The legendary American Western TV series The Rifleman starred Chuck Connors as widowed rancher Lucas McCain and Johnny Crawford as his young son, Mark McCain. They lived in a little town in the New Mexico Territory in the 1870s and 1880s that eerily attracts sharpshooters from all over.
Behind the Scenes
For five seasons fans followed the show as McCain toted his rifle around the ranch. Show creator Arnold Laven and developer Sam Peckinpah became legends in directing Westerns. Read on to learn what went on behind the scenes and to learn why the show really went off the air.
The Art Of The Deal
When Chuck Connors was first offered the lead of Lucas McCain in the show, he turned down the part based on the low salary. The show’s producers immediately considered James Whitmore and John Anderson for the role. But then they made an amazing discovery…
Connors starred with child actors Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran in Disney’s Old Yeller. When producers saw the chemistry between the actors and that Connors could talk to a kid with such respect and understanding, they knew Connors was worth more. They upped the ante and Connors accepted their offer.
Producer Arnold Laven claimed in an interview that the rifle used by Connors was the same weapon John Wayne used in Stagecoach. It was allegedly an 1892 .44-40 Winchester. Connors fired 12 shots with it in the opening credits. Turns out, the gun was slightly out of place…
But Wait A Minute
According to the show’s notes, The Rifleman took place in the 1870s and 1880s. McCain carried a cool modified Winchester Model 1892 with a big ring lever. Unless he was also a time traveler, that gun hadn’t yet been made.
Sam Peckinpah originally wrote The Rifleman pilot for the popular Western Gunsmoke three years earlier but it had been turned down. Peckinpah tweaked the Gunsmoke script by changing the lead character’s name from John McCain to Lucas McCain and added a son to the script.
Producer Arnold Laven decided to add a twist or two. He made Lucas McCain a widower raising his son alone, and also changed his gun from a pistol to a rifle. The first change resulted in Lucas McCain ranking on TV Guide’s list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time.”
Not only did Lucas McCain hit his intended target 99.99 percent of the time, he could make those shots with either hand. In some episodes, McCain would randomly change hands as he shot, never losing sight of his mark.
Cigarettes weren’t viewed as the devil incarnate back in the 1950s when The Rifleman was shot but Lucas McCain was only shown smoking once on the show. In real life, Chuck Connors smoked 60 cigarettes a day. He died at age 71 in 1992 from complications of lung cancer and pneumonia.
Lucas McCain had a lot of conversations with his son Mark about morality and always doing the right thing. But he had some adult buds too, including a plainsman. Michael Ansara appeared as his “Plainsman” character in two installments of The Rifleman and later got his own show, Law of the Plainsman.
Lucas McCain’s character was the first widowed parent to be portrayed raising a child alone. Connors credited Sam Peckinpah with writing strong, robust scripts that made the father-son relationship depicted on the show realistic and appealing. And other television series soon caught on…
Chuck Connors, a native of Brooklyn, was a member of the very first Boston Celtics team in 1946. He was also the first professional basketball player to shatter a backboard. Scouts and coaches recognized Connors’ outstanding natural athletic abilities and it wasn’t long before his sports career took off.
The Dream Continues
He left the Celtics to play with his childhood heroes, the Brooklyn Dodgers. After that, Connors joined the Chicago Cubs, where he played first base. The icing on the cake: He was also drafted by the Chicago Bears. Maybe playing all those sports fostered Connors impressive ambidextrous talents.
Long before Dennis Hopper jumped on a motorcycle inEasy Rider, he appeared in the premiere episode of The Rifleman called “The Sharpshooter.” Hopper appeared on an episode down the road as a totally unrelated character in an installment called “Three Legged Terror.” He wasn’t the only actor doing double-duty, though.
Play It Again, Paul
Apparently, there was an industry shortage in the 1950s of men who could play cowboys on TV. An actor named Paul Fix, who later played the part of Marshal Micah Torrance on the show, appeared in “The Sharpshooter” episode as a kindly doctor who patches up Hopper’s character.
Paul Fix appeared in the (second) pilot episode of Star Trek as Dr. Mark Piper. When the show was picked up by the network, Fix was replaced by DeForest Kelley. However, the pilot was eventually the third episode aired, meaning Dr. McCoy appeared as the ship’s physician before Dr. Piper.
