The Rifleman is easily one of the most legendary Western shows we have ever seen. Starring Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford, the story followed rancher Lucas McCain and his son Mark McCain. The lead characters came from a small New Mexico town during the late 1870s and 1880s. Let’s take a look at some secrets from the show!
Fans followed the McCains for a run of five seasons during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Show developer Sam Peckinpah and creator Arnold Laven became Western legends. The Rifleman had a topnotch cast, set, and a plot that guaranteed it was going to be a big hit.
Chuck Connors first turned down the part when he was offered to play Lucas McCain. Apparently, the salary was too low for him! The producers also considered John Anderson and James Whitmore, who would fit their budget more. However, things changed after an incredible discovery…
In 1957, Connors starred in the hit movie Disney’s Old Yeller. He co-starred with Kevin Corcoran and Tommy kirk in it. The producers like the chemistry among the actors on the show as well as the way Connor spoke to a kid. They knew he was worth it! They increased the offer, which Connors finally accepted.
Fun with the Gun
Arnold Laven said that the rifle on the show was the same one John Wayne used in Western Stagecoach. Allegedly, it was an 1892 .44-40 Winchester rifle. Connors fired 12 shots with it for the opening credits. Who would have thought it was rather out of place?
According to the notes for the show, The Rifleman was set in the 1870s and 1880s. However, McCain used a modified Winchester Model 1892 that came with a big ring lever! That feature let him pull off the spinning technique he used. Of course, it would not have existed yet if the show was real.
Tweaking the Show
Sam Peckinpah first wrote the pilot episode of The Rifleman for Western Gunsmoke, but it got rejected. The writer-director made some changes to the script by changing the name of the lead character from John McCain to Lucas McCain and added his son to the story. How awesome is that?!
Arnold Laven wanted to add some twist before they went into production. He turned Lucas McCain into a widower raising his child alone and turned him into a rifle dead shot from a pistol sharpshooter. If he did not do the latter, we bet Lucas McCain would not have ranked #32 on the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time” list by TV Guide in 2004.
Lucas McCain almost always hit his target, but did you know he can use both hands to shoot? In a couple of episodes, he changed hands whenever he shot without even losing his focus. The talent has never been mentioned onscreen and offscreen.
Back in the ‘50s, cigarettes were not unusual at all. However, Lucas McCain was depicted smoking a cigarette only once on The Rifleman. Chuck Connors actually smoked 60 cigarettes each day, however. In 1992, he died of pneumonia and lung cancer at the age of 71.
Lucas and Mark McCain had plenty of long conversations about morality and ethics. However, he had adult pals as well. One of them was a plainsman played by Michael Ansara. In fact, the character eventually became the star of a spin-off show called Law of the Plainsman!
Lucas McCain’s character ended up becoming a groundbreaking television parent. He was the first depiction of a widowed parent raising a kid on his own. Connors said the show had an appealing and realistic father-son relationship thanks to Sam Peckinpah and his writing skills!
Chuck Connors was a Brooklyn native. Interestingly, he was a member of the first Boston Celtics team, which was formed in 1946! He was the first pro basketball player to ever shatter a backboard. Coaches and scouts recognized his athletic prowess and his sports career took off.
Living The Dream
He ended up leaving the Celtics to play for the team of his childhood heroes, the Brooklyn Dodgers. After this, he joined the Chicago Cubs as first base in 1951. He also got drafted by the Chicago Bears! Do you think playing all these sports led to his ambidexterity?
Before Dennis Hopper got on a motorbike in Easy Rider, he first starred in the premiere episode of The Rifleman. In the “Three Legged Terror” installment, he appeared in a completely different role. There were actually lots of actors doing the same thing on the set!
The Rifleman was reportedly canceled over low ratings and because actor Johnny Crawford was aging (which kids tend to do). The actor later talked about the end of the series, explaining in an interview on The Rifleman: The Chuck Connors Page, “You know, I never did know exactly why and I wasn’t too concerned at the time, because after having done it for five years, I was anxious to do something else. I felt personally that the show was getting a little stale and that the scripts were not as good as they had been. The first season, I still think, was our best, and that was our best season in the ratings.”
During the ‘50s, there was a shortage of men who could portray cowboys on the small screen. Paul Fix, who eventually played Marshal Micah Torrance on the show, appeared on the show as a doctor who patched up Hopper.
Paul Fix also appeared in the pilot of Star Trek in the role of Dr. Mark Piper. When the sci-fi show got picked up by the network, DeForest Kelley took over the role. The weird thing was that they moved the initial pilot episode to the third episode, so Dr. McCoy was the ship physician before Dr. Piper.
