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Retro : Back on the 'Wagon Train'

January 30, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back in 1950, John Ford directed the Western drama "Wagon Master" about two young cowhands (Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr.) who join a Mormon wagon train traveling to Utah.

That classic, which was filmed in Monument Valley, became the basis of the long-running TV Western "Wagon Train." Repeats of the series currently air Saturdays on the Family Channel.

"Wagon Train" premiered Sept. 18, 1957, on NBC. The one-hour weekly series was handsomely produced, with exciting stories and attractive guest stars.

The series was set in the post-Civil War West. Each year, the show began in St. Joseph, Mo., and followed a wagon train as it headed west to California. During the course of the season, the travelers would encounter Native Americans, the elements, the Rocky Mountains, the prairies and the deserts. Each week the show would concentrate on a different member of the wagon train.

Veteran character actor Ward Bond, who also had a supporting role in "Wagon Master," played the dependable, paternal trail boss Seth Adams. Robert Horton was the dashing frontier scout Flint McCullough. Terry Wilson played the assistant wagon master Bill Hawks, and Frank McGrath was the old, feisty cook Charlie Wooster.

The series started out rather slowly in the ratings, placing No. 23 during its premiere season, which was surprising considering the late '50s were the golden age of Westerns on TV. That year alone, five Westerns ranked among the Top 10 shows: "Gunsmoke," "Tales of Wells Fargo," "Have Gun Will Travel," "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp" and "The Restless Gun." By the second season, though, "Wagon Train" began to roll and streaked to the No. 2 position. It became the No. 1 show during the 1961-62 season.

Shortly thereafter, the ratings began to drop. Ward Bond died during production of the 1960-61 season and John McIntire was brought in as the new wagon master, Christopher Hale. Horton left the series in 1962. Scott Miller joined the cast as scout Duke Shannon in 1961 and Robert Fuller came on board in 1963 as young scout Cooper Smith. Michael Burns was added in 1963 as Barnaby West, a 13-year-old traveling the trail by himself.

The series moved from NBC to ABC in September 1962. In the fall of 1963, ABC expanded the show to 90 minutes. The change didn't bring any new viewers and the series reverted to back to an hour for its last season in 1964. "Wagon Train" came to the end of the trail on Sept. 5, 1965. Reruns of the Ward Bond episodes were retitled "Major Adams--Trailmaster" and aired during the day on ABC from 1963 to 1965.

"Wagon Train" airs Saturdays at 1 p.m. on the Family Channel.

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