There was a time back in the 1950s and '60s when primetime network programming relied so much on Westerns that nearly every night of the week featured at least one. While some rode off into the sunset without much ado, one of the best, and longest-running, "Wagon Train," set the bar for style and authenticity that few other Western series ever achieved.
This DVD set, all 3,900 minutes of it, presents the 1963 season -- all 32 90-minute episodes filmed in color, as well as 16 classic episodes (black and white) from the series' other seven seasons. The show, based on the legendary John Ford Western feature film "Wagon Master," starred Ward Bond (who reprised his role from the Ford film), John McIntire, Robert Horton, Robert Fuller, Frank McGrath, Terry Wilson, Denny Scott Miller and Michael Burns. Each week the show told the stories of a wagon train heading west from Missouri to California in the days following the Civil War.
What set the series apart from many of its contemporaries was the show's impeccable attention to details: Most of the actors were trained horsemen or cowboys; set dressings and wardrobe were as authentic as possible, and nearly every minute of it was filmed on location across California and surrounding states, which took the West out of the backlot and into, well, the West.
"The Western on television was so successful because it appealed to the entire family," said Fuller, who joined the cast in 1963 as the wagon train's scout Cooper Smith (he replaced Robert Horton), fresh from his starring role in another Western series, "Laramie." "At the end of a hard day of work and school, the family could all watch the show together and escape from the worries of the day. I know it sounds corny, but it was true."
It took seven days to film each 90-minute episode, Fuller said, and almost all of it was location work. "We shot a lot in Lone Pine [California] up north and Thousand Oaks, which back then actually had 1,000 oaks [trees]," he said, laughing.
"There's no way a Western series could be filmed the way we did 'Wagon Train,'" Fuller added. "No way. First of all, there are no picture horses left. Back in the day, there were two large horse ranches in Hollywood that had 1,000 picture horses apiece. These horses were trained to stand still in front of a camera, do falls, tricks, move to a mark on cue. And many of the guys who did these shows were real cowboys. They were all Western riders. They're all gone now."
That attention to detail and realism it was set "Wagon Train" apart from its contemporaries, including "Bonanza" and "Gunsmoke."
"No other series attempted a full season of 90-minute episodes in color because the budget was outrageous for the day," Fuller said. "And look at the wardrobe on 'Bonanza.' All those tailored, made-to-fit clothes. Look at those great-looking pants that Michael Landon wore (laughs) -- and they never got dirty. 'Gunsmoke' was shot entirely on a soundstage. Those shows were good, but we were worlds apart."
Fuller would go on to star in numerous television series and guest star on countless others, most notably "Emergency!" in which he starred as Dr. Kelly Brackett for seven years in the 1970s. He now makes his home on a sprawling ranch in Texas with his wife, actress Jennifer Savidge ("St. Elsewhere").
"I think this DVD set is really going to make a lot of folks very happy, folks who remember the show from their youth," Fuller said. "But I also think it's gonna make a whole new generation see what television could do very well, and what an important, exciting series 'Wagon Train' was"