In Memory of "The Rifleman"
1921 - 1992
© 1992 David Fury
This was an article that David Fury had put in Movie Collector's World honoring
Chuck ConnorsChuck Connors, who will always be remembered as Lucas McCain, "The Rifleman", TV's rugged rancher and father, died on November 10, 1992, at the age of 71. Connors had been in excellent health all of his life, and his death was a devastating shock to his fans, friends and family. Connors was admitted to Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles the first week of November, suffering the symptoms of lingering pneumonia, but was diagnosed as having terminal lung cancer.
Certainly best remembered for his role as the rifle twirling rifleman, Connors also made 58 feature films along with 15 telefilms (starring and supporting roles), a half-dozen television series (starring roles), and dozens of TV appearances in shows ranging from drama, to western to comedy.
This writer was a fan of Chuck Connors for many years since growing up watching The Rifleman on television in the 1950's, and I became a friend of Mr. Connors through an interesting set of circumstances. After writing a book about Burt Lancaster, I wrote to Chuck and asked him if he had any remembrance of the film he made with Burt in 1953 called "South Sea Woman", a military farce which also starred Virginia Mayo.
Indeed, Chuck wrote back to me and told me he owed a great deal to Burt, who helped him land his first starring role in that particular film. Eventually I interviewed Chuck and this is the story he told me about Burt Lancaster:
With a deep fondness in his heart and in his voice, Mr. Connors recalled how he had landed the starring role in "South Sea Woman".
"I had done just a couple of pictures," noted Chuck, "and I was sitting outside a little dressing room at Warner Bros, and they were testing a lot of people (for the role of Pvt. Davie White) and I was sitting in my Marine uniform waiting to be called and I went out to get a breath of fresh air, when down the street comes Burt Lancaster in a Marine uniform. (Chuck said the name "Burt Lancaster" almost with awe-and remember he was recalling almost 40 years in the past). And, in those days the stars never tested with the actors. So I said to him, "Mr. Lancaster what are you doing here?" And he was a baseball fan, so he just decided to come down and test with me. So he took me in the dressing room to, as he said, run the lines, and I didn't even know what that expression meant then. Finally I figured him out and I said, oh you mean you want to practice? So anyhow we read the scene and man he looked at me and said Boy we've got to work on this! About then my name is called on the loudspeaker to come in on stage and Burt goes to the door and yells out to the people. Hey, I'm talking here, we'll be another 20 minutes, go ahead and test somebody else. Well he went over that scene, seven pages long, to give me some semblance of approaching it proper. And then I went in and did it and got the part. But Burt took that time on his own and I gotta give him credit... In South Sea Woman, both Marines were attracted to the luscious Virginia Mayo, and Connors portrayed the hero who defeats the enemy but sacrifices his own life-and then received the medal of honor posthumously.
When Burt Lancaster was disabled with a stroke in late 1990, Connors was hit hard by it -he tried to call Burt's office but they weren't giving out any information at that time. Chuck also sent a letter in support of my nomination of Mr. Lancaster to the cowboy Hall of Fame and signed the petition I sent to the American film Institute nominating Burt for the lifetime achievement award.
Indeed, Chuck was a big Lancaster fan and booster like myself. It also turned out that we were both baseball fanatics! The Minnesota Twins (my team) had won the World Series in 1987, and Chuck's Dodgers won in 1988. His stationary even said "Go Dodgers", and you'd invariably find Chuck at Dodger Stadium on opening day and as often as he could make it to a ballgame with his busy schedule. When the Twins and the Dodgers were both battling for the pennant in 1999, we bantered baseball whenever we talked on the phone-although the Dodgers faded at the end, I invited Chuck out to Minnesota to see the Twins and Braves in the 1991 World Series. With a hectic schedule he deeply regretted not being able to accept my invitation, but later in a letter he expressed that "I thought it was the most exciting series of my whole lifetime, and thank you very much for the world championship (Twins) cap." It would have been truly great to have my friend Chuck Connors as my guest at this classic World Series, but I knew he was with me in spirit.
