Ward Bond made a living as a tough, gruff character actor in over two hundred movies that spanned the end of the roaring 1920’s to the beginning of the tumultuous 1960’s. He stood tall and strong, immovable as an oak, which pretty much described his off-screen persona as well. His close friendship with John Wayne and director John Ford ensured he would aways find work in the movies, but his unforgiving right-wing support of the Hollywood Blacklist during the 1950’s won him as many enemies as fans. When he died of a massive heart attack at the age of 57, one could not help but wonder if the strain of digging in his heels against the liberal film establishment wore him out before his time.
Ward Bond was born on April 9, 1903, in Benkelman, Nebraska. He was a true son of the Great American Plains; the cowboys he played as a grown man in Hollywood were direct descendents of his Western upbringing. When his family moved to Los Angeles, Ward found expression for his toughness by playing football for the University of Southern California. There he befriended another burly footballer named Marion Morrison, who would later change his name to John Wayne and have a pretty good movie career of his own. When not playing football or drinking and brawling at bars, Ward and Wayne thought about breaking into the film industry as extras. The two of them — along with the rest of the USC football team — acted in the young director John Ford’s film “Salute” (1929). Ward and Wayne and Ford hit off and began a lifelong friendship that would see them make many films together.
Ward certainly benefited from his association with the two Johns, Wayne and Ford. He would appear in some of the director’s finest work, including “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940), “The Searchers” (1956), and Ward’s last film, “Rio Bravo” (1959). While Ward’s acting range did not inspire comparisons to Olivier, he did appear in an impressive range of films, from small parts in screwball comedies like “Bringing Up Baby” (1938) to more substantive parts like the boxer John L. Sullivan in “Gentleman Jim” (1942). He also had a lot of fun when not working; his boozing and brawling kept him in shape to play the tough guys he played on the Big Screen and on TV. In fact, TV was where he achieved perhaps his greatest fame, as the gruff star of the Western series “Wagon Train” during the late 1950’s.
Ward drew on this innate toughness when serving as president of the ultra-conservative Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. A vehement anti-communist, he was a big supporter of vice-president Richard M. Nixon. In fact, he was in Dallas supporting Nixon’s presidential campaign of 1960 when a massive heart attack took his life. Oddly enough, the man from Nebraska who made a career playing cowboys was buried at sea.