Ward Bond, Was He In EVERY Movie?
When I was a young impressionable lad and had not learned to be too critical about what was put before me on television, I remember being glued to the set every Monday night for a TV program called 'Wagon Train'.
It starred a wagonmaster called Colonel Seth Adams who was played by a portly, seemingly irascible middle aged actor called Ward Bond. He came across as tough but, somehow kindly, the sort of guy you would be glad to have on your side in a rumble.
Now, many years later, I am an afficianado of Hollywood in its pomp, the era known, affectionately, and accurately, as 'Hollywood's Golden Age'. As I study and learn about the movies made in the 1930s, 40's and 50's one name keeps recurring - Ward Bond - a younger, leaner man, its true, but no doubt about it, its the young Wagonmaster appearing in a variety of guises from a bus driver in 'It Happened One Night' in 1934 to a policeman in 'Its a Wonderful Life' in 1946, to 'The Searchers' in 1956, not to mention his appearances in other out and out classics like 'Bringing Up Baby' (1938), 'Gone with the Wind' (1939), 'The Grapes of Wrath' (1940) , and 'The Maltese Falcon'(1941).
He seemed to be in everything - and he almost was! His output in the early era of motion pictures was prolific, and it was not just quantity, it was also acting of the highest quality. After his screen debut in 1929 he appeared in over 250 movies, always in a supporting role. A list of his films is like a roll call of the great movie works of the Golden Age. This is my short tribute to Ward Bond, one of my first screen heroes.
He was born Wardell Edwin Bond on April 9, 1903 in Benkelman, Nebraska, the son of a timberyard worker. He lived in Benkelman until he was 16 when his family moved to Denver. He went to East High School in Denver and then to the University of Southern California. It was through playing football for the USC that the burly, 6'2" Bond met two men who would profoundly influence his acting career: actor John Wayne and director John Ford.
With Wayne, who played on the same team, and several other players he was recruited to take part as a football player in John Ford's 1929 movie "Salute," the story of Army versus Navy on the football field. It was his first taste of movies, and from there he and Wayne started to get movie parts as extras.
Both went on to become well known Hollywood actors, Wayne as a leading man and ultimately one of the biggest ever Hollywood stars, whilst Bond remained in the background, always in secondary roles, but always there, unshakeable, dependable, well-liked and always giving the directors what they wanted.
During the 1930s Bond played mostly bit roles and small character parts, often as crooks, cops, western heavies or guards because of his size, as in movies such as 'Born Reckless' in 1930 (a Soldier), 'Up the River' in 1930 (a convict), 'Quick Millions' in 1931 (Cop), 'Lady for a Day' in 1933 (Mounted Policeman), and 'Wild Boys of the Road' in 1933 as the wonderfully named Red, the Raping Brakeman. In 1934 he had a small, uncredited role in the award-winning 'It Happened One Night' with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.
By the end of the 1930s his hard work as a bit part actor began to pay off and his roles noticeably improved, helped by the ascent to stardom of his buddy John Wayne after 'Stagecoach' in 1939. After this it was rare for Bond not to appear in a John Wayne movie.
In 1939 alone Bond appeared in 21 movies including his appearance as the murderous Cass in John Ford's 'Young Mr. Lincoln'. He also appeared in, amongst others, 'Drums Along the Mohawk', as a legionnaire in 'Confessions of a Nazi Spy,' as the cowardly sheriff of Tombstone in 'Frontier Marshal,' and, if this weren't enough, he was also in 'Gone With The Wind' as a Union officer trying to arrest Leslie Howard but out-thought by Clark Gable.
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His acting talent and versatility in both dramatic and comedy roles were by now not in doubt and during the 1940s his roles further improved. After appearing in another classic, 'The Grapes of Wrath' in 1940, he played opposite Humphrey Bogart in 'The Maltese Falcon' the following year and then one of his most moving roles as the boxer John L. Sullivan in 1942 opposite Errol Flynn in 'Gentleman Jim'.
Another of his best known performances comes in 1946 in Frank Capra's 'Its a Wonderful Life' when he plays Bert, the cop who finds James Stewart after he has been persuaded not to commit suicide. It is amazing how often he turns up quite unexectedly in classic movies. He does it again in the 1950s in 1955's 'Mister Roberts' and the following year in 'The Searchers' and again in 1959 in 'Rio Bravo'.
The Cast of 'Mister Roberts'
At the end of his career Bond finally became a star in his own right when in 1957 he was cast as Major Seth Adams in the NBC western television series 'Wagon Train'. Ironically it was a television program that propelled him to stardom but it was based on a John Ford movie of 1950 in which he had appeared - 'Wagonmaster'. 'Wagon Train' became one of the most successful television Westerns ever, dominating the ratings on both sides of the Atlantic and later becoming the inspiration for Gene Roddenberry's 'Star Trek.'
Ward Bond was the undisputed star of the program until his sudden death in 1960. The wagonmaster's role was taken over by John McIntire and the series continued until 1965 but it was never the same. Major Seth Adams was never actually written out of the series and his absence was never explained in the story line.
It seems that Ward Bond was the sort of character you either loved or hated. There was no middle ground. Even during his most successful period as star of 'Wagon Train' he was as famous for his offscreen clashes with his fellow cast members and his ultra right-wing conservative politics as he was for his acting. He was an active member of the right-wing group called the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, whose major platform was opposition to communists in the film industry. Bond made many enemies by his hard-bitten stance against people in the industry whom he regarded as communist.
He was a hard-drinking, hell-raising member of the 'John Ford Stock Company', which included Harry Carey, Jr., Ben Johnson, Grant Withers, and others and who met regularly at the John Ford Ranch in the San Fernando Valley. Bond was also a lifelong friend and drinking companion of John Wayne.
He married twice. Firstly in 1936 to Doris Childs whom he left and divorced in 1944 to return to his free, bachelor existence. After 10 years of drinking, hunting and fighting, and pushing 50 he married Mary Lou May, who was secretary to John Wayne's business manager. He settled into a more conventional lifestyle and he and Mary Lou stayed together until his death.
Ward Bond died suddenly of a heart attack on November 5, 1960 in a Dallas, Texas hotel while on a visit to attend a football game. He was 57 years old. His funeral address was given by John Wayne.
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