Bond made a ton of great movies, but this character actor was also a star athlete, well educated, unabashedly patriotic, and a political activist whose close friendship with John Ford and John Wayne was a mainstay in his life and career.
Classic Hollywood had many prolific and talented character actors, but there’s just one that had more appearances in Oscar nominated movies and appeared in more AFI “best of” picks than any other actor, one who seemed to pop up in almost every movie made in Hollywood during the first decade of his career, and that man was Ward Bond. Even with his booming voice and hulking presence, Bond naturally and subtly conveyed emotion and meaning, and brought life to the smallest of roles. While on screen he was often John Wayne’s sidekick, in real life he played a leading role as an outspoken Hollywood conservative, a culture warrior, a fearless, determined and persistent anti-Communist activist. He helped establish and eventually headed a Hollywood organization dedicated to countering progressive messages and influence, and to promoting positive portrayals of traditional American values in film.
Wardell Bond was born in 1903 in Benkelman, Nebraska, to descendants of homesteading pioneers, and though he rarely returned, the town still remembers Bond with a memorial park and Wagon Train festival in his memory. The Bonds– mother Mabel, sister Berniece, and father John–worked their farm there until Ward was 15, when the first of many moves took them to Denver, which most studio biographies later gave as Bond’s birthplace. There Ward finished high school and spent two more years in Colorado studying mining and engineering, before the family moved to Oakland, California. After his college expenses Ward was penniless and worked as a truck driver until he got into USC on athletic scholarship to study architecture, and made the Trojans football lineup in 1928. Though John Wayne (then still Marion “Duke” Morrison) had also been on that team, Wayne left USC in 1927 and was at Fox, working as a laborer and getting acquainted with director John Ford.
The story of how Bond got his first role has been both embellished and challenged over the years; one version has Wayne sent back to round up former USC teammates, and the uninvited Bond didn’t know Wayne but knew an opportunity to break into movies and/or get a free meal, and stowed away on the bus. Possibly Wayne was sent to convince USC’s president to allow the then-conference champion Trojans to appear in Ford’s 1929 movie Salute, and Bond was an obvious choice. Another version has it that Ford visited the campus himself or (most likely) just looked through photos of the most popular players and picked out the 6’3” Bond because he liked (in Ford’s words) his “great big ugly mug.” With exact circumstances of their meeting obscured by apocryphal retellings–primarily by Ford who was a story weaver extraordinaire–the fact remains that the three men became the best of friends, hard-drinking, hunting, shooting, sailing, fishing, motorcycle-riding, smoking, card-playing, epic prank-pulling lifelong soulmates, with a camaraderie that was noisy, coarse and rough, peppered with affectionate arguing, swearing, insults and abuse, leaving a treasure trove of ribald quotes.
Despite the temptation of a bigger studio contract, and Ford’s urging to grab it, Bond stayed at USC as all-star tackle for the Trojans, playing through to their win in the 1930 Rose Bowl. He used his Hollywood earnings to briefly study medicine and finished an engineering degree in 1931. His acting income beat anything a beginning engineer could earn back then, so he returned to movies full time, working at almost every studio, taking the tiniest roles and donning every imaginable type of costume, playing cowboys, working stiffs, gladiators, boxers, thugs and convicts, and along the way gained more lifelong, likeminded friends like Clark Gable and director Victor Fleming.
