directing Wagon Train

All Shows