TV western star Robert Horton’s death on Mar. 9 at 91 signified “the passing of a TV era,” notes western TV/film authority Bob Terry.
“Over 50 years ago Robert Horton was very, very famous,” says Terry, who owns the Westerns on the Web site, hosts westerns, and supplies footage for the equine-based Ride TV channel on Dish Network. “It’s amazing to me how fleeting fame is.”
Indeed, even such a western-aware media person as Terry remained unaware of Horton’s passing for several days.
“If he had passed away 50 years ago everybody would have known in 20 minutes! He was a big, big star,” says Terry.
For sure, the then handsome young heartthrob Horton was right up there with western screen legend Ward Bond, having co-starred with him in the first three seasons of the classic TV western Wagon Train, up until Bond’s sudden death in 1960 at 57. Inspired by the 1950 John Ford film Wagon Master (also starring Bond), the show, which ran from 1957-1965, dealt with the challenges of a wagon train heading west from Missouri to California after the Civil War. Horton, who meticulously studied the frontier era, drove the actual route of the fictional wagon train and created a back story for his character, played frontier scout Flint McCullough to Bond’s grizzled wagon master Major Seth Adams, the two, at least on camera, themselves pioneering a frequently strained but ever-entertaining father-son sort of relationship.
Horton rode his own Appaloosa horse (Little Buck, followed by Stormy Night) and stayed on after Bond suffered a fatal heart attack in November of 1960 at the start of the fourth season (he was replaced by John McIntyre as wagon master Chris Hale). He remained with the show for a total of 187 episodes, leaving at the end of the fifth season in 1962–at the height of its popularity–rather than accept a lucrative new contract; Wagon Train went on to last through its eighth season, ending in May, 1965, after 284 episodes).
“There is a lot more to this business than just collecting your paycheck,” Horton told The Saturday Evening Post. “Getting rich as an actor and then sitting on an island someplace and drinking vodka is not my idea of how to spend my life. I’m interested in using whatever talent I have.”
Horton had been so popular that he managed to carry the show—which was also a huge hit in Britain–through its transition from Bond to McIntyre. Said a British reviewer: “It used to be said the TV could not create for women the great heartthrobs, the romantic lovers, the sweep-’em-off-their-feet males of the great days of the cinema. No Valentinoes, Boyers, Chevaliers…till along came Robert Horton.”
But he also sought to pursue a career in musical theater, and after leaving Wagon Train played the lead role in a 1963 Broadway musical (110 in the Shade) based on the Burt Lancaster movie The Rainmaker, and singing in nightclubs throughout the U.S. and Australia. He returned to western series television in A Man Called Shenandoah (1965-1966), playing a cowboy with amnesia—and again riding Stormy Night and also singing the theme song—which he modified from the traditional folk tune “Oh Shenandoah.” He appeared in the daytime soap As the World Turns from 1983 to 1984 and acted in dozens of other movies and TV shows through 1989.
According to Horton’s web site, he appeared in a Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth, and made a 10 Best Dressed Men’s list in 1963 along with President John F. Kennedy, James Garner and Joey Bishop. He received the prestigious Golden Boot Award and the Cowboy Spirit Award for embodying the integrity, strength of spirit and moral character depicted by the American cowboy, and was honored in 1961 with an episode of This Is Your Life.
“But Wagon Train was the big deal,” says Terry. “It was one of those shows that the whole family sat down and watched. I think [This is Your Life host] Ralph Edwards mentioned that 40 million people tuned in to watch it every week, which was incredible for 1960—though my research suggests it might have been more.”
Wagon Train actually overtook Gunsmoke atop the Nielsen ratings in 1961, and Horton became so big that “he had endorsement deals for toys with his pictures on them—a lot, in fact,” continues Terry. “There was a Wagon Train play set with a picture of Robert and Ward Bond on the cover, with wagons and cowboys and Indians and cattle and horses—and two-inch character figures of Ward Bond and Robert Horton. The one of Flint McCullough truly captures the look of the man! There were also puzzles and board games and lunchboxes–all kinds of things.”
The actual relationship between Horton and Bond is sketchy. A close friend of John Wayne, Bond belonged to the anti-communist group Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The New York Times’ obituary stated that they often clashed off-screen, one time vowing never to appear together again on camera—though they later did.
Horton’s web site acknowledges “rumors of friction” on the set between “the old veteran” and “the young newcomer,” with the fan mail pouring in for Horton exacerbating the situation.
“While tension may have been very high on the set, in our living rooms every Wednesday night, we were privileged to see some of the best on-screen chemistry between Horton and Bond ever seen on television,” notes the site, quoting Horton: “I’d been with him in his dressing room discussing a script two days before he died, and although Ward and I didn’t always agree on things, this was a friendly discussion. When our drinks and the discussion were finished I recall saying, ‘Well, Ward, we’ve had our differences but we sure agree on this lousy script.’ As I walked across the room Ward said, ‘Bobby, we don’t have any lousy differences.’ I looked at him, smiled, and went out of the room. These were our last words together. It was the only time he ever called me ‘Bobby.'”
“It was a respectful relationship,” opines Terry, “and a little comical. Ward was such a great actor, and I think he and Robert were probably very good friends.”
Unquestionably, Wagon Train was “a wonderful show and does indeed stand the test of time,” Terry adds. “Robert Horton was a great actor who provided us with so much wonderful entertainment, and from watching interviews with him, he was such a friendly man who seemed a lot like his character.”
In 2005 Horton was recognized with a Certificate of Appreciation from the Museum of Tolerance—the educational arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. According to Horton’s web site, the museum was created to help “visitors confront bigotry and racism.”
The site also quotes Horton as saying that he “always tried to portray ‘Flint’ as tolerant and accepting of all people,” and says that the museum was his favorite charity, and that all profits from the sale of Horton photos and CDs go to it.