The Rifleman was a smash hit Western series in America airing in the 1950s and 1960s. The show was a hit in the US, and it also won acclaim all over the world. In fact, the series became so popular that it was even popular in America’s biggest enemy at the time. The main character in the show was a rough and humble cowboy named Lucas McCain, who was an absolute surgeon with a Winchester rifle.
He raises his son, Mark, alone in the Wild West town of North Fork, in New Mexico Territory, where the two are darn near inseparable. Here are some facts about the show that might just knock you off your feet. These surprising facts will hit you just like the Rifleman’s bullets, let’s only hope they don’t hurt anyone!
The Original Story
Although the show eventually was a big hit, it certainly didn’t sound successful when it was pitched to the networks at the time. The shows in its original form was pitched for years, and then altered, until it was finally given a spot on ABC’s lineup.This always seems to happen. What, the show wasn’t sexy enough the first time around?
The working title for the show was actually Gunsmoke, which later became a different show completely. The pilot was only a vague resemblance to what The Rifleman would become in time. The show was changed and eventually, The Rifleman was born. One of these changes was to the main character’s name: Lucas McCain was once John McCain. He was learning how to be an Air Force pilot at this time and would later run for president of the USA, so wouldn’t want any confusion there.
Chuck Connors Says No
Chuck Connors, the actor who starred as Lucas McCain, turned down the role at first because he didn’t think they were offering him what he was worth in terms of money. The money Chuck was making as a freelance actor was more than they offered him.
After having seen Connors act in the Western classic Old Yeller, the producers saw in Connors someone special and so a more generous offer was given, and he accepted. Connors beat more than 40 other actors for the role and received a 5% ownership stake in the series he was to star in.
The Story Gets Interesting
At the time it aired, The Rifleman looked almost nothing like it had originally when the pilot was made. A lot of key elements of the show were changed in order to make the plot more dramatic. Everyone loves drama. Including Chuck Connors, the diva.
For example, the show runners decided to make Connor’s character, Lucas McCain, a widower, and also give him a son to take care of. This would capture the audience’s attention and tug at their heartstrings too. I’m sure this also made the character more multi-dimensional, which would create tension because you never knew how he would react, as a father or as The Rifleman.
First Time On Television
There were a few firsts on the show The Rifleman, that were never before seen or heard on television. One what stands out the most is Lucas McCain’s back story. The show was the first American prime-time TV show to have the main character as a widower. How are they going to make a good, wholesome American TV show without a strong female character helping The Rifleman teach his boy?
This part of the Lucas McCain back story was not a part of the original conception of the show, but was later added in. McCain as a single father raising a son and teaching him life lessons amid all the evil of the time, became a central theme in the series. That’s brilliant, really. The good old family values in a morally corrupt wasteland paradigm at its finest.
The Unique Opening Credits
The show’s opening credits were as memorable as they were iconic. They became a vital part of the show because they showed off The Rifleman’s shooting acumen, which for a series called The Rifleman, kind of need to be on point. You can’t really have a show with that title and not have him be adept at shooting.
With his Winchester firmly in hand, The Rifleman rattles twelve shots in rapid motion during the opening credits. One more shot was added to the soundtrack, making the final count thirteen, for aesthetic purposes. Because the rifle used blanks for the show and blanks are smaller than actual cartridges, the rifle was able to hold more of them. That would be a great way to ensure no one planted a real shell in there and avoid a really sad accident.
The Rifleman's Rifle
Westerns were extremely popular in the 50s and 60s during The Rifleman’s run. The highly competitive Western genre included other programs like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and Have Gun-Will Travel, and so The Rifleman needed something gimmicky to make it stand out from the crowd. The producers saw The Rifleman’s rifle as their opportunity to make him a bit different.
They decided The Rifleman’s Winchester would have a D-shaped lever that allowed The Rifleman to cock the gun by just spinning it around his hand. That rifle was in every episode of the series. You have to admit that seeing Connors flipping his gun over his hand during a shootout in North Fork would be great television.
A Rifle From The Future
Lucas McCain’s Winchester with the D-lever action was an 1892, .44-40 caliber model, but there is one major plot hole this plays into. Throughout the show’s airing, it seems as if not even those on the show noticed the problem with the gun. Did it have the orange plastic plug at the end so people know it isn’t a real gun? The problem, it turns out, was that the show was supposed to be set in the 1880s, twelve years before Lucas McCain’s was produced.
This was only one instance of a glaring discontinuity in the show, but there are certainly more. Did any gun experts of the time watch the show? Was it so good that no one bothered to call in and tell them The Rifleman looked like he went into the future to 1892 and then came back?