Sammy Davis Jr.
Sammy Davis Jr. of Rat Pack fame starred in two The Rifleman episodes: “Two Ounces of Tin” and “The Most Amazing Man.” He portrayed the sharpshooter Tip Corey and cowboy Wade Randall. Among other things, the fans liked his shooting and spinning skills.
It took a little while, but the concept of a single parent raising a kid caught on. One more show that had a single dad was the ‘50s show called Bachelor Father. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was also Julia. Played by Diahann Carroll, Julia was a nurse with a young son like Mark McCain.
Sam Peckinpah was raised on a ranch, so he was qualified to write stories for The Rifleman. He was allegedly excited to keep the scripts coming, although he ended up leaving the show after the first season. He ended up making the move to film. Some of his works are Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch.
Johnny Crawford was one of the 24 Disney Mouseketeers, although he got cut after the first year after the membership was limited to 12 years old. He also starred in Little Boy Lost and The Lone Ranger. He was 12 years old when he snagged his role on The Rifleman.
The actor took the path that many young TV stars of the 1950s chose: He became a teen idol and started a singing career. It was a better choice for Crawford than many of his peers of that era. Crawford sang five Top 40 hits in the 1960s, the biggest of which was “Cindy’s Birthday,” which reached No. 8 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1962.
Joining the Army
After working as a singer, he enlisted in the US Army in 1965. He spent two years in the service, during which he helped produce training videos for the force. He attained the rank of sergeant when he got discharged in 1967. Months after this, he played a soldier in Hawaii Five-O.
The Rifleman was full of life lessons, and forgiveness was a big theme. In an episode called “The Marshall”, Lucas McCain employed an ex-convict on the ranch and showed how important second chance was. In “The Sheridan Story”, we met a soldier with his arm shot off who met the general who injured him. In the end, General Philip Sheridan offered to take care of his medical expenses.
On the show, Mark McCain’s mom died of Small Pox in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma in the 1870s. The diseases go such a long way back that Egyptian mummies even carried it. Small Pox became rampant all over the globe during the 1700s and claimed the lives of more than 50 to 90% of populations. By the end of the 19th century, it appeared in America with Typhus and Scarlet Fever.
Although The Rifleman is set in North Fork, a town in what was known as New Mexico Territory in the show, the television series was filmed in Los Angeles. The ranch scenes included several locations, including Malibu Creek State Park, Calabasas, Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth and what was Corriganville Movie Ranch. Many of the scenes also take place on Paramount Ranch, in the Santa Monica Mountains. Since this is a recreational area, fans of the show have access to hike through the structures of the Old Western town in Agoura, CA.
When the show aired its first season in 1958-1959 it was ranked 4th most popular show on television. An incredible 14,547,450 viewers watched The Rifleman while there were 43,950,000 households with a television set in America at the time. Viewership steadily dropped off over the following four seasons, with the show eventually dropping out of the top 30 in 1962-1963.
According to Arnold Laven, stuntman Archie Butler showed up in more episodes than any other minor cast members. He doubled for Paul Fix and appeared in the rodeo scenes. He also helped with the stunts they might need. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, stuntmen were daredevils with a penchant for calculated risks.
Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford
While the two actors had a tight working relationship, they did not have a father-son dynamic in real life. During an interview, AMC asked Crawford if he considered Connors to be a father figure. He answered, “Not really. I had great respect for him and I loved working with him but he was very different off screen. He 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.”
Five Top 40s
Even though the success must have been crazy for the teenage The Rifleman star, he still made it to the Top 40 list on five different occasions with his hit songs “Rumors”, “Proud”, “Cindy’s Birthday”, and “Your Nose Is Gonna Grow”. Johnny was clearly a talented young man.
Who is Chuck Connors?
Chuck Connors was actually born Kevin Joseph Connors. This Brooklyn native was born on April 10, 1921. He lived through the Great Depression with his parents and sister. His mother always found a way to feed the family, and Connors lived a pretty normal childhood. He was an altar boy but played sandlot ball at the Bay Ridge Boy’s Club in his free time. He was also mentored by John Flynn of Bay Ridge Celtic.
His Acting Credits
Apart from The Rifleman, the actor also starred in other films and TV shows over the years. When he knew he was not going to become a pro baseball player, he dove into Hollywood after snagging a role in Pat and Mike. His film credits also include South Sea Woman, Old Yeller, Trouble Along The Way, The Hired Gun, Move Over Darling, The Big Country, and Airplane II: The Sequel.
