The Rifleman starred Chuck Connors, as widowed rancher Lucas McCain, alongside Johnny Crawford as his young son, Mark McCain.
The legendary American Western TV series was based in a small town in the New Mexico Territory in the 1870s and 1880s, an area which seemed to attract sharpshooters from far and wide.
The show aired for five seasons and was one of the most cherished TV shows of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The life lessons and character reveal that played out captivated its audience until the end.
Here are some of the biggest behind the scenes facts you may be shocked to learn.
After seeing Connors in his box office hit Old Yeller, they realised that he was worth more money than they had initially offered. They were impressed by the chemistry between Connor and charismatic child actor Tommy Kirk, and the fact he could speak to another child with such respect and understanding. They decided to up the wage and Connors accepted their revised offer.
Arnold Laven, the producer of The Rifleman said in an interview that the famous rifle used on the show by the Connors was the same weapon John Wayne used in the hit Western Stagecoach. Connors fired 12 shots with the rifle in the memorable opening credits that ran before each episode. It seems the gun was actually slightly out of place.
The Rifleman was supposedly set in the 1870s and 1880s, according to the notes, sets and historical references. McCain carried a modified Winchester Model 1892 with a ring lever, which allowed him to do the trick where he spins the gun in his hand. However, this gun hadn’t actually been invented at the time the show was set.
Sam Peckinpah, the famous writer and director had originally written The Rifleman pilot for the popular Western Gunsmoke three years prior, but had been turned down. Peckinpah changed the script slightly, by changing the lead character’s name from John McCain to Lucas McCain and added a son.
Before going into full production, producer Arnold Laven decided to add in a couple of plot twists. He made Lucas McCain a widower who was raising his son as a single parent, and also changed McCain from a pistol sharpshooter to a dead shot with a rifle. The first change meant Lucas McCain ranking number 32 on TV Guide’s list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time” in 2004.
It seemed that Lucas McCain hit his intended target 99.99 percent of the time, and could also make these shots with either hand. In some of the episodes, McCain would randomly change hands as he shot, while still never losing sight of his mark. This talent was never mentioned on screen or off screen by Connors or his fellow actors.
Although it was quite normal to see actors smoking back in the 1950s, Lucas McCain was actually only seen smoking a cigarette once in the show. In real life, Chuck Connors smoked 60 cigarettes a day, and died at the age of 71 in 1992 from complications of lung cancer and pneumonia.
Johnny and Chuck were good friends off screen and stayed in touch for decades. When Chuck died in 1992, his close friend Johnny delivered his eulogy:
“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.”
Love Killed Ratings
After two incredibly successful seasons, the creators introduced love interest Miss Milly, played by Joan Taylor. Unfortunately this saw a drop in ratings, so they ruthlessly got rid of her in season four. McCain then became interested in Lou Mallory the local hotel owner, pictured.
The Rifleman was one of few shows that was allowed to be aired in Russia, during a time when the Russian government were very strict over what was broadcasted. Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, was a huge fan of the show and requested to meet Chuck Connors on his visit to the US in the 70s.
The first two seasons were incredibly successful but the ratings started to drop as the series progressed and as Johnny got older. A mixture of these two facts leads to the show’s cancellation in 1963. Johnny said at the time:
“After having done it for five years, I was anxious to do something else. I felt personally that the show was getting a little stale and that the scripts were not as good as they had been. The first season, I still think, was our best, and that was our best season in the ratings.”
It became apparent that McCain’s character was something groundbreaking on American TV. He was the first widowed parent to be shown raising their child alone. Connors put it down to Sam Peckinpah’s strong script writing, which made the father-son relationship seem very realistic an appealing.
The idea of single parent raising a child alone seemed to come up on other TV series shortly after The Rifleman. Another show which featured a single father was the 1950s series Bachelor Father which starred John Forsyth. In the late 1960s-1970s show, Julia, the main character was played by Diahann Carroll, who was a widowed registered nurse who had similar interchanges with her young son, just as Lucas and Mark did.
Lucas McCain had a lot of long 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 was then given his own show, Law of the Plainsman in 1959.
Connors was a member of the very first Boston Celtics team in 1946, and had the distinction of being the first professional basketball player credited with breaking a backboard. Scouts and coaches recognised his outstanding natural ability and it didn’t take long for his sports career to take off.
He left the Celtics to play with his childhood heroes, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Connors then went on to join the Chicago Cubs in 1951, where he played first base. The Chicago Bears then drafted him later on.
Before Dennis Hopper climbed on to a motorcycle in Easy Rider, he appeared in the first episode of The Rifleman called “The Sharpshooter”. Hooper then appeared on an episode later on, as a completely different character.
An actor called Paul Fix, had an uncredited role in The Sharpshooter episode, before going on to play the part of Marshal Micah Torrance.
As mentioned, the show was a huge success, so creators looked to cash in on it’s popularity. From kitchenware, to lunchboxes and apparel, marketing executives wanted viewers to buy it! You can still pick up some items on the official website, including the DVD box set.
It is without doubt that Johnny Crawford’s role as Mark McCain was his most notable during his career. The former Disney star went on to play a number of roles and even enlisted in the US Army. In 1990 he rekindled with his childhood sweetheart Charlotte and the couple married in 1995.
Chuck Connors initially turned down the lead of Lucas McCain because of the low salary he was offered. The producers went on to consider James Whitmore and John Anderson for the role instead, believing that they wouldn’t have an issue with the wage offer, however they went on to make a further discovery.