If you were to go back and watch the show, you might have noticed that the sound of The Rifleman’s Winchester was a bit different from all other gunshots. That is because all of the other gunshots were added during the editing process. Maybe it made The Rifleman even scarier than he actually was. As it turns out, the unique sound helped the audience at home distinguish McCain’s shots from all of the others on the show.
The quarter-load 5-in-1 blanks that were utilized on the show also had smokeless powder, which made them different from real shells in the 1880s, that emitted a black powder. Another great way you can tell if you have an enemy on set. Check to see what color smoke the gun lets off just before shooting--with both the camera and gun--starts.
The Jet-Set North Fork, New Mexico
North Fork, the frontier town that The Rifleman and his son called home, was based on a real American town. However, the real town was not in New Mexico where the series was supposed to have taken place. In fact, the actual town of North Fork is located in Northern California. New Mexico is a way better location for The Rifleman. Northern California was already well developed in the 1880s, with San Francisco emerging as a huge city shortly after the gold rush of the late 1840s and early 1850s.
The show’s producers wanted the show to be as real as possible, and so part of the series was shot in New Mexico where it was supposed to have taken place. The actors in the show were not so keen to leave the comforts of Los Angeles, however, so the filming was done in California. Actors always seem to get in the way of making a show authentic. They’d rather shoot on a sound set than get their hands dirty away from the glamorous life in LA. Actors...
Obviously, The Rifleman’s Winchester rifle was a huge part of the show, to the extent that it may as well have had its own trailer and agent. However, there was yet another glaring problem with it, in addition to being historically inaccurate. Wanna know what it was?
It is when the gun is fired. McCain’s Winchester rifle is altered to shoot every time it is cocked. But if you notice, McCain cocks the Winchester before every fight and it fails to shoot. Yet another thing the series executives failed to pick up! Well, it would be even worse if there were extras wearing sunglasses, which hadn’t been invented yet.
A Great Start
The first season of The Rifleman was, by and large, the most popular season of the show’s five-season run on television. And popular could be the understatement of the decade. The show was hugely popular, ranking number four at the time. What might have been ranked ahead of it? I guess we will all find out. Still, fourth is pretty good. The show was behind three other Western-themed shows that were airing at the time.
The Rifleman, Chuck Connors, once said in an interview that the production company, Four Star Television, must have been aiming for the 40 to 50 year old male demographic. Westerns do tend to generate more of a male audience. Still though, targeting middle-aged men must have been a risky goal, what with everything else there was on television.
A Little Less Violence
Even though the show’s reputation of being “family friendly”, it still did have a gratuitous amount of gun violence. Lucas McCain tried to use his gun only as a last resort, but ended up killing more than 120 villains during the show’s five-year run. Wowee, that is a lot of dead people . Was there never any law enforcement personnel who came through town? Seems like even if they were all wanted criminals a number that high would attract some attention.
In 1961, however, the Federal Communications Commission stepped in and started to pressure the producers of The Rifleman to “tone down the violence.” One of the show’s creators, the legendary Sam Peckinpah, actually left the show because he felt it was morphing into a children’s program. Anything done remotely tasteful in regard to violence is child’s play to Sam Peckinpah. The guy loved bloodletting, to an unrealistic degree.
A Cast Of Friends
The actor Chuck Connors and his on-screen son Johnny Crawford had a special bond in front of the camera, and were also friends behind the scenes. Crawford, a baseball nut, idolized Connors because The Rifleman used to play professional baseball. It must have been a dream come true for this kid--talking baseball with him when not on camera. While the two weren’t on camera, during lunchtime, for example, they would play catch on the set.
There were even baseball games with other crew members. Crawford said many years later, “I was very fond of Chuck, and we were very good friends right from the start. I admired him tremendously.” Sounds like a young American kid’s dream. Hopefully, he took Connor’s lead when the two played against each other.
Connors Was A Joker
On screen, Connors or The Rifleman may have been a no-nonsense type of cowboy and father, but the second he was off camera, he was quite a prankster. His on-screen son, Crawford, certainly picked up a few tips from The Rifleman about acting. Hopefully, it wasn’t about how to look when you’ve killed an average of 24 people per year over five years, because that might start to make people wonder.
“He was incorrigible; a practical joker,” Crawford recounted in an interview. “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.” Wow, this guy sounds like quite the role model.
Fans From The Soviet Union
This may come as a surprise, but The Rifleman was actually a huge smash hit in the Soviet Union. It was one of the few American shows that were allowed to air under the strict Soviet regime, and Leonid Brezhnev, the then Soviet Premier at the time, counted himself as a fan. Were there any Soviet shows that made it to US shores? What would they be called? Something like “Go tell Babushka” or “Sergei Plow Your Field?” Chuck Connors and Brezhnev were introduced to each other when the Soviet Premier came to the US to meet with Tricky Dick Nixon.
