“The Rifleman": Behind-the-Scenes
Dear reader, surely there are only two kinds of fans of “The Rifleman:” those who haven’t watched the show, and those who love it! In this quintessential American classic, Chuck Connors stars alongside Johnny Crawford in the 1958 TV series: ‘The Rifleman.’ Connors, of course, plays a New Mexico Territory rancher in late-nineteenth-century America. After his wife dies in a smallpox epidemic, rancher Lucas McCain and his son, Mark McCain, move from Enid, Oklahoma, to the fictitious town of North Fork. The show aired from 1958 to 1963, and it was one of the most popular TV series at the time. In this huge collection of pictures, stories, and facts, let us entertain you! Shall we…?
What’s the Plot?
The ‘Rifleman’ is, of course, Chuck Connors’ character, Lucas McCain. He uses a modified Winchester Model 1892 rifle. Do you remember the show’s opening scenes? At the start of every episode, McCain would show how the rifle worked with its cycled lever action, and the gun also had a mod that meant he could use the gun one-handed. Whew! People loved the show for its wholesome messages, and for its hugely entertaining fight scenes. The show’s creator and developer, Arnold Laven and Sam Peckinpah respectively, would go on to become legendary Western directors. So let’s find out how it all went down...
Playing His Cards Right
When you are as good as Chuck Connors was, you can afford to gamble when it comes to making contracts. The producers of the show loved Connors and quickly offered him the role of Lucas McCain. A leading role in a major TV series is nothing to sniff at, but Connors knew his worth and declined based on the salary. However, in 1957, Connors made a real name for himself when he worked with child actors Kevin Corcoran and Tommy Kirk. The producers saw the way that Connors spoke to the kids on-screen, and decided to offer him a bigger paycheque!
Son of a Gun!
Arnold Laven, who you may remember was one of the show’s creators, once made a pretty bold claim… In an interview, Laven told a reporter that THE rifle from The Rifleman first belonged to someone famous. Can you guess who it was? If you guessed ‘Batman,’ you would be correct. In the film Western Stagecoach, John Wayne used the same kind of gun, which was an 1892 .44-40 Winchester rifle. You might be scratching your head here though because there’s something a little odd about the name of that gun…
Rootlin’ Tootlin’ Time Travellers
Even if you haven’t seen The Rifleman, you will still be aware that a) there was a gun involved and b) that the show was set in the late nineteenth century. But how late? As the title of the rifle suggests, the Winchester Model 1892 was made in 1892. The show itself is set in the 1870s and 1880s, but strangely enough, McCain’s gun was from the 1890s. Are you with us here? The show’s creators made a technical error! Anyway, this little glitch might have been historically inaccurate, but it made the show all the more badass.
Big fans of the show know the pilot episode where the two McCains move to North Fork after the death of their wife and mother. What superfans may not know, however, is that the same director of ‘The Wild Bunch,’ Sam Peckinpah, was behind the writing for the pilot episode. He had originally written the script for Gunsmoke, but the producers had turned it down. So the illustrious Mr. Peckinpah changed the main character’s name to Lucas McCain, added Mark McCain, and decided to run with it. But it wasn’t Peckinpah who added one of the show’s distinguishing twists…
Lights, Camera, Drama!
Arnold Laven wanted to up the drama factor. It wasn’t enough that it was action-packed - it had to be exciting and drama-filled too! One of the reasons why the show was enjoyed by so many was because of its action-packed, yet heartfelt and moral storylines. Laven changed Pekinpah’s original story a little, making Lucas McCain a widower, and giving the star an awesome gun rather than a sharp-shooting pistol. There weren’t any other single parents on a prime time TV show at the time, so it was a truly unique story. What's more, is that Lucas McCain was a man of many talents…
The Ambidextrous Sheriff McCain
Can you think of a time when McCain didn’t hit an intended target? He was truly one of the best shots out there. But what impressed us even more, is that he would often change hands without warning. Even though McCain would be moving around the place, throwing his gun between hands, he would still make every single shot. So was it all movie magic, or was Connors really an incredibly ambidextrous gunman? It turns out that neither he nor anyone else would ever mention it after the show.