Beware The Candyman
Famous Rat Packer and entertainer extraordinaire Sammy Davis Jr. guest starred in two episode of The Rifleman, “Two Ounces of Tin” and “The Most Amazing Man.” He played Tip Corey, a mean and nasty sharpshooter, and a cowboy named Wade Randall. Viewers were impressed with Davis’s shooting and gun spinning talents.
It took some time, but the theme of a single parent raising a child alone popped up on other series.Another show with a single dad was the 1950s series Bachelor Father starring John Forsyth. And in the 1960s-1970s show Julia, the title character was beautifully played by Diahann Carroll.
What Might Have Been
Sam Peckinpah grew up on a ranch, which made him especially qualified to shape the stories on The Rifleman. Peckinpah was excited to write those gripping scripts but he left the show after season 1 to apply his talents to movies.
Shedding Mouse Ears
Johnny Crawford was one of the original Disney Mouseketeers but was cut when membership was reduced to 12 years old. He next starred in a live NBC broadcast of “Little Boy Lost,” followed by a role on The Lone Ranger. Crawford was 12 when he landed The Rifleman role.
Teen Idol Days
The actor took the path that many young TV stars of the 1950s chose: He became a teen idol and started a singing career. Crawford sang five Top 40 hits in the 1960s, including “Cindy’s Birthday,” which reached No. 8 onBillboard‘s Hot 100 in 1962
Crawford Enlists in Army
Following his singing career, Johnny Crawford switched gears in 1965 and enlisted in the United States Arm and reached the rank of sergeant. During the two years he spent in the Army, Crawford offered his knowledge and experience in film to help product the Army’s training videos.
A Theme of Forgiveness
The Rifleman included life lessons, and one of the reoccurring themes was forgiveness. In the episode “The Marshall” Lucas McCain employees a former convict on his ranch, showing that everyone deserves a second chance.
Small Pox Epidemic
In the television series, it’s said that Mark McCain’s mother died of Small Pox in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma in the 1870s. It is highly likely that many families still experienced loss of family members during that time due to the rampant disease.
Filming the Ranch
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. Many of the scenes also take place on Paramount Ranch, in the Santa Monica Mountains.
When the show aired its first season in 1958-1959 it was ranked 4th most popular show on television. Viewership steadily dropped off over the following four seasons, with the show eventually dropping out of the top 30 in 1962-1963.
Stuntman Archie Butler
According to director Arnold Laven, stuntman Archie Butler appeared in more episodes than any other actor, other than the core cast. Not only did he act as a double for Paul Fix, but with a rodeo background, Butler was on hand to handle any stunts needed for filming.
Chuck Connors’ Relationship With Johnny Crawford
Although Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford had a close working relationship, they did not maintain a father-son dynamic off-screen. “I had great respect for him and I loved working with him but he was very different off screen,” he later said in an interview.
Johnny Made The Top 40 Five Times
Although life was already pretty crazy for the successful 13-year-old with all the shows he appeared on, Crawford managed to make the Top 40 list five different times. He had lots of hits like “Rumors,” “Your Nose Is Gonna Grow,” and “Proud.”
Kevin Joseph Connors
Although the world knows him as Chuck Connors, Kevin Joseph Connors is the real man behind Lucas. Born on April 10, 1921, the Brooklyn Native struggled through the Great Depression as a child. In his spare time he loved to play sandlot ball at the Bay Ridge Boy’s Club.
The Chuck Connors Theatrical Empire
Once Connors knew that he wasn’t going to fulfill his life as a professional baseball player, he immersed himself in the Hollywood life after being cast in the 1952 filmPat and Mike. Other films includeSouth Sea Woman, Trouble Along The Way, and Old Yeller.
All About Television
Television was a massive part of his professional career. BesidesThe Rifleman, Connors appeared in The Adventures of Superman, Crossroads,Dear Phoebe, Tales of Well Fargo, Hey, Jeannie!, The Loretta Young Showand so many more. He even made it onto Lucille Ball’sHere’s Lucy!
The Guest Stars
Just like any television show,The Riflemanwelcomed famous faces to boost rating and viewings. Over the show’s five years there were over 500 guest appearances by big name actors like Sammy Davis Jr., John and Richard Anderson, Warren Oates, Robert Vaughn, Buddy Hackett and hundreds more.
