WAGON TRAIN-Reviewing a Television Classic
Imagine it is the post Civil War period of the later 1800s. The country is expanding at a fast pace and prosperous land ventures in the west are for the taking. But getting to that land infested with savages fighting to keep you out of their territory and bandits stealing what little you have as you travel could stop you before you reach the promised homestead. The journey demands rolling through rugged terrain and weaving in and out of unexplored mountain passages. Deserts with little water to find and rivers with wild rapids to fight lead to unsafe travels. There could be harsh winter weather if not planned properly as to the time needed to travel the distance. If unfamiliar with the route to travel, death could come to those who try. A smart man would not travel the dangerous trail with his family alone. A smart man would join the wagon train headed west for any hopes of getting there alive.
Revue Studios produces a television series based solely around a wagon train going west. They got the idea from a previous film success they did in 1950 by John Ford called The Wagon Master. Banking on the idea to bring another success picture to their list of greats, Revue pounces on the venture. The excitement of traveling to California from St. Joseph, Missouri became the topic as this group of pioneers fight the elements associated with riding covered wagons across the country.
NBC Airs Wagon Train in 1957
In 1957, NBC airs the first hour long episode of Wagon Train. The wagon master Major Seth Adams (Ward Bond) heads the train west with the help from scout, Flint McCullough (Robert Horton), ramrod, Bill Hawks (Terry Wilson) and cook, Charlie Wooster (Frank McGrath). Later in 1961 an additional scout Duke Shannon (Scott Miller) is added to the cast. Each passenger they meet has a story to tell as they join the wagon train headed to California.
The first episode The Willy Moran Story reflects around the Major meeting up with his old commander he had in the Civil war. Willy Moran (Ernest Borgnine) is a drunk out of control and down on his luck as the story begins. The Major finds Willy in the middle of a street brawl and comes to his aid by giving him work on the wagon train. Keeping the man sober could be a problem as he’s been dependant on whiskey for quite some time. Major Adams tells Willy he must stop the drinking if he plans to keep the job. This sets the stage for a more fascinating tales of passengers played by special guest stars.
Season One runs thirty nine episodes of entertaining stories, but episodes #30 and #31 are done in segments revolving around the wagon master and his earlier friendship with Bill and Charlie. It’s called Major Adams Story Part 1 and Part 2 which begins with him meeting an old flame Ranie Douglas (Virginia Grey). Flashbacks take us to an earlier time. Ranie thought he had been killed in the war. She marries another man. When the Major learns she is married he takes the job as wagon master. Back to the present time, the lady is now widowed as the two reunite in this story. Major Adams tries to spark the romantic interest all over again. Ranie is not responding to his affections as he wishes.
Season After Season
Each season brought a long list of episodes. Season one had 39, season two had 38, season three had 37, season four had 38, season five had 37, season six had 37, season seven had 32 and season eight had 26 episodes. All this script demanded the talent of many writers. As writers changed, the consistency of some characters sometimes became off course. Robert Horton wrote a biography for Flint McCullough just to keep his character in proper play as sometimes written script would not jive with earlier stories.
Season after season brought stories with problems and resolutions bringing an array of guest stars seen on other fine shows. One fine actor (Ronald Reagan) whom later became the president of the United States of America and his first lady (Nancy Davis Reagan) are seen on Wagon Train. Well known film stars as well as up and coming stars makes Wagon Train a must see viewing experience. Many guest stars went on to star in other successful television and movie endeavors. These talents are seen in shows such as Gunsmoke, The Virginian, Laramie, Laredo, Rawhide, Rifleman, The Big Valley and many others.
The Wagon Train Theme in color.
Sadly, Ward Bond passed away in 1960 while doing the show. Christopher Hale (John McIntire) took over the role as wagon master. Flint McCollough (Robert Horton) is written out after season five’s episode #33, Nancy Davis Story in 1962 and they bring in a new scout Cooper Smith “Coop” (Robert Fuller). Wagon Train changes networks in September of 1962 and goes to ABC. In 1963 they add another cast member Barnaby West (Michael Burns) who travels the wagon train continuously in search of his missing father.
As Revue Studios already had another show (The Virginian) doing so well with a 90 minute time slot they decided to change Wagon Train’s black and white hour show to a color 90 minute episode. The change did not bring the success as they had planned so it only ran in color for the longer time period for one season which was season seven. Why they went back to black and white after a year of color is unclear. But with Revue’s other success child (The Virginian) playing on NBC at the time, some thought they threw Wagon Train to the wolves as the show only played one more season after going back to its original display.
The final episode for season eight which aired May 2, 1965, the Jarbo Pierce Story is about Charlie Wooster, who talks about old times when he worked in Pierce’s Bend for Jarbo Pierce (Roy Calhoun) who ran a trading post. The last episode brought the consistency of another show of special guest stars as the other ones before it.
As with many classic shows most of the well loved stars and cast are gone now. Thanks to the release of DVDs and the efforts of television channels such as Encore Westerns we enjoy this fine talent as we remember them.
Still Amazing Their Fans
Robert Horton will celebrate his eighty ninth birthday the twenty ninth of July of this year, 2012. Join him at his website: www.roberthorton.com Find out what the handsome redhead did after Wagon Train and how he got to be such a well loved actor.
MAYBE IT'S THE COWBOYS
- MAYBE IT'S THE COWBOYS
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