A Smoking Gun
Back in the 1950s, smoking was basically encouraged. Cigarettes were a dime a dozen, and all of the famous movie stars were doing it. Marlene Dietrich, James Dean… even Ronald Reagan! So it’s no surprise that actor Chuck Connors was a heavy smoker. On-screen, however, Lucas McCain was only ever shown smoking once. Connors smoked like a train and may have even gone through 2-3 packets a day. Sadly, it would lead to his death in 1992, when the legend passed away as a result of lung cancer and pneumonia. May he rest in peace.
The Law of the Plainsman
One thing that fans of The Rifleman can rely on is that there would always be a moralistic message throughout the show. The relationship between Mark McCain and father Lucas McCain was used as an opportunity for our favorite gunslinger to share his wisdom. But McCain had a few pretty clever pals too. Among them was Sam Buckhart, a Harvard-educated Native American U.S. Marshal. Buckhart was played by Michael Ansara in two episodes of The Rifleman, and writers quickly developed a spin-off series entitled ‘The Law of the Plainsman.’
Lucas McCain: Wild West Gunslinger and Bachelor Dad
As you know, there were no other single parents on prime time television at the time. Unfortunately, McCain’s character had lost his wife to smallpox back in Oklahoma, which was why the father-son duo decided to start a new life for themselves in North Forks. There hadn’t been many portrayals of strong father-son relationships in other media at the time. Together with the moralistic overtones, this virtuous television show quickly became a crowd-pleasing favorite. What’s more, is that it was pioneering in this regard. The more you know!
The Real Chuck Connors
An all-rounder athlete, the Brooklyn-born Chuck Connors was chiefly an exceptional basketballer. In 1946, the Boston Celtics created their very first team. Can you guess who was on that team? You guessed right! It was Chuck Connors. But he didn’t stop there. This superstar wasn’t just a pretty face. He ended up leaving the Celtics to play for his baseball heroes, the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1951 he moved to the Chicago Cubs. Do you want to know something cool? The Chicago Bears also drafted him because Connors was just that good!
Everyone remembers Dennis Hopper from ‘Giant’ and ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ with the film icon, James Dean. But did you know that he also starred in an episode of The Rifleman before he was a hotshot director? This “Easy Rider” was in the first-ever episode of the show: ‘The Sharpshooter. But it wouldn’t be his only appearance in this hugely entertaining show. After appearing in the show’s debut episode, Hopper also showed up on an episode called ‘Three-Legged Terror.’ Curious? You’ll just have to watch the show for yourself! But there were only five seasons and 168 episodes. We bet you’re wondering why such an awesome show was canceled…
Why Did it Have to End?
Child actors are a pesky bunch. Just as they get enough experience to be accomplished young actors, they seem to hit puberty, and have to start doing teenage and adult roles! After a few years, Johnny Crawford was no longer a youngster. This meant that Mark, the son of Lucas McCain, ended up getting a little too old for his role. The actor who played the character of Mark McCain was not too heartbroken, however, and has spoken about the show’s cancellation openly: “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.” Johnny Crawford went on to say that “the show was getting a little stale and that the scripts were not as good as they had been.” Ouch!
Getting Your Fix of Paul
There is one actor that even superfans may have missed in the pilot of the show, and that’s because he wasn’t credited! Character Marshal Micah Torrance was indeed in the first episode of The Rifleman, but he wasn’t the Micah Torrance you know from the series. Paul Fix would, of course, go on to play the recovering alcoholic throughout the series, and also ended up working with Connors in Ride Beyond Vengeance. A little-known fact about Paul Fix is that he was also in ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before,’ which was Star Trek’s second pilot episode. He played Dr. Mark Piper, but he was replaced by DeForest Kelley when it went from pilot to full-blown network TV show. Know who else made the cut?
