TV’s The Rifleman Was More Than Just Another Western

The Rifleman ran for five seasons and starred Chuck Connors s Lucas McCain, a widowed rancher raising his son. The father and son duo lived in a New Mexico territory that was a popular location for sharpshooters to “visit.”

The now iconic show was created by Arnold Laven and helped jump-start the career of Sam Peckinpah, who wrote and directed several episodes. This is everything you need to know about The Rifleman and everyone who worked to make it a classic!

Forgiveness Was A Big Moral Theme

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One of the recurring themes of The Rifleman was that of forgiveness. This theme was driven home in the episode “The Marshall,” where a convict became employed by Lucas McCain on his ranch. This act of kindness and trust was used to show that everyone deserves a second chance.

In another episode, a soldier confronts the General who shot his arm off during the Civil War. The General earns forgiveness by paying for the soldier’s medical expenses to express his guilt.

A Dangerous Habit

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On The Rifleman, Lucas McCain only ever smoked a cigarette once. While they weren’t viewed as dangerous in the ’50s, the habit wasn’t important for his character. The actor who played McCain, however, had a problem.

Chuck Connors reportedly smoke up to 60 cigarettes a day. Later in his life, he developed lung cancer and passed away at 71-years-old from complications with pneumonia. His passing still serves a story of why some habits should never be started.

Superb Athlete

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When Chuck Connors was just starting his career, he made his living in athletics, not film and television. A native Brooklynite, he played basketball for the Boston Celtics. Not only that, but he was also the team’s first-ever member, and the first-ever player credited with breaking a backboard.

With such incredible athletic ability, it was no surprise Connor’s athletic career took off the way it did. What’s more surprising is that he decided to leave it behind for a career off the court and in front of the cameras.

Dennis Hopper Appeared In The Pilot

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Iconic actor Dennis Hopper might be best known for his film roles, but if it wasn’t for The Rifleman who knows where his career would have gone. Hopper appeared in the pilot for the show titled, “The Sharpshooter,” as well as “Three Legged Terror” deeper into the series run.

Hopper would go on to a career filled with critical acclaim. He was nominated for two Academy Awards, the first one coming in 1970 for his performance in Easy Rider. The second one was for Hoosiers.

A Star Trek Connection

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Paul Fix, who played Marshal Michah Torrance on The Rifleman didn’t only play roles set in the past. He appeared in the pilot for Star Trek “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Fix played Dr. Mark Piper and was intended to be a series regular.

When the show was picked up as a series by CBS, the role was changed to Dr. McCoy and Fix was recast with DeForest Kelley. We guess he just wasn’t meant to “boldly go” even though he gave it his best shot.

The Story

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The Rifleman ran for five seasons and followed the character of widower Lucas McCain as he raised his son in New Mexico. Sam Peckinpah helped developed the show, and wrote and directed several episodes himself.

The show prided itself on its incredible cast and relatable stories. In its first season, it averaged 14 million viewers per episode. Sadly, by its final season, The Rifleman was no longer one of the top-rated shows on television, sealing its fate.

Holding Out For More Money

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Chuck Connors knew what he wanted when he was first offered the part of Lucas McCain. He wanted to get paid, and the initial salary offer was enough for him to turn it down. With Connors out of the picture, producers considered at least two other actors for the role – John Anderson and James Whitmore.

The role was offered to both actors who, like Connors, turned it down. Realizing what they were offering wasn’t fair, producers upped the sum and turned back around to Connors with another offer he couldn’t refuse.

All About Chemistry

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The year before The Rifleman hit airwaves, Chuck Connors starred in Old Yeller. The Disney film was a smash hit, and the show’s producers couldn’t believe the chemistry between Connors and child actors Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran.

Since there show demanded an actor that could act alongside a kid, they knew they couldn’t let Connors get away. This was another reason they decided to up their offer for the lead role of Lucas McCain.

The Signature Weapon

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The signature rifle used by Lucas McCain in The Rifleman was an 1892 .44040 Winchester rifle. In the opening credits of the series, Chuck Connors fires 12 shots. That wasn’t the first time the gun was fired though.

