The Rifleman Years
The Rifleman is a classic American Western Television program. It debuted as an episode of The Zane Grey Theater on March 7, 1958, as The Sharpshooter. This episode introduced the audience to Lucas McCain and his son, Mark. Lucas was a widowed Civil War veteran who was searching the west for a place to build a new home for his son, Mark. The show was produced by Levy-Gardner-Laven and Four Star Productions. The critically acclaimed pilot episode was written by Sam Peckinpah and it featured a strong supporting cast that included Leif Erickson and Dennis Hopper. The Rifleman was picked up as a series and ran successfully for five years from 1958-1963. It was set in the 1880’s in North Fork, New Mexico Territory. Lucas and Mark bought a ranch and became integral citizens of North Fork. The McCains hailed from The Indian Nations of Oklahoma and we often met neighbors or distant relatives from their hometown. It was also the first Western series to feature a widowed father raising a child. Lucas’s reputation as The Rifleman was carried with him from the Nations and earned him the respect of many adversaries. Lucas often acted as deputy to the town’s Marshall, Micah Torrance, played by character actor, Paul Fix. Lucas’ modified Winchester Model 1892 rifle allowed him to shoot rapid-fire and with deadly accuracy.
However, the rifle was not the central focus of the
show. Rather, it was the deep bond between Lucas and Mark. Lucas promised his late wife to “raise the boy right” and he was determined to do just that. Each week we learned a lesson with Mark about the meaning of bravery and courage; how violence is never a good thing and how tolerance and understanding is important. Mark often looked to his Pa to help him understand some of life’s difficult lessons. Lucas and Mark treated each other with respect and love and made an unbeatable team sometimes against great odds. The excellent scripts and quality of the show attracted many celebrities and future stars to appear. Stars such as James Drury, Robert Vaughn, Lee Van Cleef, Katy Jurado, Sammy Davis, Jr., Cesare Danova, John Carradine, Gloria DeHaven, Agnes Moorehead, Jack Elam, Warren Oates, Dan Blocker, Michael Landon, Sherry Jackson, Vic Morrow, Richard Anderson, Royal Dano, Mark Goddard, Dabbs Greer, Buddy Hackett, Denny Miller, John Anderson, Robert Culp and Dennis Hopper are just some of the guest stars that appeared in sometimes multiple episodes of the show. Even some of sports big names made an appearance on the show, Don Drysdale and Duke Snider had small roles on different episodes.
In the first two years of the series, the General Store in North Fork was run by Hattie Denton played by Hope Summers. She dispensed motherly wisdom to the McCains, along with their dry goods. She left the show in the third season and Millie Scott played by Joan Taylor, was brought in as a potential love interest for Lucas. Miss Millie stayed with the series for two seasons and then was replaced by Patricia Blair. Patricia Blair played Lou Mallory a shrewd businesswoman and another potential love interest for Lucas.
Besides all of the guest stars that appeared on the popular show, the set was often visited by many of Chuck's friends. Charlton Heston brought his son, Frazier, to visit the set. Charlton had starred with Chuck in The Big Country and would work with him again in Soylent Green. The director of The Big Country William Wyler brought his son to the set and former team mates from Chuck’s sports career often stopped by to visit including "Stan the Man" Musial and the Boston Celtics. School groups on class field trips had the opportunity to see the set and meet Chuck as well. The incomparable Maurice Chevalier even paid a visit to The Rifleman. The realism of the father-son relationship between Chuck and Johnny was often cited as one of the most moving elements of the stories.
Chuck had plenty of practice as a Dad to his own four sons who often visited him on the set and occasionally took part in the show. All four boys, as well as two of Chuck’s nieces, and many of the producers’ children were featured in The Schoolmaster episode. Chuck’s two oldest, Mike and Jeff, also guest starred in the First Wages episode. Jeff Connors had a featured role in the Tension episode. It wasn’t only Chuck’s family that appeared on screen. Johnny’s brother, Bobby Crawford, appeared in three episodes of the show:
The Gaucho, Eight Hours to Die and The Second Witness.
During a break from filming The Rifleman in 1961, Chuck stepped outside his role of Lucas McCain and starred as the famous Indian Warrior and Chief in the movie, Geronimo. This movie was produced by LGL Productions and directed by Arnold Laven.
"I remember the first time I saw him, I was sitting there with the producer and we were interviewing kids to play Mark. We must have interviewed 20 or 30, then Johnny came in and before we even talked to him I said, "That's him, that's The Rifleman's son".
"When Johnny came on the set in 1958, he was a little 12-year-old boy. He called everyone in the cast or crew "Sir" or "Ma'am". During the course of the five years of our run, he had two hit records, and he was nominated for an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor. And yet, when the show was finished after five seasons, Johnny went around and thanked everyone in the cast and crew, and he still called them "Sir" or "Ma'am".
"I was very fond of Chuck, and we were very good friends right from the start. I admired him tremendously. I was a big baseball fan when we started the show, and when I found out that Chuck had been a professional baseball player, I was especially in awe of him. I would bring my baseball and a bat and a couple of gloves whenever we went on location, and at lunchtime I would get a baseball game going, hoping that Chuck would join us. And he did, but after he came to bat, we would always have trouble finding the ball. It would be out in the brush somewhere or in a ravine, and so that would end the game."
"We remained friends throughout the rest of his life. He was always interested in what I was doing and ready with advice, and anxious to help in any way that he could. He 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. I learned a great deal from him about acting, and he was a tremendous influence on me. He was just my hero".
"Well, it was a great childhood, and he was bigger-than-life, a wonderful guy, very intelligent, and a big influence on me, and a great supporter, too. He was always interested in what I was doing and ready to give me advice or help me and he would call me out of the blue, and I really miss him. He left us in '92, and it's still a shock to me to think that he's not around because he had so much energy, and loved life and loved people, and he was
'The Rifleman.' He was that and a lot more."
Chuck and Johnny's quotes courtesy of David Fury, Author of
"Chuck Connors, The Man Behind The Rifle"
The Rifleman Friends