There was a very special guest indeed on two particular episodes of The Rifleman. The multi-talented mystery man was a member of the Rat Pack, and starred in ‘Two Ounces of Tin,’ and ‘The Most Amazing Man.’ Know who he was? Sammy Davis Jr., of course! He played Tip Corey in the show, as well as cowboy Wade Randall. Only someone as incredible as Davis Jr. could pull off two separate roles in the one show and nail them both. Viewers were awe-struck when the entertainer showed up on their screens, and his gun-spinning antics had them wide-eyed! Ready for some more of our favorite tidbits from The Rifleman?
Not the Only One
As you know, the Rifleman was one of the very first prime time television shows that depicted single fatherhood. It wouldn’t be long before more shows followed suit, however. The 1950s series ‘Bachelor Father’ also followed the plight of a single dad played by John Forsyth. Following this, Diahann Carroll would go on to play Julia in a show of the same name in the 1960s through the 1970s. And it seems like the on-screen relationship between the McCains influenced Julia too because the nurse and her young son also had many moralistic chats.
You may be wondering what the childhood of this big-name writer has to do with the hit five-season series that we know and love. Well, it turns out that Peckinpah has raised out in the country himself. What’s more, is that it wasn’t just any old place in the country, but he actually lived on a ranch. This made him an ideal candidate for The Rifleman’s scriptwriting role. He knew the ins and outs of ranch life. While this turned out to be an asset for the first part of the show, it would eventually cause friction between Peckinpah and the producers. The writer-actor extraordinaire is known for his gory direction, so it’s not surprising that the producers thought his ideas weren’t family-friendly enough.
Johnny Crawford’s Big Break
We’ve got another riddle for you! What does child star Johnny Crawford have in common with Britney Spears, Ryan Gosling, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera? It turns out he too was a Mouseketeer. Is it just me, or are all the most successful actors ex-Mickey Mouse Club kids? At any rate, Crawford was one of the original Mouseketeers and would go on to star in Little Boy Lost and The Lone Ranger. When he was 12 years old, he became Mark McCain! But you can understand why he started to look a little too old for the role within five seasons. Crawford would go on to become a singer, which seems to have been a good move for him...
Some of our younger readers will remember the name ‘Johnny Crawford,’ but not as an actor. That’s because he had some pretty big Top 40 hits, and even had one that reached number eight on the Billboard Hot 100 of 1962. But his career wasn’t just smooth sailing from then onwards. In 1965 he would change careers again, and this time he didn’t remain in the entertainment sector. No sir! After a series of five Top 40 songs, the young actor who played Mark McCain would go on to do something entirely different…
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Cowboy
If you guessed that he went on to join the army, you would be correct. Like many other men throughout the twentieth century, Johnny Crawford enlisted in the United States Army Service. But the role he took on was a little different to the one your average soldier would have. Because he had such an extensive background in film and television, the Army got him to work on their training videos. By the time he was honorably discharged from the army service, Crawford had managed to clamber up the ladder to the rank of sergeant. Everyone loves a climber!
A Forgiving Show
Not all television shows contain the wholesome messages that The Rifleman does. But one of the reasons that it was so well-loved by so many was because of the virtues that it taught. A lot of these virtues were family-friendly because of the excellent father-son relationship between Mark and Lucas. As a result, it was the kind of show that parents could watch with their children, and some still do. Forgiveness was a big theme throughout, and Lucas McCain was big on giving people second chances. In one episode, he employs a former convict, and in another, a General asks for forgiveness with an apology to a soldier whose arm he shot off. But guns weren’t the only danger back then…
No Small Matter
Of course, Lucas McCain’s wife, and Mark McCain’s mother is said to have died of smallpox. This is why the two move to North Fork in the first place: to start a new life away from the sorrow they endured in Oklahoma. Smallpox wasn’t exactly a new phenomenon, and researchers have even traced it right back to the Egyptians. It nearly wiped out entire populations, and once it spread to America, it had already done the rounds all over the world. If you were lucky to escape smallpox, there were a host of other diseases that weren’t quite as durable as they are today. Also in this gang of deadly illnesses back in the day were typhoid and scarlet fever, for example. Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
What the Fork?