Well dropping back in time more than a half-century, Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors was born in Brooklyn on April 10, 1921 and grew up in the Bay Ridge section about 61st Street and sixth Avenue, and his first love in life was sports, particularly baseball. Chuck remembers that at age 13 he was a lousy first baseman, and the man who made the biggest impact on his life was his coach on a team called the Celtics, a diminutive gent named John Flynn.
John Flynn was about 5 foot seven a little guy, he came up to my chest, not an athlete particularly, but he knew the game, noted Chuck. A fantastic dresser. Every night he wore a beautiful suit and tramped out to the dirt lot with us kids. He'd roll up his trousers and tramp around in the dirt. There was a lot at 68th and seventh in Brooklyn. There was another place further south where there were 13 diamonds. We did go out there Saturday night with sleeping bags and sleep on the diamond so it would be ours early next morning. My mother always arrived with fried chicken and iced tea, and that afternoon we'd have a crowd of 5000 watching us play. This wasn't what you'd call the Little League. The guys were all there only because they wanted to be. Nobody was pushing. The Celtics were a sort of way of life and you know today there's a memorial at the Parade Grounds for this John Flynn.
Flynn was a tremendous positive influence on the young Connors. He would write Chuck a letter each week-pages long-and explain his mistakes and how to correct them. Flynn even got Chuck's father a job during the depression that he held from 1935 until he retired in 1960. As Chuck matured on the ball field and as a young man under the tutelage of Flynn, he also grew in size to 6 foot five and a lean 200 pounds.
After graduating from Adelphia Academy, Chuck received an athletic scholarship to attend Seton Hall College just one of 27 scholarship offers, where he played both baseball and basketball. Chuck's first pro contract was with the New York Yankees organization, and he played one minor league season before Uncle Sam grabbed him for military service during World War II. Eventually earning the rank of sergeant, Chuck served as an instructor in tank warfare to cadets at West Point. Connors also moonlighted as a semi-pro-basketball player during his off hours while in the service, and after his discharge in 1946 he signed up to play pro basketball with the Boston Celtics.
Chuck described himself as not a bad basketball player, but I was far from the world's greatest. Good defense, no offense-that was me. Actually I was more of a public-relations man for the Celtics. Made all the after dinner speeches, reciting Casey At The Bat and The Face on the Barroom Floor.
Connors played for the Celtics during the 1946 - 47 season and four games the following year, and averaged 45 points per game as a defensive forward/center. In one particular game against the Chicago Stags, Chuck recalled a funny incident in a 1986 Interview with George Sullivan who wrote the "Picture History of the Boston Celtics". "During the warm-up, I took a harmless 15 to 20 foot set shot, and crash, the glass backboard shattered," said Connors it was the first year for glass backboard and a worker had forgotten to install a piece of rubber between the rim and the glass the game was delayed for more than an hour before another backboard could be installed.
After his short stint as a pro basketball player, Chuck opted for a career in baseball and signed with the Dodgers. Playing summers in the Dodgers minor-league chain at places like Newark, Newport News, Mobile and Montréal, Chuck worked hard to make the big club. Unfortunately, Connors didn't have the skills to push future Hall of Famer Gil Hodges off of first base-in fact, in five seasons in the Dodgers system, Chuck had only one at-bat with the big club-the famed "Boys of Summer". It was at Montréal in 1946 where Chuck met his first wife, the former Betty Riddell, who is the mother of his four sons Michael, Jeffrey, Stephen, and Kevin.