Bond married in 1936 to socialite Doris Sellers Childs, but his home away from home was with Ford, Wayne and other friends at the Hollywood Athletic Club, where they gathered to drink, swap stories and play cards in a barroom the club created especially for them. They invented a mock establishment men’s association dedicated to the furtherance of drinking and all things politically incorrect, and called it the “Young Men’s Purity, Abstinence and Yachting Association.” Members in good standing included actors Preston Foster and Frank Morgan (The Wizard of Oz), Olympic champion turned Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller, producer-director-adventurer Merian C. Cooper (King Kong), writer-director Tay Garnett (The Postman Always Rings Twice), and Fox producer Gene Markey. Screenwriter Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach), a close friend of Ford’s, and Bond were part of a running joke where they took turns getting and losing “full membership” in the sham club. Nichols was repeatedly refused because he was too light a drinker and too liberal and therefore by club standards was “socially reprehensible,” while Bond was deemed vastly overqualified due to his expert proficiency in consuming alcohol and leaving a trail of destruction after benders. When Nichols was given Bond’s seat he promptly moved to have the club renamed the “Young Workers of the World League” with mentions of Total Abstinence and the proletariat (motion soundly denied). By the late ‘30s the group did more fishing and boating and so became the “Emerald Bay Yacht club,” the “yacht club for people who don’t like yacht clubs,” with a fabulously detailed hierarchy of ranks and the flashiest marine uniforms they could put together. After World War 2 Bond took over running the club with Ford, and one of their big events was celebrating Myrna Loy’s marriage to then Admiral Gene Markey.
Bond worked hard through the ‘30s, appearing in more than 130 films. 1939 turned out to be his big year; he made almost 20 movies, including Submarine Patrol, Dodge City, and Gone with the Wind, but juiciest and most prominent were his roles in two John Ford films starring Henry Fonda. In Young Mr. Lincoln, Bond is great as the trial witness whom Fonda rattles at first glance, and further mocks by calling him “Jack Cass” (if that doesn’t seem funny, you either have a humor deficiency or need to say it faster). Bond is confident, arrogant, disbelieving, and panicked but always a half-step behind as Fonda dismantles his story in cross-examination and (spoiler!) reveals him as the killer. In Drums along the Mohawk, Bond is a comical pioneer and Edna May Oliver’s good-looking man, and they have a sweet romance. With these films, ten years after they met, Bond found a place in Ford’s stock company and Bond proved himself a valued player.
By 1941 Bond got in two more films with Ford (The Long Voyage Home and Tobacco Road) before the director went off to war to head the Naval/OSS field photographic unit. Bond was exempt from military service because of his epilepsy, but served as an air raid warden and kept busy acting. He was great in The Grapes of Wrath, in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon as Bogart’s detective pal, and gave what is arguably his best performance in Raoul Walsh’s Gentleman Jim, as Errol Flynn’s heavyweight boxing opponent John L. Sullivan, an egotistical hulk who shows honor and humility in defeat. Bond so loved the role that he bought the rights to a Sullivan biography, hoping to play him again with Walsh directing. Bond had a starring role in Hitler–Dead or Alive (a big influence on Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) as a gangster who joins a team formed to assassinate the dictator. Bond was also great in A Guy Named Joe as Spencer Tracy’s best friend who’s left to comfort Irene Dunne.
Bond was also assuming a more prominent role off-screen. As the war went on, it was becoming clear that the world would be shaped as much by the expansion of ideology as by the clashing of armies, and so movies which were always a powerful propaganda machine, were more closely scrutinized for the messages they carried. In the fall of 1943, over dinner at Chasen’s, about 20 Hollywood conservatives met to discuss recent studio-union tension, protests and organizing efforts by film industry leftists and considered what they could do to promote the concept of American Exceptionalism, while also exposing and combating progressive and pro-Communist messages. That meeting led to the February 1944 formation of the MPA, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Director Sam Wood (A Night at the Opera, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Kings Row) was voted first president of the group that eventually grew to over 1000 members, including Walt Disney, Leo McCarey, Charles Coburn, Bruce Cabot, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Ronald Reagan and John Wayne. Ward Bond was an early and key member and over the years committed a great deal of his money and star power to the MPA’s activities which were typical of a watchdog group. Whenever they saw forwarded in positive terms a progressive-Communist-collectivist agenda, leftist bias or underreporting, they published pamphlets (a founding one, basically the MPA mission statement, was written by member Ayn Rand), issued statements, wrote letters to government representatives and signed petitions to media outlets.