The Small Screen
Television work made up a big chunk of his professional life. Aside from The Rifleman, he also appeared in The Adventures of Superman, Crossroads, Hey, Jeannie!, The Loretta Young Show, and Tales of Well Fargo. We are barely scratching the surface here. Oh, he was also in Here’s Lucy in the past!
Just like other shows, The Rifleman had a number of famous guest stars to improve ratings. Many of these celebrities were pro athletes like Don Drysdale and Duke Snider. The show had five seasons, so it makes sense that 500 guest appearances were made by the likes of Warren Oates, Sammy Davis Jr., Buddy Hackett, Robert Vaughn, and Richard Anderson.
The Greatest Game in the World
Chuck clearly loved sports, especially baseball, so it must have been hard for him to give it up. He even said, “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.”
Merchandise sales grew as the show became more famous. DVD collections of each season became famous on top of the regular apparel, calendars, books, prints, mugs, and accessories. The Rifleman was immortalized in these products. You can still buy some of them if you wish!
His Love Interests
Lucas McCain was a handsome heartbreaker who had numerous love interests. Some of his leading ladies were played by Amanda Ames, Patricia Blair, Ellen Corby, Julie Adams, and Patricia Barry. Since he was a widower, he did not mind dating. However, Joan Taylor was the one who had his heart.
Milly Scott was played by Joan Taylor. The character was the “new storekeeper” and Lucas McCain’s love interest. Producers eventually decided they needed to give Lucas the opportunity to settle down by introducing this character. This practical businesswoman bought a general store with her inheritance. She was a hit among the fans!
Teen Emmy Nominee
Johnny Crawford accomplished a lot of things by the time he was a teenager. When he was 13 years old, he got an Emmy nomination for playing Mark McCain! Although he lost to Dennis Weaver of Gunsmoke, it was still an honor for someone so young to get nominated.
Cigarettes and Chuck Connors
Sadly, Chuck Connors drew his last breath on November 10, 1992 as a result of pneumonia stemming from lung cancer. Although his character was only portrayed as a smoker once on the show, Chuck was a chain smoker in his real life and went through 3 packs a day until he was in his 50s. Apparently, after starting in 1940, it took the actor 30 years to quit but by then it was too late.
Johnny and Chuck
Chuck was a mentor to Johnny, so his loss devasted the younger man. Johnny delivered the eulogy for Chuck. He said, “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.”
The Remake Cancellation
Surprisingly after its long and wild ride, the television show was almost remade in 2011. Director Chris Columbus was set to be the executive producer and Willie Nelson and child actor Jacob Tremblay were in talks to star. However, just a few months after they announced the show’s rebirth, it was canceled before the pilot was even created.
A Cool Coincidence
Johnny Crawford appeared in The Big Valley in the role of a sheriff. In one episode, he made a symbolic gesture by giving a rifle to an outlaw posing as a returned sheriff. The rifle looked a lot like the one Lucas McCain had in The Rifleman! However, the one on The Rifleman was an 1892 .44-40 Winchester.
When The Rifleman came out, Westerns were popular on the small screen. Producers wanted to make it stand out, so they added a huge ring lever to the Winchester Model 1892. It allowed the actor to cock it by spinning it with his hand. He could also depress the trigger every time he used the lever so that he could fire quickly and empty a magazine in less than five seconds.
Ahead of the Curve
As we said, the rifle was a little too advanced for the setting of The Rifleman. Producers wanted to make the show as grounded in reality as possible, but it was not always accurate. A gunsmith by the name of James S. Stembridge made two units of the Model 1892 for regular and up-close filming. Let us not forget about the Spanish-made Garate y Anitua “El Tigre” lever action either.
The infamous rifle was present in every episode of the show, it did not always get fired. Some episodes did not require firearm since McCain solved some problems without the gun. Over the course of the show, McCain killed 120 villains, mostly with the use of his rifle.
Without The Rifle
McCain was reliant on his rifle since it was his weapon of choice. He was powerless without it. Micah was beaten up badly in one episode, but so were Mark and McCain. It was because McCain did not have his rifle. Things only looked up for them when he got his rifle. The bad guys paid for what they did.
In the opening credits, McCain fires 12 shots. Seven of these were shown in a close-up shot, while the rest were shown as the camera changes angles. The rifle came with blank cartridges so the magazine can hold more blanks than usual. The soundtrack had a 13th dubbed shot so the firing would go well with a section of the theme music.