Coinciding with Chuck's struggle to make the Dodgers major-league roster from 1946 to 1950, was a historic story of dodger teammate Jackie Robinson-the great second baseman who broke baseball's color line in 1947. While his batting average in Chicago was barely above his playing weight, Chuck batted a robust .321 with 23 homers the next year in just over a half season for the Cubs minor league team in Los Angeles and also conducted an interview show on TV between games. Chuck love to do crazy things like turn cartwheels while traveling the bases after a home run, as well as umpire baiting-he'd even memorize passages from Shakespeare and pull them on surprised umps, like "The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune I can take, but your blindness is ridiculous!" Often as not, Chuck's run-ins with umpires would find him out of the game via the umps thumb., as the men in blue would roar out, "You're outta here, Connors."
In Hollywood, certainly, this was an opportunity of a life time for a gamer like Connors! A star baseball player in Tinsel town, tall, handsome and lean, and a burning desire to be more than just a minor-league ballplayer during his best years. After his season with Los Angeles, Chuck took stock of his life at age 30 and realize his future lay in show business, not baseball.
With his outgoing personality, he landed a bit part as a state trooper in Pat and Mike (1952), which starred screen legends Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, and he was on his way to Hollywood stardom! Chuck played a bemused police captain who tries to straighten out a ruckus that occurs when Hepburn (as lady athlete Pat Pemberton) roughs up a couple of hoods (George Mathews and a very young Charles Bronson), who in turn were about to rough up Spencer Tracy, her manager and budding love interest. Chuck had a few lines and handled himself well in what would be the first of many feature motion pictures-and you have to admit it ain't bad to find yourself in a scene with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in your screen debut!
"They paid me 500 dollars for my weeks work in that movie," recalled Chuck with a broad smile. "I figured they'd made some mistake on the adding machine, but I stuck the check in my pocket and shut up." " Baseball, I told myself, just lost a first baseman."Among Chuck's many motion pictures were Trouble along the Way (1953) with John Wayne; the Disney adventure Old Yeller (1957); The Big Country (1958) with Gregory Peck, Gene Simmons and Charlton Heston (the Western classic in which legendary director William Wyler cast Connors as the vicious son of Burrell hides, a role which earned Chuck critical praise from many film critics); in the title role of Geronimo (1962 ) (Chuck's co-star was Kamala Devi, who would become his second wife in 1963, after the breakup of his first marriage); the hilarious Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971 ) with James Garner; Soylent Green(1973), the futuristic thriller with Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson; and Airplane II (1982), with Chuck helping to spoof the airline industry.
Chuck also started doing television in 1952 and in one particular episode of Gunsmoke in which he played a bad guy, they had him where 3 inch heels so that he'd be taller than Jim Arness' 6 foot 6 -it wouldn't have been right to have Matt Dillon beating up a "little guy" like Connors! And in one episode of Superman, Chuck humorously portrayed Sylvester J. Superman, the country cousin of Superman (George Reeves) who rode in a metropolis on a mule!Although Chuck's film career would certainly rate him star status, it was his TV series The Rifleman which was spawned as an episode of the same great theater from 1958, called The Sharpshooter, that made him a household name in the 1950s. He indelibly etched his mark in screen history with his superbly crafted characterization of an 1870s widower who was raising his son Mark (Johnny Crawford) alone on their New Mexico ranch, with only creates in a deadly .44 - 40 rifle with a rapid fire cocking lever between then and the myriad dangers that often threatened their existence. The cast included Paul Fix as Micah, the crusty old Marshall of North Fork, who was Lucas's best friend; John Taylor played storekeeper Millie Scott, Lucas' love interest in seasons three and four; Patricia Blair as Lou Mallory, the fiery redheaded hotel keeper who and Lucas's flames in season number five; and a host of villains intent on killing or maiming Lucas. Guest stars including Lee Van Cleef, Claude Akins, Peter Whitney, James Coburn, John Anderson, Royal Dano, Richard Anderson, John Dehner, James Franciscus, Thomas Gomez, and Sammy Davis, Jr.
these Western scoundrels would often try to get Lucas's dander up by calling him a "sodbuster", a term any self-respecting rancher like McCain would take offense to. More often than not any men of evil going up against "the rifleman", would simply be signing their own death certificates. Lucas McCain wasn't a man of vengeance, but if you threaten his son Mark or any of his friends, he was a mighty force to be reckoned with. Chuck himself felt that the series was, most simply defined as a "love story between a father and his son."