Arnold Levan, the show’s creator, claimed that the rifle had a famous past. He said it was the same rifle that Johne Wayne used in the movie Stagecoach. Was he telling the truth? We may never know, but it is a fun story to learn about!

Out Of Date

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Like we said, the signature rifle on the television show was a Winchester design released in 1892. The only problem with this is the show was set in the 1870s! Essentially, McCain was in command of future technology, giving him a deadly advantage over the bad guys.

Was this inaccuracy the reason The Rifleman was canceled? In time we’ll reveal the answer. For now, just remember that very few historical movies or TV shows are ever 100 percent accurate.

It Wasn’t Written To Be A Show

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When Sam Peckinpah wrote the pilot for The Rifleman he had zero intentions of it becoming a television show. In fact, he wrote it to be an episode of Gunsmoke. His episode was rejected, so Peckinpah did the next best thing.

Knowing he had a good script, the director rewrote the episode with a new main character and turned it into the pilot. Sometimes getting rejected isn’t always a bad thing. In this case, it led to something incredible!

An Added Twist

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Peckinpah may have written the script, but it was Arnold Levan who put the finishing touches on it. It was his idea to turn Lucas McCain into a widower and give him a rifle. In the original pilot, he was a pistol sharpshooter.

The changes paid off big time. Turning McCain into a widower was a huge twist for the Western genre. In 2004, McCain was named by TV Guide as the 32nd greatest television dad of all-time!

McCain Was Ambidextrous

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Although it was never stated in the show, it was clear to audiences that Lucas McCain was ambidextrous. Not only was he known for hitting 99.99 percent of his shots, but he could also do it from either hand.

Several episodes of the series featured McCain switching hands with his rifle, proving just how deadly he was. He never lost sight of his mark, and only missed his target 0.01 percent of the time! Remind us to never make him mad!

The First Spin-Off

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When a show is a hit, the studio behind it is naturally going to want to cash in with a spin-off. In the cast of The Rifleman, that spin-off was Law of the Plainsman and debuted in 1959. The show followed a plainsman played by Michael Ansara.

Law of the Plainsman ran for one season of 30 episodes and was notable for being one of the only shows to have a Native American as the lead. Unfortunately, Ansara was not Native American at all. He was actually of Syrian descent.

The First Single Dad On Television

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Lucas McCain wasn’t just the 32nd best television dad of all-time he – he was also the first lead character of a show to be a single father. The mold was broken, and was part of the reason The Rifleman was so popular.

Connors loved that aspect of the show and credited the writers for creating such an honest and real character. Getting this part of the show right was important, Sam Peckinpah and Arnold Levan knocked it out of the park.

Back To Sports

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Before Chuck Connors turned to acting, he worked to fulfill his athletic dreams. After he left the Boston Celtics he changed sports entirely and signed on with the Brooklyn Dodgers, then later the Chicago Cubs.

With the Cubs, he played first base. Proving he was a triple threat, Connors was also drafted by the Chicago Bears to play football! Not many professional athletes find starring roles in all three major American sports, so we have to wonder why Connors left it all behind.

Cancelation

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There were two reasons The Rifleman was reportedly canceled. The first was that ratings were too low. The second was that the show’s young star, Johnny Crawford, was aging too fast. As far as Connors is concerned, either reason is fine for him.

When asked why the show canceled, Connors explained,“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.”

Once A Cowboy, Always A Cowboy

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Paul Fix was a Western actor through and through. He may have been to space once in Star Trek, but his real home was always in the past. Not only did he play Marshal Michah Torrance on The Rifleman, but he also played a doctor in one episode.

The episode was “The Sharpshooter.” It was the pilot of the series and saw the doctor, played by Fix, patch up Dennis Hopper’s arm. The role must not have been very memorable if he cast again later as a series semi-regular!

Sammy Davis Jr. Was On The Show

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During his career, Sammy Davis Jr. was so much more than just another member of the Rat Pack. He was a brilliant entertainer and actor in his own right and even took his talents to The Rifleman for two episodes.

The episodes in question are “Two Ounces of Tin” and “The Most Amazing Man.” His character was Top Corey, a sharpshooter with a nasty streak. He also played a cowboy named Randall. So, nobody noticed he played two separate characters, then?

