Chuck Connors was born on this day in 1921. He starred in my favorite TV western, The Rifleman, with Johnny Crawford and Paul Fix. Connors passed away in 1992, but The Rifleman and the character he created are as popular as ever. There’s even a reboot of the show in development, but Connors left some awfully big shoes to fill. For his fans, Chuck Connors will always be the definitive Lucas McCain.
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Actress Joan Taylor passed away on Sunday at the age of 82. She played store owner Milly Scott in seasons 3 and 4 of The Rifleman. As a love interest for widower Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors), she brought mature intelligence and warmth to this classic western.
My latest discovery after re-scanning for television channels is MeTV. Like RetroTV, it’s a station that shows old shows from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. MeTV airs more half hour sitcoms that RetroTV, and the programming is 24 hours, instead of a combination of paid programming and old shows. I’ve been watching The Mod Squad, Gunsmoke, Columbo, The Big Valley, Cannon…but what I’ve been enjoying the most is The Rifleman. With 12 episodes available to watch each week, it’s easy to get lost in this classic.
The Rifleman aired for five seasons from 1958 until 1963. Of the 168 episodes made, only 50 currently stream on hulu. None of those are from the final season. Only three episodes are currently available on DVD. This is why watching The Rifleman on MeTV is such a treat. I’ve come in late in the third season, but I hope to eventually see every episode.
I like to watch The Rifleman for the relationship between father Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) and his son Mark (Johnny Crawford). Lucas says in The Spiked Rifle (season 2, episode 9): “That boy! He’s my strength and my weakness.” This really sums up the show, since Lucas raises Mark alone while trying to protect him from every kind of danger. I’m far less interested in how well Lucas uses his rifle, although I’d like to total up the number of people he shoots in the course of the series. I suspect he fills up at least one cemetery in North Fork.
Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford have a special chemistry as father and son, although they look nothing alike. This is explained away in lines like this one from The Visitor (season 2, episode 18): “You know, he does favor his mother!” Mark McCain is a sensitive boy, and the role requires Crawford to cry often. He also looks tiny next to 6’5” Lucas, which makes him seem even more vulnerable. The bad guys love to threaten Mark and take him hostage, when they’re not hurting his pa while he looks on helplessly. That is, until Pa gets the upper hand with his trusty rifle.
Johnny Crawford was one of the original mouseketeers on The Mickey Mouse Club, but during the course of the first season, quite a few of the 24 kids were dropped from the show. That must have been devastating for those kids—the darker side of show biz. At least Crawford was free to pursue other acting jobs, leading to The Rifleman. He was 12 years old playing a convincing 10 when the show began. He got to sing in a couple of episodes, and he had a fairly successful recording career as a teen. I’ve caught up with his career on facebook and twitter, and he now has a dance orchestra based in Los Angeles featuring arrangements from the 20s and 30s. The band sometimes travels, and since I rarely do anymore, I hope they come to San Francisco. His music is available on Amazon, and there are some videos of his orchestra performing on YouTube.
Chuck Connors was a professional baseball and basketball player before he turned to acting. He was great in Old Yeller, playing Yeller’s original owner who ends up trading the dog for a horny toad with little Arliss (Kevin Corcoran). Connors was a political conservative whose good friend was Richard Nixon, and he became infamous for accidentally swearing during a live baseball broadcast in the 70s. He died in 1992. Connors and Crawford remained friends after The Rifleman, which isn’t surprising considering their onscreen rapport.
Many famous and soon-to-be famous actors made guest appearances on The Rifleman. Dennis Hopper was in the pilot episode. Other guest actors were Adam West, Sammy Davis, Jr, Michael Landon and James Coburn. Some actors just kept coming back—Dabbs Greer appeared eight times in different roles, and Chris Alcaide made ten appearances. So far, I’ve seen Alcaide die five times!
The Rifleman tells a complete story in an economical half hour. There are only a couple of two-part episodes with longer storylines. Even with less time for commercial breaks, it’s still an impressive feat of writing, directing and editing. These were the days before viewers became accustomed to rapid editing techniques and montages to hurry things along.
It’s fun to watch for anachronisms in The Rifleman. The show is supposedly set in the 1880s. The McCain house says “rebuilt by Lucas and Mark McCain in 1881.” McCain’s rifle is a Winchester 1892. It fires 11 rounds, but the opening credits throw in an extra, or not, depending on who you ask. In Boomerang (season 1, episode 9) a newly dug grave has a cross with the date 1871. In The Wyoming Story (season 3, episode 20) Lucas pulls out a wallet photo of Mark smiling, printed on thin photographic paper. Everything I know about the history of photography makes this kind of photo unlikely for the 1880s.
Something else that amuses me is how some of the costumes are aged. It looks like they were attacked with spray paint. I’m still working my way through the episodes, but the most obvious example I’ve seen so far is on Buddy Hackett’s costume in The Clarence Bibs Story (season 3, episode 28). It looks like the costumer sprayed a cartoon face on his chest!
I love The Rifleman just the way it is, and I don’t think it needs an update, just a decent DVD release. Wouldn’t you know it? CBS is now planning to re-make the series, since westerns seem to be making a comeback. Except for the possibility of Johnny Crawford appearing in some capacity, I’m pretty worried. All I can do is wait and see.
Visit www.therifleman.net for more information, photos, and an episode guide. Watch the show on MeTV, RetroTV, and AMC. Beware, AMC cuts out scenes for longer ad breaks, which is frustrating. Other fun sites to check out are www.riflemansrifle.com, and www.riflemanconnors.com, which has an active fan forum.
Update: I knew I wasn’t the only one who thought about tallying the show’s body count. I’m so relieved I don’t have to do this myself!