My personal feelings are that the rifleman was one of those rare television shows that will never be forgotten, and for several reasons. Most notably it was a family show with a moral conscience centered around the loving father/son relationship of Lucas and Mark with a true value to society. It was also exciting western action as "The Rifleman " was a veritable western legend -Chuck Connors was completely believable as a "larger-than-life" character, and perhaps no other actor could have made Lucas so real. Week after week, the personal conflicts of Mark growing up, the struggle to survive and raise a son in the violent Western landscape, were stories that were believable and often tender in heart with rendering-and the success of the series was due largely to the warm convincing portrayals by Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford.
The Rifleman was a smash success in its first season of 1958-59, grabbing the number one spot in the Nielsen ratings, and number 14 in its second season. Ratings were moderate the final three seasons of its run, but the show has remained a classic through reruns over the years, maintaining a solid and loyal audience.
After the success run of The Rifleman ended in 1963, Chuck stayed busy in series TV with three more starring roles: Arrest and Trial as attorney Jim Egan (1963-64); as Jason McCord in the post-Civil War western Branded (1965-66), in which McCord was falsely "branded" a coward by the army and sought to redeem his character; and as Jim Sinclair in Cowboy in Africa (1967-68), a Texas cowboy running a western ranch in Africa.
He was also the host/narrator of The Thrill Seekers (1973-74), a documentary type show about death-defying stuntmen; and Emmy nominated role as the lustful slave owner, Tom Moore, in the Roots miniseries (1976); appeared as Jeb Hollister on The Yellow Rose (1983-84); starred as Capt. Janos Skorzeny, the evil and bloodthirsty master werewolf in Werewolf (1987-88); and most recently as crusty old Gideon McKay on Paradise (1988-90). A 1990 episode of Paradise featured Johnny Crawford, reuniting Connors and Crawford for the first time on screen since The Rifleman went off the air in 1963. Chuck was also the narrator/host of a western action video entitled The Best of the Wild, Wild West (1990). When I asked Mr. Connors about his lead role (as a desert Hunter with a lecherous streak) in the off beat sci-fi thriller, High Desert Kill (1989 telefeature), in which four hunters are taken over-mind and body-by a supernatural force, Chuck responded, "You know Dave, I still don't know what that film is all about!"
Chuck greatly enjoyed doing baseball card shows, like the three-day event in New York 1990 which featured all ex-Brooklyn Dodgers. He also emceed a major party at the Paramount Ranch in 1990; as Chuck put it, since I can't sing and since the theme of the party is the gold rush times, I am reduced to reciting "Dangerous Dan McGrew" in its entirety so I can keep the theme of the party alive!" The veteran cowboy star also relished up hearing at Western festivals, like the 1990 X. drive against it in Sheridan, Wyoming where he received a Life Achievement award. Although Chuck joked to me that "We both know I don't deserve the award", if anybody was deserving of a life achievement award it would be Chuck Connors, a man of many accomplishments and integrity, as well as a man of the people.