The Next Single Dad

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Lucas McCain may have been the first single dad on television, but he wasn’t the last. The first show that springs to mind is Bachelor Father, a late ’50s sitcom that ran for five seasons and starred John Forsythe and Noreen Corcoran.

Since then, widowed fathers have continued to play an important role in television comedies such as Full House. And who can forget the entire twist of How I Met Your Mother was that Ted Moseby was a widowed father.

Sam Peckinpah’s Rise To Stardom

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Sam Peckinpah only worked on The Rifleman for one season. While he loved the show and would have loved to stay with it, he had bigger aspirations of writing and directing movies. One of his most famous films was The Wild Bunch.

Peckinpah’s surprisingly sincere and brutal look at the Wild West was spawned by his childhood growing up on a ranch. He might not have been raised in dangerous times, but he definitely knew how back-breaking a full day of work could be!

Goodbye Mickey Mouse

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Before being cast in The Rifleman Johnny Crawford was famous for being one of the 24 original Mouseketeers. He was in the club for one year before Disney changed the age requirements making him too old.

We’d say it worked out for Crawford. Not only would he spend five seasons on a classic television show, but he’d also become a teen idol and heartthrob as he grew into himself. What else was he capable of you ask? Keep reading to find out!

The Teen Heartthrob Days

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When The Rifleman ended there were many paths Johnny Crawford could have taken. He could have kept acting, he could have left the public eye entirely, or could have done something else. And by something else we mean to start a singing career.

Crawford sang five top 40 hit songs in the ’60s. His biggest song by far was “Cindy’s Birthday” which was a top ten hit in 1962. When his music career was over Crawford surprised the world with what he did next.

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.

Johny 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. He followed in another career path after music, too.

Johnny Crawford Enlisted

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In 1965 Johnny Crawford switched career gears again and enlisted in the United States Army. He spent two years in the armed forces and used his knowledge of the entertainment industry to help produce the Army’s training videos.

When Crawford was honorably discharged in 1967 he had reached the rank of sergeant. Shortly after the acting bug struck again and he guest-starred in an episode of Hawaii 5-0 as a soldier, oddly bringing his career full circle.

Another Historical Inaccuracy

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In The Rifleman, it is said that Lucas McCain lost his mother to Small Pox while in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory in the 1870s. While it is true that a Small Pox epidemic ravaged 90 percent of the world in the past, but the latter half of the 1800s it was not a threat in the United States.

Other afflictions that were long gone by then were Scarlet Fever, Typhus, and Yellow Fever. That means that while McCain claims to have a tragic backstory, he is actually just a big old liar!

Filming Location

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Thanks to television magic, The Rifleman looks like it takes place in the Wild West of New Mexico. In truth, it was filmed on several ranches across Los Angeles County in Malibu Creek State Park, Iverson Ranch, and Calabasas.

Many scenes were also shot on Paramount Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains. The recreational area is open to the public, so any fans of the show actually have access to the real filming locations. That’s pretty cool!

Nielsen Ratings

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When the show premiered in the late ’50s there were roughly 44 million homes in the United States with television sets. Of those, 14 million viewers reportedly tuned in to watch the pilot episode. Sadly, The Rifleman was not able to maintain those ratings through the series five-year run.

By the fifth year of the show, it fell from the fourth rated show on television to unranked. Still, it remains quite popular in syndication today, even if fans prefer the early seasons to the later ones.

The Most Episodes

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Aside from the main cast, who appeared in every episode of The Rifleman, show director Arnold Levan said that Archie Butler, a stuntman, showed up most often. He worked as a double for many of the show’s stars including Paul Fix.

Butler was one of television’s most respected stuntmen at the time. Not only was he used heavily for The Rifleman, but he also appeared in Bonanza, Across the Wide Missouri, and Westward the Women.

Connors And Crawford’s Relationship

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Chuck Connors may have played a great dad on-screen, but off-screen he was seen in a much different light. Johnny Crawford was asked about the relationship in an interview with AMC and said, ” 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.”

Johnny Had A Successful Music Career

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You would think having a resume that includes The Mouseketeers, The Loretta Young Show, The Lone Ranger, and The Rifleman would have been enough for young Johnny Crawford. Alas, he also had dreams of becoming a musician.

