Wagon Train deserves its reputation, largely due to the guiding presence of the great Ward Bond as Maj. Seth Adams, who played the fair-but-grumpy wagon master. Bond lasted on Wagon Train from its premiere in 1957 through roughly a third of the episodes in season four (he died of a heart attack in 1960).
The second season, which ran from 1958-1959, has some of the best writing of the entire series. Among the visiting actors was Angie Dickinson, whose breakthrough role, as John Wayne’s love interest in Rio Bravo, had only been in theaters a couple of weeks when her Wagon Train episode aired in April 1959. (Bond also acted in Howard Hawks’s 1959 Western).
The season also features Lou Costello as a drunkard caring for a young girl. According to James Rosin’s very entertaining book on the series, Costello was unaccustomed to learning lines. Every time he flubbed a take, he’d look in the camera and ask, “So, how are you, Ward?”
Possibly the best episode in the season is the one that stars the criminally underappreciated Jan Sterling. In “The Annie Griffith Story,” Sterling looks after a wounded Flint McCullough in the heart of Shoshone country, while Adams and the wagons are desperate to outrace a winter storm. It’s the perfect marriage of good writing and great acting.