Ever heard of the TV show, The Rifleman? It was an American Western TV series with the main characters played by Chuck Connors as rancher Lucas McCain and Johnny Crawford as his son, Mark McCain. They live in the fictional town of North Fork, New Mexico territory in the 1870s and 1880s.
The show was in black-and-white with half-hour episodes. The Rifleman aired on ABC from 1958 to 1963 and was one of the first prime-time series on American TV to show a widowed parent raising a child.
The episodes were simple enough to be understood by children and there was always a lesson to be learned in between flying bullets that never killed anyone and a reminder for all at each show’s end that your life could be worse. Click on to find out the real story behind the once most watched show.
12. Worth More Money
Chuck Connors was first offered the lead of Lucas McCain in the show but he turned down the part because of the small salary he was offered. The show’s producers then considered James Whitmore and John Anderson for the role, thinking they would accept their minimum wage offer. But then they made an amazing discovery that changed their minds.
Chuck Connors had a box office hit in 1957 with Disney’s Old Yeller where he starred with charismatic child actor Tommy Kirk. When producers saw the chemistry between the two actors on screen and that Connors could talk to a kid with such respect and understanding, they knew Connors was worth more money. They raised the price and Connors accepted their new offer.
11. Single Parent Pioneer
Lucas McCain’s character showed to be a groundbreaking parent on American TV. He was the first widowed parent to be played on TV raising a child alone. Connors credited Sam Peckinpah with writing strong, wholesome scripts that made the father-son relationship played on the show realistic and appealing. And other TV series soon joined the bandwagon.
It may have taken some time, but the idea of a single parent raising a child popped up on other series not too long. Another show that featured a single dad was the 1950s series “Bachelor Father” and in the 1960s-1970s show “Julia,” the title character was beautifully played by Diahann Carroll. Julia was a widowed registered nurse who didn’t bring a gun but had a relationship with her young son similar to Lucas and Mark McClain.
10. Athletic Skills
Chuck Connors is a native of Brooklyn and was a member of the very first Boston Celtics team in 1946. He also had the recognition of being the first professional basketball player credited with shattering a backboard. Scouts and coaches recognized Connors amazing natural athletic abilities and it wasn’t long before his sports career took off.
But he decided to leave the Celtics to play with his childhood heroes, the Brooklyn Dodgers. After that, Connors joined the Chicago Cubs in 1951, where he played first base. The icing on the cake? He was also drafted by the Chicago Bears. Maybe playing all those sports nurtured Connors’ ambidextrous skill.
Johnny Crawford was one of the original 24 Disney Mouseketeers but was unfortunately cut from the club after the first year when the membership was reduced to 12 years old. He then starred in a live NBC broadcast of “Little Boy Lost,” followed by a role in “The Lone Ranger” and many others. Johnny was 12 when he landed “The Rifleman” role.
The actor took the career path that many young TV stars of the 50s chose. He became a teen idol and started a singing career. It was a better choice for him than many of his co-celebrities of that era.
After his singing career, Johnny Crawford enlisted in the United States Army. During the two years he spent in the Army, Crawford offered his knowledge and experience in film to help product the Army’s training videos. He reached the rank of sergeant by the time he was honorably discharged at 1967. Months later he portrayed a soldier in an episode of the TV series “Hawai’i Five-O.”
8. Life Lessons and The Ranch
“The Rifleman” had life lessons in each of its episodes. One of the recurring lessons was forgiveness. In one episode, Lucas McCain hires a former convict on his ranch, showing that everyone deserves a second chance. In another episode, a soldier who had his arm shot off during the Civil War crosses path with the General who did the damage while on the ranch. General Philip Sheridan then offers to take care of the former Confederate States of America solider’s medical expenses as a showing of apology and to ask for forgiveness.
The Rifleman is set in North Fork, a town in what was known as New Mexico Territory in the show but in reality, it was filmed in Los Angeles. The ranch scenes included several locations. Many of the scenes were also shot on Paramount Ranch, in the Santa Monica Mountains. Since this was a recreational area, fans of the show can hike through the structures of the Old Western town in Agoura, CA. How cool is that?
7. Father and Son
Despite having a close working relationship, Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford did not keep a father-son relationship off-screen. In an interview with AMC, Crawford was asked whether he saw Connors as a father figure.