Fans and The Rifle
A fan called Al Williamson posted this 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.”
Violence on TV
When The Rifleman went on air, it was one of the most violent TV shows at the time. McCain created what was thought to be the first semiautomatic weapon. Marshall Micha Torrance was a recovering alcoholic as well. He had a hard time keeping the peace in town and asked McCain for a hand. When things were rough, Torrance went to the bar to drink his problems away.
A fan did not think the show was violent. After all, each person died for a reason, and the episodes came with moral lessons. One fan posted the following on TVParty.com: “The show was shown widely in syndication on local stations after it left the network for most of the mid-late ’60s. I disagree with it being the ‘most’ violent western – most shows of that era contained quite a bit of violence. What seemed to make The Rifleman different was the fact that those who were killed truly deserved it and frequently episodes included a moral lesson – often quoting a biblical passage.”
A Dark Show
The Rifleman was a pretty dark show, all things considered. It showed mobs made of cowardly and rather dim farmers. Mark also struggled growing up in an environment as violent as theirs. The young boy was often told to work on his homework or chores, which did not interest him. Mark knew he was going to inherit the rifle, so there did not seem to be any use to studying anyway.
Love Interest Ratings Loss
The Rifleman was hugely popular during the first two seasons. When he began to date Miss Milly in Season 3, fans were not pleased that a woman intervened between him and the Winchester. Ratings started to drop as the love affair continued. In the fourth season, he dumped Milly and set his eyes on Lou Mallory instead.
Patricia Blair was a big film and TV star in the ‘50s and ‘60s. She played Lou Mallory on The Rifleman, but she was best known for starring in Daniel Boone. She grew up in Dallas, Texas. She last appeared in the film The Electric Horseman. The actress succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 80.
Sweeney the bartender was played by Bill Quinn on The Rifleman. He was introduced in “The Marshal”. During “Seven”, prisoners were being transferred to Yuma. One of them escapes, goes to the saloon, and holds Sweeney hostage. Bill Quinn has taken on over 150 roles over the years! His career started in the ‘20s and ended in the ‘80s. At the age of 81, he died of natural causes.
Joe Higgins was another regular on the show. He played a number of characters before he landed the recurring role of the blacksmith Nils Swenson. His southern accent helped him over the years. Perhaps you remember his line from The Dukes of Hazzard: “Boy, you in a heap of trouble”. He also played the Safety Sheriff in numerous print ads.
Fans in Russia
The Rifleman was among the first American shows to be aired in Russia. The Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev visited the US in the ‘70s and wanted to meet Chuck Connors! It was one of his favorite shows, apparently. Fortunately, he ended up meeting the actor. The two even became good friends!
Hope Summers brought Hattie Denton to life. She was the owner of the general store in North Fork. The actress appeared in a number of hit shows and films over the years. Sadly, she did not get a breakthrough role on the big screen and focused on the small screen instead.
Film Noir Influences
The Rifleman had advanced production techniques. It was directed by none other than Joseph H. Lewis, who was responsible for Gun Crazy. Film Noir back in the day was associated with black-and-white and German Expressionism. He used similar techniques for this Western, which made it stand out.
Ralph Moody starred in a number of Westerns before he was cast as Doc Burrage on The Rifleman. He later appeared in Bonanza when the show wrapped up. He got his start by playing Heinrich in Rip Van Winkle in 1900. He started out as a personality but got his TV debut in 1949 in the Lone Ranger.
John Harmon portrayed a hotel clerk called Eddie Halstead. Before getting this role, he was in The Untouchables. He appeared in many other projects over the course of his career. When he got older, he worked as a secondhand book dealer. He died of heart failure in 1985.
The Rifleman got released on DVD by MPI Home Video. It came with a single-disc DVD with 5 episodes. From 2002 to 2006, they released six sets that had 20 episodes as well. They did not release them in the broadcast order but in random order. Levy-Gardner-Laven Productions retrieved the rights from MPI and now holds sole copyright ownership. In 2013, they released all 168 episodes in sequence.
Johnny Crawford on the Show
Johnny Crawford also said, “It just lost its inspiration or something, and perhaps I had lost some appeal to others. But at the same time, that was when I was doing quite well with my recordings, so I don’t know. There had been talk of going on for one more season and trying it in color for an hour, and maybe they thought that would boost the ratings, making it more on the order of Bonanza. It might have, but by then Chuck [Connors] had gotten itchy to do something else and he was offered his series called Arrest and Trial, which offered him a completely different type of character and time period, and he took that.”
