Question: Sir, could you please tell me who the main stars were on Wagon Train? Thank you. Teri B.
Televisionary: Thanks for the respect, Teri (I get so little), but as the old boot-camp admonishment goes, you don't call me "sir" I work for a living!
There are a few answers to that question, the first being the cast list (which I'll run down in a moment) and the second being a list of guest-stars, since episodes revolved around one-shot characters who came and went. But any fan of the show would whittle it down to one actor the opinionated, tough-as-leather Ward Bond.
In the series, which ran on NBC from 1957-62 before jumping to ABC and finishing out its run there in 1965, Bond played Major Seth Adams, who led the train each season from St. Louis to California with assistant wagonmaster Bill Hawks (Terry Wilson) and cook Charlie Wooster (Frank McGrath) by his side. Flint McCullough (Robert Horton) was the train's scout until 1962, when he was replaced by Duke Shannon (Scott Miller) and then Cooper Smith (Robert Fuller). Christopher Hale (John McIntire) took over as wagonmaster when Bond died in 1961 and Michael Burns signed on late in the series's run as Barnaby West, a young orphan who came along for the ride.
The guest-star list is too long to cover here, but notable names who hooked up with the train included Bette Davis, Lou Costello, Ernest Borgnine, Leslie Nielson, Barbara Stanwyck, Lee Marvin, Ricardo Montalban, Dean Stockwell, Chuck Connors, Agnes Moorehead, Cesar Romero, Theodore Bikel, Dick York, Jack Warden, Carolyn Jones and, well... pretty much every cast member of every show shot for 30 years afterward. (I'm exaggerating, of course, but only a little.)
But it was Bond, a former USC football tackle and big-screen Western veteran, who really set the tone for the show as the grizzled Adams, and his ornery nature was as much of a force behind the scenes as it was when the cameras were rolling. The man spoke his mind whether people liked it or not (and certainly Jose Ferrer, whom Bond once accused of having subversive associations, didn't). His opinion was his opinion and he didn't hold back for the press. For example, one might assume that in 1958, when a TV Guide reporter asked him if he preferred TV work to his long career in movies, Bond might play the P.R. game for his audience. His answer, a bellowed negative. "In pictures, I can make two films a year, earn just what I earn here and have some time for my farm, my duck club, my boat and my wife," he said. "Here it's work, work, work, 16 hours a day, six days a week, with a front office that didn't know a thing about making one-hour Westerns when we started."
That attitude was pretty much the way things went on the set, too. Bond ran with a crowd whose affections came across in rough, manly-man ways. Director John Ford, a close pal who lent his expert eye to the series after pressure from Bond, was "that phony old Irish blank of a blank" (most comments from pals Bond, Ford and John Wayne about each other were delivered with generous helpings of epithets). On the show's set, physical sparring and hard drinking were the orders of the day for Bond and co-stars Wilson and McGrath. ("We'd start drinkin' at four o'clock," McGrath said of those days. "My doctor told me I should drink some it was good for my arteries. I called old Ward and said, 'Boy, have I found the doctor for you!'") In fact, they maintained separate dressing rooms until Wilson hit McGrath during a scuffle and McGrath's head made a hole in the wall, prompting them to have the wall removed altogether. After that, the rowdy times continued. "We've had this @#$%¢ place on fire and everything else," Wilson bragged.
And it wasn't much easier on the others who worked on the show, no matter their age. Take the time McGrath shot a scene where he was supposed to rescue two kids from a river with a handy rope. "I had a few drinks," he said. "I threw the rope once, and it went around a bush. Then I tried it again, and it hit a tree. Finally I just threw it at the kids and said, "Okay, drown, you little @#$%¢s!"
Life on the job wasn't much easier for Horton, whose method-acting ways frequently set him at odds with the old-school Bond before he lit out for Broadway and the higher calling he felt was more suitable for his talents. Still, the old man insisted there was no real enmity and McGrath backed him up in an interview after Bond's death. "[H]e never really bugged Ward," McGrath said of Horton. "If he had of, Ward woulda pinched his head off."