Of Chuck Connors and “The Rifleman”

Today we give three blasts of the shotgun in salute to the late Kevin “Chuck” Connors (1921-92) and the western TV series he starred in The Rifleman (1958-63).

It’s no longer widely known, if it ever was, that Brooklyn-born Connors was originally a professional athlete. And not just ANY professional athlete: he was one of only 13 men who has competed as an athlete in both the NBA and MLB.  He played pro basketball (not so surprising, in light of his height), as well as pro baseball, played for the Cubs as well as the Celtics. The only thing that’s surprising to me is that, unlike most athletes who have made the transition from sports to screen roles, Connors was really quite excellent. At the moment, in fact, I can’t think of a single professional athlete who was a better dramatic actor than he was. I’m not saying he was some Shakespearean or something, but he could more than carry his load in most any part he turned a hand to, and that’s a rarity among people who fall back into acting after a lifetime focused on running, throwing and catching.

That said, Connors wasn’t precisely a TOP athlete. Realizing he wouldn’t attain that status, he began to broaden his horizons, breaking into film in 1952 with a bit role in Pat and Mike with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. He was in around 20 films prior to his most famous role, including classics like Old Yeller (1957) and The Big Country (1958), as well as dozens of guest shots on shows like Gunsmoke and The Adventures of Superman. 

From 1958 through 1963 Connors played the iconic role of Lucas McCain on The Rifleman, one of the most distinctive of all the TV westerns. IT was all that from the very first moments of the opening credits, which I find one of the most disturbing in all television, as we watch McCain walk up the dusty main street of his New Mexico town and let off several rapid shots from his Westchester repeating rifle at someone off camera — just “BLAM, BLAM, BLAM, BLAM!” I’m certain its one of the moments Tarantino was sending up in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. One of the main writers and directors on the show was Sam Peckinpah, who pushed the envelope on violence and bleak plot developments, traits he would soon bring to his film directing.

That said, the other major distinctive element about The Rifleman was that it had a touching father-son relationship at its heart. In this it somewhat resembles Otto Preminger’s 1954 western River of No Return, as well as the later Andy Griffith Show. Rancher Lucas McCain was a widower. His young son Mark was played by Johnny Crawford, a former Mouseketeer and a future teen idol who would come to have several top 40 hits. Many of the episodes took the form of lessons imparted father to son, and often they would provide a sensitive counterpoint to the violence on the show. On the other generational end was Marshall Micah Torrence, memorably portrayed by Paul Fix. Micah was an old timer, wise and tough, but he still needed Lucas’s help every episode. Lucas was just a rancher with no official law enforcement position, who just stepped in with his trusty Winchester when things were too hot for Micah to handle alone, which was every episode.

This show was before my time; I watched in reruns. But he was certainly plenty present in later roles during my first quarter century. You could see him in films like Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), The Mad Bomber (1973), Soylent Green (1973), 99 and 44/100 % Dead (1974), Tourist Trap (1979), Virus (1980), Airplane II: The Sequel (1982), and Summer Camp Nightmare (1987); as well as TV movies like The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973); Banjo Hackett: Roamin’ Free (1976); Roots (1977); and Once Upon a Texas Train (1988). He was a regular on no fewer than four shortlived TV series after The Rifleman: Arrest and Trial (1963-64), Branded (1965-66), Cowboy in Africa (1967-68), and The Yellow Rose (1983-84). You could also see him in guest shots on the usual rounds of Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Murder She Wrote, etc. One of his last credits was a cameo reprise of his role as Lucas McCain in the TV movie The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw, starring the late Kenny Rogers, in 1991. Connors died of throat cancer in 1992.