While Ford was away at war, both Bond and Wayne went through divorces and lived at the Ford home, where the men indulged their love of frat boy pranks and then made good by doing errands and repairs (some required due to aforementioned frat boy pranks) and showering the family with gifts. In the summer of 1944, Bond was struck by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the street, suffering a shattered and nearly severed leg. He was briefly in a coma, but despite the danger, he adamantly refused to allow an amputation. In the deluge of get well letters, flowers, medals and religious items sent by thousands of fans, there was also notification from his studio that he was off salary and under suspension. When Ford came back he kept Bond in his next movie They Were Expendable, adding a scene to explain his crutches. For months afterward Bond wore a brace, had several surgeries (including removal of the steel plate in his shin) and was left with a limp, but on the plus side he eventually won $50,000 in damages in a lawsuit against the driver, a beauty product salesman. Coincidentally, Ford fell and broke his leg at the end of the Expendable shoot, which led to Robert Montgomery taking on some of the directing duties.
In 1959 Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was warmly welcomed to a star-studded televised banquet jointly hosted by the Los Angeles Mayor and the head of 20th Century Fox as part of a film exchange program. In response, Bond created a media event of his own when he flew the American flag at his home at half-mast, and gave interviews wherein he discussed the continuing evils of Communism. The battle was far from over, he said, the USSR still had American POWs, he reminded everyone, and he pointed out the sick irony of over 400 celebrities and industry insiders wining and dining the dictator of what was known to be a brutal, murdering tyranny that allowed zero freedom of speech and persecuted and killed artists. By then the blacklist was breaking; as far back as the early 50s Bond was on a council made up of industry players of all political persuasions that assessed people, helped them get work and clear their name if they had been wrongly swept up in the blacklist, or made an intellectual break from, quit and publically denounced the Communist party. In interviews Bond said people exaggerated his power to ruin or clear anyone, and that people’s own acts, statements, continued party membership and support was what made them undesirable hires and poor investments. He also said he obviously had less influence than people thought, since he’d frequently made news to call attention to the hiring of unrepentant Communists but such concerns were increasingly falling on deaf ears, and many former blacklistees who neither denounced their previous activities nor the horrors of Communism playing out overseas, had returned to studio payroll using pseudonyms or fronts. One notable instance of Bond’s vocal objection (along with protests by the American Legion) was against Frank Sinatra’s hiring of screenwriter Albert Maltz (for The Execution of Private Slovik); Sinatra eventually capitulated to the demands of the Kennedy campaign, and dropped Maltz to avoid inconvenient associations or protests during the upcoming presidential election.
As that 1960 election neared, Bond campaigned for Nixon, but said in an interview that he was unhappy with both candidates and parties, that politicians in general were ever more pandering and cowardly, and moving further away from understanding or governing the United States as a constitutional republic. Bond was all for celebrities speaking out about politics (in fact he said it was every citizen’s duty to do so) if they knew enough to actually discuss issues, but he didn’t like mindless pretension or use of star photo ops by candidates to impress the voters. He remained tireless in speaking out against subversive social forces that pushed for acceptance of drugs, pornography and progressivism, and for his example he was honored in 1960 by the Freedoms Foundation.
On November 5, Bond arrived in Dallas to attend the Cotton Bowl game (Cowboys vs. Rams) and appear during the halftime show. He got three weeks off Wagon Train because he’d been feeling unwell, and while in Dallas spent time with friends Bob Thompson and Clint Murchison, founder of the Cowboys, which had that year been approved as an NFL expansion team. After Bond returned to his motel to get ready for the game, he suffered a fatal heart attack. (Coincidentally only a few hours later Bond’s buddy Clark Gable also had a heart attack, and died 11 days later). John Ford shut down production on Two Rode Together and joined Wayne in making funeral arrangements. According to reports Ford was too devastated to appear in public until a few days later when he made a statement to the press, saying, “Ward will always be with us wherever actors gather for talk or stunt men get together for a card game. They’ll remember. He was a great character and a great guy.” The outdoor service, attended by 500 people, was held at the Field Photo Memorial Home for Purple Heart veterans established by Ford for OSS vets, Bond’s favorite charity. Pallbearers included a Navy Commander and Captain, Ken Curtis (The Sons of the Pioneers, Gunsmoke’s Festus, and Ford’s son-in-law at the time) and Harry Carey, Jr. sang, and Wayne gave an emotional eulogy. Bond’s ashes were scattered off Catalina, as per this instruction from the avid fisherman: “I loved lobster all my life, and I want to return the favor.” Bond left everything to his wife (they had no children) except for giving Wayne the option to buy out a 400 acre hobby farm in Bakersfield they had purchased together for hunting and fishing. Then there was a shotgun that Wayne had once admired and been accidentally shot with; when Wayne asked to have it, Bond said, “over my dead body,” and kept his word, bequeathing it to his friend.