The Rifleman may be set in North Fork, New Mexico, but most of the scenes were filmed in Los Angeles, not New Mexico! What’s more, is that the ranch scenes were all over the place. One set was in Malibu Creek State Park, while two more were in Chatsworth and Corriganville Park, California. Some of the most memorable scenes were also shot in the mountains of Santa Monica. The Paramount Ranch park still exists and was built in 1927 by the major studio in as a base for many of their Western projects. You can still visit, but you’ll have to hike a little way as it is part of a 2,700-acre recreational area!
How Much Did People REALLY Love the Show?
As Johnny Crawford said before, the show’s first seasons were its best. The initial season in 1958 and 1959 had excellent rankings and was the fourth most popular on TV at the time. When the show aired its first season in 1958-1959 it was ranked the 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. Just over 30% of all people with a television at home would regularly tune in. It just goes to show that those heartfelt lessons truly struck a chord with many people. Unfortunately, the show eventually moved down the rankings, and by the time it was in its final season, it had dropped below the top 30.
The Award for the Most Appearances
The show had many famous cameos and characters, including Sammy Davis Jr., as you know. But one of the actors to appear in the most episodes of The Rifleman was not well-known. Who could have acted in so many episodes without being a part of the main cast? Well, it turns out that we can count on Archie Butler. As the stuntman for Paul Fix, Butler was in rather a few scenes. As the agile daredevil had a background as a rodeo man, the show’s producers often relied on him to do any extra stunts that they might have needed on set. Being a stuntperson isn’t all just doing flips and fight scenes though - Archie had to work with horses often, which was even more dangerous than usual because of their sometimes unpredictable nature. But there’s still a question that’s on everyone’s minds...
Were Connors and Crawford BFFS off-screen?
We know you were thinking it too! While it’s nice to think that Johnny and Chuck continued their wholesome relationship off-screen, it wasn’t actually the case. Sure, they were close, but not quite as close as the father and son that they each played in The Rifleman. It turns out that Connors was even a bit of a joker and a bad boy! Crawford once told AMC that he had “great respect” for Connors and that he had “loved working with him but he was very different off the screen.” Connor may not be the same kind of moralist that McCain is painted as. Johnny Crawford went on to say of his co-star: “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.”
So it turns out that Chuck Connors left an impression both on and off-screen, and not always for the right reasons! The actor who played Lucas McCain had hoped to continue his athletic career but decided in 1952 that it might not exactly be his destiny. Instead, he was cast in ‘Pat and Mike,’ and would go on to star in many more films. Some of them will be familiar to you too! Do you have a favorite Connors movie? Some of his most famous were South Sea Woman, Old Yeller, The Hired Gun, Move Over Darling, and Trouble Along the Way. He also made it big on TV, and played the hero in The Adventures of Superman! Chuck Connors was also in Tales of Well Fargo, The Loretta Young Show, Here’s Lucy, and Hey, Jeannie!
Chuck’s Sporting Success
You will recall that Chuck Connors achieved some amazing things on the sporting field as well as on the set. He had early success in basketball and was drafted by both the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago Bears. It must have been difficult for Connors to give up his dream of working as a professional athlete, but he definitely had a taste playing for both the Dodgers and the original Celtics team. He once 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.”
Merch on Merch
If you search for ‘The Rifleman’ on eBay, you’re in for a treat. All across the world, collectors are selling their memorabilia to fellow fans of the show. The Rifleman series may have ended for good, but the merchandise that came along with it endures well into the twenty-first century. There are literally hundreds of kinds of The Rifleman merchandise, from mugs to zippo lighters, and if you’re a real collector, you can even buy Rifleman-branded marbles and figurines. There truly is something for everyone!
Lucas McCain in Love
Anyone who has seen The Rifleman has to agree that Lucas McCain was a bit of a hunk. His on-screen love interests were hugely famous actors. They included Amanda Ames, Patricia Barry, Patricia Blair, Ellen Corby, Sherry Jackson, Joan Taylor, and Katherine Bard. He might have mourned his wife, but McCain wasn’t going to sit around and waste those good looks! Out of all the women he pursued on The Rifleman, Joan Taylor was one of the mainstays. But who was Joan Taylor, and what was her deal?