A Great Quote
“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.” – Chuck Connors
A Mountain Of Merchandise
With such popularity, merchandise sales played a part in the growing fame of the show. With the birth of DVD collections per season, apparel, accessories, mugs, calendars, zippo lighters, books, and prints,The Rifleman franchise will never die.
Lucas’ Love Interests
Being the handsome heartbreaker that Lucas was, there were many actresses featured as love interests: Julie Adams, Amanda Ames, Patricia Barry, Patricia Blair, Joan Taylor, Sherry Jackson and more. As a widower, Lucas was open to dating but Joan Taylor seemed to be the only one that held his heart.
The Real Milly Scott
Played by Joan Taylor, Milly Scott was the “new storekeeper” and one of the main love interests of McCain’s. The practical, jean-wearing business woman that spent her inheritance on the general store that catches the attention and heart of main character Lucas McCain.
The Young Emmy Nominee
Among his many early accomplishments, Johnny Crawford was nominated for an Emmy Award by age 13, for his role of Mark McCain onThe Rifleman!He was, unfortunately, beat out byGunsmoke’sDennis Weaver, but just to be nominated at that young of an age is an accomplishment!
RIP Chuck Connors
Sadly, Chuck Connors died on November 10, 1992 as a result of pneumonia stemming from lung cancer. Chuck was a chain smoker in his real life and went through three packs a day until he was in his 50s.
Johnny Still Loves Chuck
As an acting mentor to Johnny, Chuck’s loss was significant and surreal to the younger actor. Johnny delivered Chuck’s eulogy; the two remained very close over the years. “I learned a great deal from him about acting, and he was a tremendous influence on me. He was just my hero.”
After its long and wild ride, the show was almost remade in 2011. Director Chris Columbus was set to be the executive producer along with directors Robert Levy, Steven Gardner, and Arthur Gardner. Just a few months after the show’s rebirth was announced, it was canceled before the pilot was even created.
Johnny Crawford later played a sheriff in the seriesThe Big Valley. In one episode, he made a symbolic gesture by handing a rifle to an outlaw who was pretending to be a returned sheriff. The rifle looked very similar to the one that Lucas McCain used on The Rifleman.
WhenThe Riflemanpremiered, westerns were very common on TV. Producers wanted to make the series stick out, so they modified a Winchester Model 1892 rifle with a large ring lever. This modification allowed Connors to cock the rifle by spinning it around in his hand.
There were only three guns used on the show: two modified Winchester model 1892s and a Spanish-made Gárate y Anitúa “El Tigre” lever action, which was nearly identical to the Model 1892, that was modified for use as a knockabout gun.
120 Villains Killed
While the rifle appeared in every single episode of the series, it was not always fired as part of the show. Sometimes, McCain didn’t use his rifle at all. He tried to solve many of the situations without using his gun; however, he wound up killing 120 villains during the series.
Powerless Without The Rifle
McCain depended on his rifle to help him pretty much conquer anything that came his way. When he didn’t have it, he was absolutely powerless. When McCain had his Winchester, he was on top of the world and all powerful.
The 13th Shot
During the opening credits, McCain fires 12 rifle shots. They were blank cartridges, which are shorter than standard cartridges, allowing the magazine to hold more. The soundtrack of the show contained a 13th, dubbed shot, so the end of the firing would coincide with a particular section of theme music.
Fans Loved The Rifle
Fan Al Williamson wrote on TVparty.com, “We used to love watching the show just to see him cock that rifle…. We also loved to hear the rifle being fired – it was like no other gun sound on TV.”
The Most Violent Show On TV?
WhenThe Riflemanaired, it was considered one of the most violent shows on TV. It included television’s first semiautomatic weapon and dealt with issues like alcoholism.
One fan disagrees that it was overly violent, writing on TVParty.com: “[M]ost 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.”
The Riflemanwasn’t exactly a happy show. The townspeople were cowardly and not very smart. They’d eagerly form a mob when necessary but were unwilling to individually take on a stranger who entered town. McCain’s son Mark struggled as an adolescent growing up in such a violent environment.
One Love Interest Equaled A Drop In Ratings
The Riflemanwas very popular in its first two seasons. Then McCain started dating Miss Milly (Joan Taylor). When she became his girlfriend, fans were not pleased that a woman got between him and his Winchester. Ratings dropped so McCain dumped her.
