Ward Bond transformed stuntmen into TV stars on Wagon Train
Both Frank McGrath and Terry Wilson thanked Ward Bond for yanking them out of grueling stunts into the spotlight.
As Wagon Train's original wagonmaster, Ward Bond finally took the lead role after two decades of doing sensational supporting acting work. Before then, he was a cherished actor, no matter how small the part, and after the show started, he was a favorite TV star at the height of his career.
So when Bond died suddenly from a heart attack in 1960, his loss didn't just impact the cast, crew, and fans of Wagon Train, but everybody who loved his entire catalog of work, including his many appearances in John Wayne movies.
It's said that the friendship between John Wayne and Ward Bond ran so deep, that in his will, Bond left Wayne a shotgun that Wayne had accidentally set off and injured Bond with on one of their earliest hunting trips. If that doesn't give you a sense of the kind of tough guys that Bond befriended and the rugged memories they shared with gusto, perhaps these stories from behind the scenes of Wagon Train will do it.
In the finale episode of Wagon Train, "The Jarbo Pierce Story," only two cast members appear, the only two original cast members left who had appeared throughout the whole series: Frank McGrath (Charlie Wooster) and Terry Wilson (Bill Hawks).
Both of these men told The Democrat and Chronicle in 1965 that the only reason they got cast on Wagon Train and ever left their original jobs doing stunt work was because Ward Bond made it happen.
You see, before McGrath became an actor, he was a Missouri boy who grew up with horses and left home to become a jockey at 16.
When that didn't work out, McGrath went bankrupt and started "bumming" around on freight trains, sneaking rides whenever the train inspectors failed to see him. He did this somewhat aimlessly until one day he hopped on a train and ended up meeting a Hollywood producer who cast him to be a stuntman on the spot.
The producer liked McGrath because he figured he already was willing to jump on and off of moving trains. In early stunt work, McGrath would also sign on for a lot of scenes with wild animals. In addition to these intense gigs, McGrath served in the Navy during World War II. He was fearless and driven, and soon, that aspect of his nature drew Bond to him.
That's why Bond was insistent that McGrath read for Wagon Train, and according to The Democrat and Chronicle, McGrath's "dry, choppy way of talking sold him, and he was signed after the first episode. He soon began growing the whiskers which have become his trademark."
Bond did the exact same thing for Terry Wilson, who was so tough, he was John Wayne's stuntman. Wilson wasn't bumming rides on trains when he was discovered, but like McGrath, he also grew up around horses and served in World War II, joining the Marine Corps.
Bond felt Wilson also deserved his chance to be pulled into the spotlight. Unfortunately, Wilson told The Odessa American in 1965 that even after he became a star of a hit show, that didn't mean people always recognized exactly who he was. He was no Ward Bond, but Ward Bond helped him come as close as he ever could to that kind of celebrity.
"Sometimes I'm called Ben Cartwright," Wilson joked.