6 fascinating things you never knew about the Wagon Train premiere

Find out what happened to the child stars and how Ward Bond hired his pals.

Image: The Everett Collection

The blueberry pie-eating contest may be the most unforgettable scene in Stand By Me, but our favorite moment in the 1986 coming-of-age classic is the fireside chat. 

"Mickey's a mouse. Donald's a duck. Pluto's a dog. What's Goofy?" Wil Wheaton's character asks. He then states, "Wagon Train is a really cool show, but did you ever notice they never get anywhere?"

Wagon Train was one of the most popular Western shows of the Fifties and Sixties. In fact, it held the No. 1 spot in the Nielsen ratings for a spell. Of course, it would have its influence on boys of the era. Some famous creators, too. Gene Roddenberry based his Star Trek off Wagon Train.

The series roped in tough veteran Ward Bond as its star, a contemporary of John Wayne. Wagon Train began its journey in the fall of '57 with the episode "The Willy Moran Story," which booked acclaimed actor Ernest Borgnine as its titular guest star. 

Let's take a closer look at this series premiere. 

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1. The young boy later became a groundskeeper for the studio that produced Wagon Train.

Fifties television aficionados might recognize Michael Winkelman, the young actor who plays Ben Palmer, the boy traveling with his family in the wagon train. The child star quickly landed a regular role as "Little Luke" in the sitcom The Real McCoys. That hit series ran for six years, but Winkelman found roles drying up. He joined the Navy and served in Vietnam. After the war, he became a groundskeeper on the Universal production lot, according to Kathy Garver's book X Child Stars: Where Are They Now? Universal Television also happened to be the studio that produced Wagon Train.

Image: The Everett Collection

2. Ward Bond's cursing nearly lost them another child star.

Winkelman was not the only kid riding in the wagon. Beverly Washburn portrayed his kin, Susan Palmer. She was 12 years old at the time. "Ward Bond was a nice man who would also use some colorful language," said recalled in Scott Allen Nollen's book Three Bad Men: John Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond. "Because I was a minor," Washburn explained, "they have what was called a 'welfare worker'… At one point she went to the producer and said if he used one more swear word, she would pull me from the set." Bond apologized to the girl. She added, "He was really a kind-hearted man."

Image: The Everett Collection

3. It had direct ties to Star Trek.

Gene Roddenberry famously described his great creation Star Trek as "Wagon Train to the stars." It was more than an elevator pitch. "The Willy Moran Story" has some obvious ties to Trek. For starters, the aforementioned Beverly Washburn was an Enterprise crew member, a Blueshirt in the sciences division named Lt. Arlene Galway. Here she is alongside Bones in "The Deadly Years" (the one where everyone rapidly ages). Also, Herschel Daugherty, the director of "The Willy Moran Story," helmed two Star Trek episodes, "Operation: Annihilate" (the one with the slime blobs) and "The Savage Curtain" (the one with Abe Lincoln).

4. Ward Bond made the studio hire his buddies.

Ward Bond was a veteran Western actor with dozens of cowboy films under his belt, dating back to the early 1930s. Over those decades of work, he grew quite close to some fellow movie regulars, including Frank McGrath and Terry Wilson. When Bond signed his contract to headline Wagon Train as Major Seth Adams, he insisted that the producers hire his buddies McGrath and Wilson as regulars. One problem — they were mostly known as stuntmen with little experience as a primary speaking star. In fact, Western regular Harry Carey Jr. once said, "Frankie [McGrath] used to be kidded unmercifully on [John] Ford films because he couldn't say a line of dialogue." Wagon Train cast him as Charlie Wooster, the train cook. Bond coached him into becoming a better actor. Wilson, similarly, had worked as a stuntman, doubling for John Wayne in several movies. He landed a key role as Bill Hawks, though he is uncredited in "The Willy Moran Story."

Image: The Everett Collection

5. It's a good thing Ward Bond fought to put his pals on the show.

McGrath and Wilson were the only two cast members to appear throughout the entire series! Bond died in 1960 during season four of Wagon Train, to be replaced by John McIntire. Robert Horton, who played scout Flint McCullough, left after season five. Sometimes nepotism pays off.

Image: The Everett Collection

6. There was a sequel episode.

"Around the Horn," the season two premiere of Wagon Train, stands out for a few reasons. For starters, its title was the rare break from the "The ______ Story" template used to name 90% of Wagon Train episodes. Secondly, it was a sequel to "The Willy Moran Story," as Ernest Borgnine's Willy Moran character returned, no longer a drunk and now a respectable sheriff. "Around the Horn" was an atypical tale for the show, too, with William Bendix (pictured) as a sea captain. Not only that, but the plot was completely recycled by Bonanza two years later as the episode "San Francisco."

Image: The Everett Collection

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Lizzy 1 month ago
I love this show especially Flint McCullough (Robert Horton) because sometimes he is really funny.
Angela 1 month ago
I loved this show. Ward Bond was one tough son-of-a-gun and gave Robert Horton a very hard time.
49erFaithfulFan 1 month ago
I love the Wagon Train, as a kid I never saw it, until later.
Sooner 1 month ago
It seems like Bonanza was pretty blatant about "borrowing" plot lines from other Westerns.

Ward Bond was what glued this show together, just like Don Knotts was really the heart of Andy Griffith.
Moverfan 1 month ago
Actually, since it premiered in 1957 and I premiered in 1962, there's a whole lot I never noticed about any part of Wagon Train!
Why? You couldn't see the tv from your crib?
sandman 1 month ago
Cool facts about Wagon Train. Love the stories about my favorite television shows
Srick sandman 1 month ago
The "what else did they act in" stuff is one reason I enjoyy Svengoolie. The trivia aspect is why I often visit IMDB. This article was a great combination of both -- and I don't even watch Wagon Train! This is so well done, I want to see that episode now ... unfortunately, I didn't see it until hours after it aired.
MichaelHollander 1 month ago
Michael Winklemen was a very good and talented child actor of the '50s..
EdwardOlson 1 month ago
Bring back so many childhood memories 🥰
segarolow4 1 month ago
Great TV show. When TV was worth watching.
Exactly as American culture is now skummy trash.
FanGirl 1 month ago
I love watching this on Me-TV!!!
texasluva 1 month ago
"Wagon Train" was so popular it became the attraction for an impressive array of guest stars ranging from Bette Davis, Rhonda Fleming, Barbara Stanwyck, Lee Marvin, Ronald Reagan, Leslie Nielsen, Joan Crawford, Ernest Borgnine, Carolyn Jones, Robert Culp, Agnes Moorehead, Glibert Roland, Charles Bronson, James Caan, This is just a drop in the bucket of stars that appeared.
DestryStitt texasluva 1 month ago
You forgot Louis Costello!
texasluva DestryStitt 1 month ago
Well darn. My bad
Mrs Reagan also...
MarkStorsteen 2 months ago
Will ME TV ever be streamed?
Hope they have it on Mars for my grandchildren also !
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