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.
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
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
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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.