‘Wagon Train’: Meet John McIntire, the Actor Who Replaced the Stars of Two Classic Westerns

by Craig Garrett

John McIntire was a character actor that had the rare opportunity to play the lead in two classic tv westerns. Hailing from Spokane, Washington, McIntire got his start in show business on radio. On radio, he acted mostly in crime dramas, notably as the titular character in The Adventures of Bill Lance. Though also active in theater, McIntire was 40 before he made the leap to film in 1947’s The Hucksters. John McIntire was a journeyman actor, rarely playing the lead. He was often cast as authority figures like police officers or judges. Alfred Hitchcock fans no doubt recognize McIntire as Sheriff Chambers in 1960’s Psycho.

Though John McIntire had trouble landing leading roles in film, it was the small screen that gifted him large acting parts. His most long-running and best-known role was as Chris Hale on Wagon Train. The western series first began airing in 1957 starring Ward Bond as the wagon master. Unfortunately, Bond suffered a fatal heart attack in 1960. This opened the door for McIntire to step in as a new wagon master character. McIntire had guest-starred as preacher Andrew Hale on a previous episode prior to Ward Bond’s death. Interestingly, his wagon master character Chris Hale was referenced in the series as the brother of the character he had previously guest-starred as. McIntire stayed with Wagon Train until it ended in 1965, acting in 150 episodes.

John McIntire finds himself on another classic tv Western

However, Wagon Train was not the final time John McIntire would be on a tv western. The Virginian ran for 9 seasons from 1962 to 1971. Though the lead was always James Drury as the titular character, he often worked for different characters as the show progressed. Following the passing of Charles Bickford, McIntire was once again brought on as a replacement. He played Clay Grainger, the brother of Bickford’s character. Interestingly, Charles Bickord himself had replaced Lee J. Cobb on the show. John McIntire stayed with The Virginian through 1970, for four seasons.

In 1975, John McIntire played Judge Parker opposite John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn. John McIntire then settled into tv guest appearances and character parts. His roles during this era showcase his ease sliding into dramas and comedies alike. He appeared on many hallmarks of 70s and 80s television. In the 70s, he acted on shows like Charlie’s Angels, Dallas and Fantasy Island. Equally prolific in the 1980s, he appeared on The Incredible Hulk, St. Elsewhere, and Night Court. John McIntire’s last film appearance was with Tom Hanks in the 1989 comedy, Turner & Hooch. McIntire passed away in 1991, aged 83.

You can currently catch episodes of Wagon Train on MeTV.