The Rifleman fans loved the series because of Lucas and Mark McCain but let us not forget about Marshal Micah Torrence either. Lots of supporting and recurring characters had fans as well. If you need an example, look at Eddie Quillan who brought Angus Evans to life. The actor was a Western staple back in the day. He passed away in 1990.
The Only Child There
Johnny Crawford was young when he began working on the show. However, he adjusted just fine. He said, “I had been wanting to do a series for a long time, especially a western, so I was just in heaven from the beginning, and I thought I was extremely lucky. The only adjusting that was necessary really was getting to learn everybody’s name. I had a great time and really never thought about the fact that I was a kid. In fact, I wasn’t as young as I looked in those days and felt mature because I was working with adults all the time.”
Edgar Buchanan is yet another actor who portrayed Doc Burrage on the show. The actor boasts of more than 100 projects to his name during his four-decade stint in Hollywood. However, he is probably best known for playing Uncle Joe Carson in Petticoat Junction.
Harlan Warde portrayed the President of the North Fork Bank, John Hamilton. He was present in 18 episodes of the show. His last acting credit was for the Rockford Files episode called “A Different Drummer”. Did you know that he was in the special forces during the Second World War?
Johnny’s Favorite Episode
What was Johnny Crawford’s favorite episode? One of them involved his character choosing between his father on earth or his mother in heaven. It was called “The Vision”. Apparently, it took them nine days to film it because he was very sick. He said, “I really haven’t seen it for many years, but at the time I remember thinking that it was very imaginative and unusual. Also at that time, one of my favorite shows was The Twilight Zone, so that was where my tastes were.”
Crawford explained, “I knew that if the lady who taught me on the set, who was also a welfare worker – it was her responsibility to see that if I was ill, I was removed from the set until I was in proper health. I didn’t want to hold up production and all that, so I tried to keep it a secret from her, but I guess it became somewhat obvious. The particular scene that we were doing when she discovered or decided that I was really ill, was when they’re supposed to be packing me in ice. I have a very high fever and they’re trying to bring it down and I think that was the first scene we actually photographed for that episode.”
Robert Burton also played the semi-regular role of Doc Burrage, although it was short-lived. He only played the character in one episode! The actor was a popular film and TV star who starred in numerous films, both big and small, over the years.
Glenn Strange appeared in six episodes of the show, where he played the stagecoach driver. The actor is 6’5” tall and was a staple in the horror and Western genres. We are sure you have seen him in other films and shows if you are a fan of those genres!
Meanwhile, Jack Kruschen portrayed the doctor in two episodes on the show. He played Clyde Bailey as well. This Canadian star started out in theater before moving to onscreen projects. He had been in show business for more than five decades, but he was mostly cast as a villain.
Robert Foulk was present in five episodes of the show. He played the blacksmith, Johansson, and Herbert Newman. He started out as a dialogue coach but ended up appearing in more than 200 TV shows and films.
Fay Roope brought Doc Burrage to life in two episodes. He is yet another staple in western projects. Some of his works are The Lone Ranger, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza.
Sidney Blackmer played Judge Hanavan in three episodes of the TV show. He began his career when the silent film era was still going on. He is best known for playing Roman Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby. He also portrayed President Theodore Roosevelt multiple times.
Rhys Williams was in six episodes of the show. This Welsh actor is best known for appearing in The Adventures of Superman. Perhaps you also remember him from The DuPont Show, Twelve O’Clock High, and Mannix.
R.G. Armstrong is an actor who was active in the western genre back in the day. He brought sheriff Fred Tomlinson to life. Sadly, his character got killed by outlaws. He has appeared in Bonanza, Cheyenne, and Lawman as well.
Kathleen Mulqueen showed up in four episodes of the TV show in different roles. She played Nancy Hanavan, Mrs. Peterson, Judge Hanavan’s relative, and a woman. Did you know that she played Grandma Wilson in Dennis the Menace?
Meanwhile, actor Ian Murray was present in seven episodes of the show. He played Harley Hansbury and a random townsman. Sadly, his career did not take off like some of his costars did. He appeared in Apache Drums, The Ring, and The Cisco Kid.
A Strange And Sad Connection
Like we mentioned earlier, they created three guns to be used while filming The Rifleman. However, Maurice “Moe” Hunt ended up creating two more rifles. He gave both of these to Chuck Connors, who gave one of them to Arnold Palmer, golf legend and fan of the show. The sportsman even displayed it at the World Golf of Fame. In 2005, Moe Hunt shot and kills his girlfriend before using the weapon to off himself.