Perhaps one of the proudest moments of Chuck Connors life came in March of 1991 when he was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City Oklahoma, which includes among its members film legends John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Barbara Stanwyck, and Kirk Douglas. Of all of his achievements in sports, motion pictures, and life itself, this is one award that Chuck is most proud of, and rightfully so. To quote Chuck from his acceptance speech upon his induction: "There is a magical quality to the term 'west'. There's the old West, the wild West, and the new West. The West can be many things to many people. The pioneers of the West were not afraid to build, battle, and to bleed because they had a dream for themselves. I can conjure up right now-in no special order-memories of things and places and events that speak to the term, 'the West'. The jingle of a pair of Spurs, a chuck wagon, a gun belt, Indians, a cattle drive, a Colt .45, a wild stallion, a 10 gallon hat, the Alamo, a Winchester Carbine, Custer's last stand, a bunkhouse, a campfire--oh so many things. Tom Mix once said, 'the West is not a particular place a particular time-it is a state of mind-it can be anything you want it to be', And for me, on this wonderful night, the West is Oklahoma City and the honor of being inducted into the national cowboy Hall of Fame. Thank you and God bless all."
Connors never let stardom overinflate his ego, and he was always willing and able to communicate and relate to the average fan who had followed and admired his long career. Certainly larger than life and his on screen persona, square jawed Chuck portrayed a good guy who would win out over any kind of evil, or a lowly villain himself, with equal aplomb.
Connors remained extremely busy in recent years, never considering retirement despite his age-taking time out from running his ranch to jet around the country making personal appearances, TV guest shots, and movies. His final motion picture Salmonberries, was filmed in late 1990 in the rugged Alaskan town of Kotzebue (with temperatures often reaching 59° below zero), and Connors played a major lead role in the film. Chuck's final screen credit was a great appearance as The Rifleman, Lucas McCain in Kenny Rogers 1891 TV film, The Gambler-the Luck of the Draw. I guess his final television credit was from this past spring when he did a commercial for Mac Donald's as a rugged old-time Westerner who commanded a great deal of respect from the patrons--how fitting and appropriate.
Chuck Connors thrived on activity and worked in TV and/or movies almost continuously since 1952, at one time tried writing (an episode of The Rifleman), made several appearances on the stage in the 1970s, and carried a heavy personal appearance schedule. Chuck loved to work as an actor so much that he'd often take roles in foreign or budget films that other actors didn't want; acting was what he loved best, and what he did best.
What might possibly have been Chuck's next film project was a teleplay I wrote for him called The Final Showdown, a family Western that would have also starred Johnny Crawford as his son. Chuck had approved the project and we were shopping the story to the networks at the time of his death; the veteran actor would have loved to portray The Rifleman one last time, but it wasn't to be. Mr. Connors offered moral support of my projects, and in his letters and on our phone conversations he always had kind words and often called me friend.(He also had a great sense of humor--one time when he caught my answering machine he forcefully announced, "David Fury, this is the Internal Revenue Service! You'd better answer your phone!") I had a standing invitation to stay at his ranch but unfortunately my planned visit for this November became ultimately impossible.
An unselfish man, he always gave generous of his time over the years to support the United Way, and his Chuck Connors Invitational Golf Tournament raised over 400,000 dollars for the angel view crippled children's foundation located in Desert Hot Springs, California. Chuck was an avid golfer, horsemen, and always lived and breathed "Dodger Blue". In his final years his home base was his ranch in the wilds of the foothills of the Sierra Mountains near Tehachapi, California, complete with his beloved horses. Chuck was also a devoted family man, maintaining close relationships with his four sons despite his often whirlwind lifestyle. He had a small circle of close friends, and of course his devoted secretary of many years, Rosemary "Rosie" Grumley.
Throughout his lifetime he maintained a sense of humor as well as a sense of dedication to his art--acting--and Chuck Connors was always a personable man who was accessible to his admiring public. He was tough, he was rugged, but this man also had a tender heart and a genuine concern for his fellow man. He's riding the ranges of heaven now along with the ghost riders in the sky and in our hearts he will always be Lucas McCain "The Rifleman", purveyor of justice and man of integrity.
Chuck Connors was inducted into the
Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1991
Now available on Kindle..... Chuck Connors.....The Man Behind the Rifle by David Fury
Edited version of the 1997 book, with lots of new photos, and also a complete Rifleman episode/plot synopsis guide.
around The McCain Ranch