The improbable experiment with the adult Western TV series that began with Marshal Dillon stalking the streets of Dodge City very soon ran completely out of hand, much to Horrie’s delight. Gunsmoke begat Wagon Train, the ideal format to adult television. As the regular cast shepherded the settlers across the prairie, each wagon provided a story and a good role for a guest star. The episodes were called by that character’s name and were each strong dramas, centring on the guest, usually with either the wagon master or the scout working at solving their particular problems. Steeped in tradition and against a broad panorama, it was one of the most prestigious television drama series ever made.
Ward Bond led the way as Wagon master Major Seth Adams. A tough, blustering man, bellowing at all and sundry, keepin’ them wagons movin’, needless to say he had a soft side when required. Bond was a long time movie veteran. He played football with John Wayne when he was Michael Morrison, and noted amongst his innumerable appearances were those of the cop who evokes the famous final line in The Maltese Falcon; the Preacher-Texas Ranger in The Searchers, the leader of the lynch-mob in Johnny Guitar and tough sergeants whenever one was required. Bond was a character actor and despite appearing in a hundred films, Wagon Train was his first starring role.
During the McCarthyist witch-hunts, Bond was notorious for naming more names than anyone else. In the third series, he fell seriously ill, but the series battled on, coming up with all sorts of means of getting around his lack of presence onscreen while the script implied he was still around somewhere. When he died, they carried on for a few more episodes until finally John McIntire assumed the job of Wagon master as Christopher Hale.
Considering it was produced under the auspices of the Warner Brothers formula base series studio, Maverick was remarkably original. To begin with, it had a con man and gambler for a hero who as played by James Garner was an unashamed coward. It took stories from Shakespeare and Euripides, and allowed villains to get clean away with their crimes at times. All the best episodes involved outwitting other conmen and authorities, rather than chasing bad guys.
Even more off-beat was Have Gun – Will Travel, with many episodes as strange as its title, which was the inscription on the business card of a San Francisco gentleman named Paladin. A West Point graduate who lived in the swank Hotel Carlton in his top hat and dandy outfits, Richard Boone cut a fine figure of a man of leisure. Then word would arrive of trouble out West somewhere and he would don his all black gear and six-gun and ride out there to sort the matter out. The thinking man’s professional gunfighter—and no we never got to know his first name!
But then came the deluge and the small screen was suddenly flooded with Western series—by 1959 there were no less than 28 of them in network prime time. Hugh O’Brien didn’t look or behave at all like Wyatt Earp, while Tombstone Territory occupied the same time and space but lacked Earp altogether. Wanted Dead or Alive launched the movie career of Steve McQueen, while The Deputy was graced by Henry Fonda going the other way. The Rough Riders were the unruly bunch of men who made the charge up San Juan hill—under the command of Teddy Roosevelt. The series depicted three men on their way to that destiny, and their adventures along the road. Kent Taylor, Jan Merlin and Peter Whitney played the trio. The gunfight choreography in Lawman was always sensational; anyone named Longley would forever be nick-named The Texan after the character played by Rory Calhoun (real name Francis Timothy McCown); a popular B player who shocked the TV world by admitting to a criminal background. It failed to diminish his popularity. Rawhide, was a Wagon Train clone with a cattle instead of settlers, starring Eric Fleming, a very youthful Clint Eastwood, and Sheb Woolley, famous as Ben Miller in High Noon and for the hit record The Purple People Eater. Laramie, Tales of Wells Fargo, Gunslinger—the list went on and on to saturation, for indeed it was the last gasp of the Western as a popular form. Hereafter, western movies would be occasional, and intended to be set in historical America, rather than the mythical land of the Wild West.