Crawford had five top 40 hits. Along with the previously mentioned “Cindy’s Birthday” you might recognize “Your Nose Is Gonna Grow,” “Rumors,” and “Proud.” If he hadn’t quit singing to join the army, who knows how many more hits he would have had!

Chuck Wasn’t Connors Real Name

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His Hollywood name might have been Chuck Connors, but that’s not the name he was born with. On April 10, 1921, Kevin Joseph Connors entered the world in Brooklyn, New York. His family struggled through the Great Depression, which only motivated him more to succeed.

When he was growing up, Connors was honing his athletic skills. He played sandlot ball at the Bay Ridge Boy’s Club and fell in love with sports thanks to the wisdom of his coach, John Flynn.

Post-Sports Career

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Even though he played three sports, Connors knew athletics was never the way he was actually going to make his living. For that reason, he turned to acting, where he started a long and successful career starring in movies and television shows.

Along with his role in The Rifleman, Connors starred in Old Yeller, The Hired Gun, The Big Country, Airplane II, South Sea Woman, and many others. His roles were always memorable and he left an indelible mark on the industry.

Connors’ Television Legacy

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Chuck Connors was a multi-talented star and was recognizable across several media platforms. You know from the last slide the movies he starred in, but he also left his mark in several television shows, including The Adventures of Superman playing Sylvester J. Superman.

Connors also played Lou Brissie on Crossroads and was seen in Tales of Wells Fargo, The Loretta Young Show, and Dear Phoebe. We have to ask, did Chuck Connors ever sleep? He was clearly the busiest man in Hollywood at the time!

Amazing Guest Stars

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Every television show is going to have guest stars, and the more popular a show is, the bigger those guest stars are going to be. The Rifleman was no different and featured a bevy of recognizable actors, singers, and even athletes!

In five seasons, the show featured 500 guest appearances. Some of those were minor, while others were pretty amazing. Buddy Hackett was on the show, as well as Robert Vaughn, Warren Oates, and Don Drysdale among others.

Relating Baseball To Hollywood

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As Chuck Connors switched careers from sports to acting, he said he had baseball to thank for it, “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 may have found it hard to give up on sports, but at least he didn’t have to start again from scratch!

Merchandise!

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Just like spin-offs are designed to cash in on a popular property, so is merchandise, and The Rifleman had it in spades! When it aired you could get lunchboxes and other fun things, while today you can even more.

The Rifleman is still very popular, and merchandise is indeed still being made for it today. Of course, no merchandise is more valuable than original run merchandise from the ’50s. If you own any of that you might be sitting on a goldmine!

Single Dad Life

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Lucas McCain wasn’t just a widower raising his son alone. He was an attractive widower raising his son alone. Writer’s on the show made sure to give McCain plenty of love interests throughout the series run, and several big-name actresses appeared to play them.

Among some of the biggest names to battle for McCain’s heart were Amanda Ames, Patricia Blair, Ellen Corby, and Julie Adams. But did any of them ever claim his love? The answer, obviously, is no.

Milly Scott

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Throughout the series run, no matter how many women came in and out of Lucas McCain’s life, Milly Scott was always there. Played by Joan Taylor, Scott was the “new storekeeper” and was the main love interest for The Rifleman’s leading man.

Scott was a fan favorite. Her character came around after McCain decided it was time to stop playing the field and find someone to settle down with. Does that mean he wasn’t a single father for the entirety of the show’s run?

A Very Young Nomination

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At 13-years-old, Johnny Crawford was nominated for an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor for his role on The Rifleman. He was young for sure but wasn’t the only youngest actor to ever be nominated. He also didn’t take home the trophy. That honor went to Dennis Weaver from Gunsmoke.

Still, just to be nominated at such a young age shows just how talented the young actor was. He probably could have been a huge movie star if he didn’t pursue music then take a detour to serve the army.

Chuck Connors Passing

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On November 10, 1992, Chuck Connors passed away from pneumonia resulting from his lung cancer. A chain smoker during his life, Connors would sometimes smoke as many as 60 cigarettes in one day!

On The Rifleman, his character only smoked once, showing once again how different the actor was from the character he played. Before the end of his life, the actor did manage to quit smoking, but tragically the damage to his body was already done..