New Relationship Dynamic
McCain then turned his attentions to a female adversary named Lou Mallory. Patricia Blair played Lou, who ran the town’s hotel. Her character was more than just eye candy — she needed McCain’s muscle, and his gun, to help her out sometimes.
Patricia Blair’s Other Famous Role
Patricia Blair was well known in the 1950s and 1960s for her film and TV roles. While she played Lucas McCain’s love interest onThe Rifleman(and appeared in 22 episodes), she was best known for playing Rebecca Boone on NBC’sDaniel Boone.
Sweeney The Bartender
Bill Quinn played Sweeney, the bartender onThe Rifleman. Sweeney was first introduced in the episode titled “The Marshal.” In one episode, “Seven,” prisoners are transferred to Yuma. One escapes and heads for the saloon where he takes Sweeney hostage. The episode also introduced Mrs. Sweeney.
The Town’s Blacksmith
Joe Higgins was a regular onThe Rifleman. He played several characters on the show before finally landing the recurring role of blacksmith Nils Swenson. Higgins’ charming southern accent resulted in him being cast in several shows over the years. Fun fact: He earned a Ph.D. in Aviation Education.
The Show Aired In Russia
The Riflemanwas one of the first American TV shows to air in Russia. The western was one of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s favorite shows. Connors and Brezhnev wound up becoming good friends who spent quite a bit of time together.
Owner Of The General Store
Hope Summers played Hattie Denton, the owner of North Fork’s general store, a recurring character onThe Rifleman. She also appeared in shows such asMASH, Little House On The Prairie, Bewitched,Bonanza, and The Andy Griffith Show.
Film Noir Influence
The production techniques onThe Riflemanwere ahead of their time. Joseph H. Lewis directed the series and was also responsible for the acclaimed noir filmGun Crazy. Film noir of the 1940s and 1950s was associated with a very specific black-and-white style with roots in German Expressionist cinematography.
Doc Burrage (Ralph Moody)
Actor Ralph Moody had appeared in several Westerns before he landed the role of Doc Burrage onThe Rifleman. Edgar Buchanan, Fay Roope, Rhys Williams, Jack Kruschen, Robert Burton and Bert Stevens also played the doctor. Moody later starred inBonanzaafterThe Riflemanended.
The Hotel Clerk
John Harmon played hotel clerk Eddie Halstead. Prior to landing the role he appeared inThe Untouchables. He later appeared inCheyenne, Have Gun – Will Travel, Wagon Train, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, The Fugitive, Green Acres, The Big Valley,andThe Virginian.
The Riflemanwas released on DVD from MPI Home Video in several versions. It released a single-disc DVD with five episodes, and from 2002-06 the company released six sets that each contained 20 episodes. Levy-Gardner-Laven Productions took the rights back from MPI and started releasing all 168 episodes in 2013.
Why Was The Rifleman Really Cancelled?
The Riflemanwas reportedly cancelled over low ratings and because actor Johnny Crawford was aging. The actor later talked about the end of the series, explaining on The Rifleman: The Chuck Connors Page,…[H]having done it for five years, I was anxious to do something else.”
Johnny Crawford: I Had Lost Some Appeal
Crawford added, “By then Chuck [Connors] had gotten itchy to do something else and he was offered his series calledArrest and Trial,which offered him a completely different type of character and time periodc, and he took that.”
Gunsmith (Angus Evans)
Many of the show’s supporting, recurring characters were beloved by fans. Eddie Quillan played one of those characters, gunsmith Angus Evans. He appeared twice in the fourth season: in “Marks’ Rifle” (episode 150) and “Conflict” (episode 155). He died in 1990.
The Only Kid On Set
Johnny Crawford was a young boy when he started working onThe Rifleman, but he adjusted very well to working with adults and never felt isolated. He later said, “I had a great time and really never thought about the fact that I was a kid.”
Doc Burrage (Edgar Buchanan)
As previously mentioned, several actors played Doc Burrage. Edgar Buchanan appeared in six episodes ofThe Rifleman, playing Grandpa Fogerty in “The Long Goodbye” and Doc Burrage in the other five. Buchanan appeared in over 100 films and dozens of TV shows during his 40 year career.
