One of my favorite shows growing up was The Rifleman, starring the late Chuck Connors. It was set in the Old West and every episode was a morality play.
The good guys always won.
Filmed in black and white, The Rifleman had a five-year run on ABC that began in 1958. The setting was a small town – Northfork, New Mexico – and the star was Lucas McCain, who didn’t carry a sidearm but was an expert with his signature Winchester rifle.
Connors initially rejected the TV role because of low pay. Actor James Whitmore said no, too. The producers decided they wanted Connors and upped the salary, so he accepted.
Connors was very popular in the late 1950s because of his role as Tommy Kirk in the Disney classic, Old Yeller. Old Yeller was the first movie I ever saw.
(By the way, the late Walt Disney would probably be ashamed of some of the movies his studio is making these days).
The 44-40 Winchester rifle that Lucas McCain carried in the The Rifleman was the same gun that John Wayne used in the original Stagecoach movie. It was a copy of an antique gun designed in 1892. The Rifleman was set in the 1870s, so there was a little artistic license going on with the weaponry.
The legendary director Sam Peckinpah wrote the original plot for The Rifleman but he meant it as an episode for the popular western Bonanza. That script was turned down – Peckinpah changed the lead character’s name from John McCain to Lucas McCain.
Peckinpah directed the popular western initially but left The Rifleman after the first season so that he could make movies, including Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch.
Producer Arnold Laven insisted that Lucas McCain have a son and Mark McCain was added. Lucas was a widower raising a son – an uncommon plot in the 1950s.
Johnny Crawford played Mark McCain. It wasn’t his first show. He had a role on The Mickey Mouse Club as one of the 24 Mouseketeers. But the Mouseketeers had to be under age 12 and Crawford was 12 when he was hired for The Rifleman. He also starred in The Lone Ranger and Little Boy Lost.
Crawford later took up a singing career. His song, Cindy’s Birthday, rose to No. 8 on the Top 40 in 1962. He later joined the U.S. Army.
Crawford liked Connors but the relationship off-camera was much different than onscreen. Connors was a great practical joker and liked to joke around a lot.
The backstory for The Rifleman was that Lucas McCain’s wife died of smallpox in 1870 in “Oklahoma.” Actually, it would have been Indian Territory at that point.
Lucas McCain dated quite few women in the five years of The Rifleman. Actress Joan Taylor (Milly Scott) seemed to be his favorite but he never got close to remarrying.
Connors was quite an athlete. In 1946, he played basketball for the Boston Celtics. In one game, the 6-5 Connors shattered a backboard trying to dunk the ball.
He also played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Montreal Royals and later the Chicago Cubs.
The Rifleman had some incredible guest stars including Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider) and singer Sammy Davis, Jr. Davis starred as a gunslinger back when black people were almost never portrayed in similar roles.
Duke Snider, Don Drysdale, Richard Anderson, Warren Oates and Buddy Hackett were all guest stars on the show.
Paul Fix played the role of Micah Torrance, sheriff of Northfork. One of the reasons he got the job was because he knew how to ride a horse and other actors competing for the role did not.
The producers of The Rifleman wanted to film it in New Mexico but most of the cast lived in Los Angeles and it was filmed at Calabasas, Iverson Ranch and Paramount Ranch.
When The Rifleman started, it drew an audience of 14 million. At that time, there were only 40 million TV sets in America. In its fifth season, ratings dropped and the show was canceled.
Connors starred in several movies, including The Big Country, Move Over Darling, Soylent Green and Airplane II: The Sequel. He had a role as a slave owner in the 1977 miniseries, Roots.
That was a different era in a lot of respects. Smoking was a sign of masculinity in th 1950s and Chuck Connors, who smoked three packs of Camels a day, died at age 71 in 1992 due to lung cancer and pneumonia. He probably didn’t realize how deadly smoking was.
There was a plan to revive the show in 2011 but the producers couldn’t get a pilot filmed and the project fell through.
I met one of Chuck Connors’ real-life sons a few years ago during the Wanenmacher Gun Show in Tulsa. It just makes sense that the son of The Rifleman would be a celebrity guest of the biggest gun show in the world.
They just don’t make TV shows like that anymore. You could learn a lot of morality by watching The Rifleman. A lot of folks could benefit from that instruction these days.