He said, “Not really. I had great respect for him and I loved working with him but he was very different off screen. He was was incorrigible; a practical joker. It was fun all the time but he wasn’t a good influence on me aside from his acting. He used a lot of four letter words and he was very imposing. He loved intimidating people. I got a kick out of him.” Now we know the real score behind the scenes.
6. Looking For Love
Being the good-looking heartbreaker that Lucas was, he had several big name actresses who played as his love interests throughout the show. Some of those names consist of world famous actresses during that time. As a widower, Lucas was open to meeting and dating different women but Milly Scott seemed to be the only one that snatched his heart.
Played by Joan Taylor, Milly Scott was the new storekeeper and one of the main love interests of Lucas. After the struggles in Lucas’s love life, while managing to raise his son and deal with the daily battles of life, producers decided it was time for Lucas to settle down, cue in Milly Scott. She was the practical, jean-wearing businesswoman who spent her inheritance on her general store where she catches the attention and heart of Lucas McCain. Milly was also a fan favorite!
5. Kevin Joseph Connors
Kevin Joseph Connors is the real man behind Lucas. He was born on April 10, 1921, a Brooklyn native who struggled through the Great Depression. Despite the struggle, his mother always managed to feed their family and Connors experienced a relatively normal childhood as an altar boy. During his spare time, he would play sandlot ball at the Bay Ridge Boy’s Club and found comfort in the wisdom he received from Bay Ridge Celtic coach John Flynn.
The Rifleman was only part of Connor’s acting legacy. He was featured in several films and TV programs throughout his long and successful acting career. But television was a huge part of his professional career. Once he knew that he wasn’t going to fulfill his dream as a professional baseball player, he dedicated himself to the Hollywood life and he had a fruitful career.
4. Career Boost and Death
There was no doubt that Chuck first loved sports and it was baseball in particular. But he was a bit disappointed when he realized that it was time to give it up. We love this quote that credits the sport with every ounce of his success in Hollywood.
“I owe baseball all that I have and much of what I hope to have. Baseball made my entrance to the film industry immeasurably easier than I could have made it alone. To the greatest game in the world, I shall be eternally in debt.”
Sadly, Chuck Connors passed away on November 10, 1992, from pneumonia, a complication from lung cancer. Although his character was only described as a smoker once on the show, Chuck was a chain smoker in his real life and finished 3 packs a day until he was in his 50’s. Apparently, after starting in 1940, it took the actor 30 years to quit but by then it was too late.
3. Losing A Mentor
Johnny considered Chuck as his acting mentor, so his loss was As an acting mentor to Johnny, Chuck’s loss affected him very much and was surreal to the younger actor. Johnny even read Chuck’s eulogy. The two remained very close over the years despite their huge age gap.
“Chuck was a great guy, a lot of fun, great sense of humor, bigger than life, and he absolutely loved people. He was very gregarious and friendly, and not at all bashful. It was a good experience for me to spend time with Chuck and learn how he dealt with people. I learned a great deal from him about acting, and he was a tremendous influence on me. He was just my hero.”
2. Rifle Tricks
When The Rifleman aired, westerns shows were very common on TV. So producers wanted to make sure the series would stand out. No show would last long if it didn’t stand out. So they modified a Winchester Model 1892 rifle with a large ring lever drilled and tapped for a set screw.
This adjustment allowed Connors to maneuver the rifle by spinning it around in his hand. Also, the screw could be positioned so the actor could lower the trigger each time he used the lever. This made it possible for Connors to be able to fire quickly and empty the magazine in under five seconds during the show’s opening credits. It instantly became a hit.
1. Fans Loved The Rifle
One fan of The Rifleman wrote on TVparty.com, “We used to love watching the show just to see him cock that rifle – you know, the looping underhand action Chuck Connors would use to load a round into the .44-.40 chamber. Man, he’d cock that rifle and all the bad guys would know they were messin’ with one bad mofo. My dad used to say that Connors was known to swing his baseball bat like that in the on-deck circle as a pro ball player. We also loved to hear the rifle being fired – it was like no other gun sound on TV.”
Now we know one reason why the TV show became a huge hit. Chuck Connor’s rifle tricks were so amazing that it amazed people and made them watch the show.
But all things have to come to an end. Eventually, people got tired of the show and something newer came. Although Western shows aren’t as interesting now, The Rifleman was considered as one of the best Western shows ever created. Chuck Connor’s legacy will continue to live on.