Bond was no moderate, and few were moderate in their opinion of him, so for every story of him as a bombastic bully and blowhard who opened beer cans with his teeth, or cut Orson Welles’ tie off in public, there were many testaments to his likability and good character. He never wanted to be a star, and considered acting a rather unimportant profession full of pretension (he thought method acting was ridiculous) and considered himself blessed to be working at such an easy job. He loved his fans and constantly used his fame and money for charity performances, usually to raise funds for veterans. His reputation for generosity was abused when a group posthumously and fraudulently used his name to “raise funds” for a memorial geriatric clinic. He was a man of faith, and said to be a man of his word, a man who respected a promise and a contract above all else, and a loyal friend who got his longtime stunt double buddies regular gigs as his costars on Wagon Train. One reporter wrote of the time his teenage daughter was treated to lunch by Wayne and Bond while they were campaigning for Taft, and the men dared not drink alcohol in front of the teen for fear of setting a bad example. Fearlessly outspoken, opinionated and brash, Bond was known for relentlessly testing people through debate and loved a good argument, but many celebrities and reporters who shared little to none of Bond’s politics still found him unselfish, generous, gentle, kind and funny. And though Bond made no secret of his patriotism, John Wayne said in his eulogy that “there was no one who loved his country more;” Wayne later said his friend was “beautiful where it counted–inside.”
As news of Bond’s death broke, TV Guide’s issue with him on the cover was literally hot off the presses, with a feature about a special event, a John Ford directed episode of Wagon Train. Ford was a frequent visitor to the set and asked Bond if he could work up a story about the background of Ulysses S. Grant for the show. John Wayne agreed to do a cameo playing General Sherman. It turned out to be the last time all three would work together. The episode which aired November 23, was almost a mini Ford film with some of his stock company (Anna Lee, Ken Curtis, John Carradine), images and shots echoed in later Ford movies (especially his part of How the West was Won). The story told by Bond’s character (about U.S. Grant) had a moral about “manning up” to overcome cowardice, flaws and self-pity, about building courage and self-respect and forging ahead. For Ford, it was a common theme as well as an apt description of men like Ward Bond–tough, blustery, unapologetically manly, protective and fair, but thought to be dumb, mean and heartless because they talk more about duty, patriotism and tradition than about their feelings. For months after Bond’s death, his best friends were depressed and inconsolable. Ford drank and lost weight until he had to be admitted to hospital. It wasn’t until he survived a close call in a plane crash landing early the next year that he moved beyond his grief and returned to work on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Besides the well-loved Wagon Train series, Bond left an amazing career legacy and is a welcome sight in any movie. He racked up hundreds of film credits, and as previously mentioned, he appeared in more movies on AFI’s 100 greatest list than any other actor. He was in 11 movies nominated for the best picture Oscar (the most of any male actor). The three that won best picture: It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take it With You, and Gone with the Wind. The rest: Arrowsmith, Lady for a Day, The Grapes of Wrath, The Maltese Falcon, Sergeant York, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Quiet Man, Mister Roberts. In 2001 Bond was inducted into Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
Many thanks to Karen Hannsberry for additional research material.
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