Storekeeper Milly Scott
The Rifleman had a new storekeeper in town. Joan Taylor played Milly Scott, who Lucas had a big romantic interest in. And you can see why! But the character of Milly Scott wasn’t just a gorgeous new shopkeeper who had wandered into town. Indeed, she was a total businesswoman and had spent an inheritance on the store. The gorgeous Miss Milly eventually won over McCain’s heart, but she didn’t do it quietly. She was a bold young woman who wore jeans, which would have been pretty scandalous for the time period the show was set in!
And the Award Goes To...
If you’ve seen the show, you will be used to the excellent acting that Johnny Crawford did on the set of The Rifleman. It’s easy to forget that at the time, Crawford was only 12 or 13. He was, nonetheless, nominated for an Emmy Award. Can you believe it? There can’t be too many 13-year-olds with Emmy nominations to their names. Sadly, Crawford was beaten to it by Dennis Weaver, who won a Best Supporting Actor Award for Gunsmoke. We still love him, though. You go, Johnny Crawford!
Chuck Connors’ Last Days
As you may have learned earlier, Chuck Connors wasn’t quite the clean-cut man that Lucan McCain was. He was a chain smoker who puffed away at nearly three packets of cigarettes a day. Connors tried for thirty years to quit, but it ended up being in vain. On November 10, 1992, he would pass away as a result of lung cancer. Cancer had wrecked his immune system and ended up leading to complications that would ultimately bring about his demise. RIP Chuck Connors.
Friends Til The End
Even though they might not have exactly had a father-son relationship off-screen, Johnny and Chuck were still close friends after the show ended. Johnny stood up and delivered the eulogy at Chuck’s funeral and was deeply impacted by Connors’ passing. 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.” Aww...
The Rifleman’s Second Round
You’d think that after such great success, there would be a remake of The Rifleman in the twenty-first century. After all, there have been many popular movies and TV shows that have been remade - The Little Rascals or Dirty Dancing comes to mind! In 2011, there was finally some chatter about rehashing the old show. Chris Columbus was to be executive producer, and the child star of both ‘Room’ and ‘Wonder,’ Jacob Tremblay, was set to fill in for Johnny Crawford. Unfortunately, these talks were cut short, and the pilot was never created. Our fingers remain crossed for the future!
A Man and His Gun
Lucas McCain may have been one of TV’s biggest action heroes in the 1950s and 60s, but without his rifle, he wasn’t quite so bold. Marshal Micah was beaten up in one particular episode, and soon Mark and Lucas also found themselves at the mercy of a few villains who had come to steal from them. He didn’t disappoint, however, and managed to get back at the villains who had wronged him. With his son and his Winchester by his side, Lucas McCain was set up for fighting crime in the West. Even so, we can’t help but think that maybe he should have tried some more low-key tactics every now and then...
Violence Doesn’t Solve Everything
We’ve heard it a hundred times, but this old saying really is true. The Rifleman may have been a pretty heartwarming show with some important morals, but it was also pretty gory. McCain’s modified 1892 Winchester rifle was one of the most dangerous guns around in the late-nineteenth century, and it was even more dangerous in the 1880s. This is because it hadn’t been produced yet. When you think about it, McCain really did have an unfair advantage! He had what was essentially a semiautomatic rifle, while everyone else was stuck with technology that had already been invented. Go figure!
On That Note
So what’s the moral of the story? Now that we live in the twenty-first century, and not the Wild West in the 1800s, a gun obviously isn’t the solution to life’s dilemmas. Sadly, gun violence remains a problem across America. While we can’t exactly rely on the violence of the show to teach us life’s lessons, we can definitely rely on some of that advice that Lucas gave his son Mark in many of its heartwarming moments. One thing’s for sure: family is one of the most important things!