President Of The North Fork Bank (Harlan Warde)
Harlan Warde played John Hamilton, President of the North Fork Bank. He appeared in 18 episodes ofThe Rifleman, making his debut in episode 8, “The Safeguard.” Over his 40-year-career in Hollywood, Warde appeared in over 180 films and television series.
Johnny Crawford’s Favorite Episode
One of Johnny Crawford’s favorite episodes was “The Vision,” when his character had to decide whether to stay with his mother in heaven or live with his father on earth. The actor explained in an interview that it took nine days to shoot because he was very sick.
Crawford Wasn’t Acting; He Was Really Sick
Crawford said he tried to keep his illness secret but that it was obvious to everyone. Of filming one scene, he said “I have a very high fever and they’re trying to bring it down…that was the first scene we actually photographed for that episode.”
Doc Burrage (Robert Burton)
Robert Burton was another one of the six actors who appeared as the semi-regular character Doc Burrage. Only his stint was short lived: he appeared as the character just once, in “The Princess.” Burton was a well-known TV and film star of the 1950s and early 1960s.
Stagecoach Driver (Glenn Strange)
Glenn Strange appeared in six episodes ofThe Riflemanplaying different variations of stagecoach drivers. Strange, who was 6′ 5″ tall, was well known for his roles in horror films and westerns. He also famously played the bartender Sam Noonan inGunsmoke.
Doc Burrage (Jack Kruschen)
Jack Kruschen played the doctor in two episodes ofThe Rifleman: “Trail of Hate” and “Baranca.” He also played Clyde Bailey in “The Retired Gun” and Sammy in “One Went to Denver.” In 1960 he was nominated for an Academy Award forThe Apartment.
Toomey The Blacksmith (Robert Foulk)
Robert Foulk appeared in five episodes ofThe Rifleman. He played the blacksmith in “The Second Witness,” “Three Legged Terror” and “Outlaw’s Inheritance.” He played Johannson in “The Raid” and Herbert Newman in “The Lost Treasure of Canyon Town.”
Doc Burrage (Fay Roope)
Fay Roope played Doc Burrage in two episodes, “The Panic” (episode 47) and “The Legacy” (episode 51). He also played Jeff Stacey in “The Brother-In-Law” (episode 5) and Baynes Barton in “The Spiked Rifle” (episode 49).
Judge Hanavan (Sidney Blackmer)
Sidney Blackmer appeared in three episodes ofThe Riflemanas Judge Hanavan. He also played President Theodore Roosevelt seven times in films and teleplays. Blackmer won a Tony Award as Best Actor in a dramatic role for the Broadway production ofCome Back, Little Shebain 1950.
Doc Burrage (Rhys Williams)
Rhys Williams appeared in six episodes ofThe Riflemanas Doc Burrage. The Welsh actor is probably most known for playing a sadistic character in TV seriesThe Adventures of Superman.
Sheriff Fred Tomlinson (R.G.Armstrong)
R. G. Armstrong was a character actor who appeared in several westerns during the era. He played Sheriff Fred Tomlinson in the The Rifleman’s pilot episode, “The Sharpshooter,” directed by Sam Peckinpah, and “The Marshal” (episode 4), which was written and directed by Peckinpah.
Judge Hanavan’s Wife, Sister, Daughter (Kathleen Mulqueen)
Kathleen Mulqueen appeared in four episodes ofThe Rifleman. She was Nancy Hanavan in the pilot episode, The Sharpshooter,” Mrs. Peterson in “The Angry Gun” (episode 12), a woman in “Eddie’s Daughter” (episode 46) and Judge Hanavan’s wife/sister/daughter in “The Actress” (episode 94).
Harley Hannabury (Ian Murray)
Ian Murray appeared in seven episodes of The Rifleman, once as a townsman (episode 76, “The Hangman”) and six times as Harley Hannabury: “The Challenge” (episode 28), “Blood Brothers” (episode 35), “Obituary” (episode 44), “The Fourflusher” (episode 72), “Meeting at Midnight” (episode 74), and “The Illustrator” (episode 88).
Strange And Sad Connection
Three guns were used during filming. However, an additional two rifles were created by Maurice “Moe” Hunt, a fan of the show. In 2005, Hunt, who belonged to a group of stunt actors called the Reel Cowboys, shot his estranged girlfriend and then turned the weapon on himself.