The Rifleman and the Soviet politician even shared an embrace. After the Soviet passed away, Connors requested to attend Brezhnev’s funeral as a member of the official US delegation, but his request was denied. What’s the harm in sending The Rifleman? What’s the worst that could happen? Soviet generals think The Rifleman is real and challenge Connors to a shootout and the star is shot to bits?
In the series, The Rifleman lost his wife, Margret, to a smallpox outbreak while they were living in Oklahoma territory, leaving Lucas McCain a widower. He did play with the idea of marrying again, chasing many a heart around the plains. He even told his son that he would, when he finds “the right woman.” But as it turned out, The Rifleman remained single for the duration of the show. Those cold New Mexico winter nights must have gotten pretty lonely after a while. On the other hand, it sounded like he and his boy had a good thing going just the two of them.
And as it turned out, it might have been that the producers saw the chemistry between Lucas and Mark and decided to be pragmatic about adding in another character who could unsettle that dynamic. So that is why they decided not to have him get married. That makes more sense. It wasn’t that The Rifleman didn’t want to meet someone else, it was purely because it would have made for bad television if he had. So he took one for the team there.
A Rat Pack Member in the Wild West
Throughout the show’s run, many guest stars made cameos, but one, in particular, stood out as perhaps the most memorable, and that happened to be Sammy Davis Jr. The actor surprised everyone with how adept at gun handling he was, showing off tricks and gun play. So Sammy Davis Jr. could sing, dance, act and blow your head off if it ever came down to pistols at high noon.
The Rat Pack member’s character, Tip Corey, was a former circus trick-shot performer and angers The Rifleman when he starts showing off his bag of tricks to little Mark, and even though he only made three appearances on the show, he certainly made an unforgettable impression. “Nobody shows my boy how to shoot but me.”
Mark McCain's Favorite Episode
Of the nearly 170 episodes in The Rifleman series, which one did young Johnny Crawford like the best? According to the man himself, his favorite episode is “The Vision”, which was episode 26 of season 2. In this episode, small Mark McCain must make a very difficult decision. Whether to kill his father and fulfill his prophecy of becoming the one and only Rifleman in the entire West? In the show, Mark must choose between staying in heaven with his mother or return to his dad on Earth.
Crawford was actually feeling ill at the time of the filming and there was a scene where his character was supposed to have a high fever. Allegedly, Crawford convinced his welfare worker that he was just that good at acting and wasn’t actually sick, when in fact he was quite sick. Thankfully, they eventually figured out that the kid was really sick and sent him home, causing the filming of that particular episode to take about nine days to complete.
A Superhero With A Rifle
Westerns were so big in the 1950s and 1960s that there were several on television because people just couldn’t get enough of them. To put it in modern terms, The Rifleman was, in a sense, like a present-day superhero, with his uncanny ability to always hit his target with that Winchester rifle. So Lucas McCain and Chuck Connors are kind of like a Two-Face type character, where one is a crack shot family man with morals, and the other is a joking, every-other-word cursing prankster. He is a little like Deadpool. The Rifleman loved showing off his skills with that Winchester.
He was ambidextrous with the rifle as well, could shoot with his eyes closed, did flips and spun the rifle back and forth without missing the target and, more importantly, not hitting the wrong person. Again, if the show’s producers were going for something authentic and didn’t want a Marshall to arrest The Rifleman, they could have at least had him shoot someone accidentally and get temporarily banished from North Fork, until a badass and The Rifleman’s sworn enemy arrives in North Fork forcing The Rifleman to return to restore his honor, save Mark and the town all at once. Whew...That would be quite a plot twist.
Standing Up For Your Beliefs
The Rifleman was a family-friendly series, pure and virtuous to its core. The Rifleman only resorted to violence when it was absolutely necessary. He stood up against intolerance, bigotry and racism in the town of North Fork as well. Stood up against racism in the Wild West in the 1880s? Wow, the guy was way ahead of his time in the make-believe show. In actuality, the country was deeply divided along the lines of race, especially in the American South.
Kudos to them for trying though. In one show, McCain stands up to all of the townspeople in defense of a Chinese immigrant trying to make a go at living in North Fork. He did the very same thing when he befriended an Argentinean family in Season 1, making this exposing of morals a recurring theme on the show. Again, the show was far ahead of its time.
A United Union
In one episode called “The Sheridan Story”, in Season 1 of the series, McCain (himself a former member of the Union Army during the US Civil War) hired a former Confederate soldier to work on his ranch with him, but things didn’t work out quite as The Rifleman had planned. Does The Rifleman show the other guy why the Union Army won the war with a colorful and bloody display of his rifle skills? Taking the job and The Rifleman’s kindness for granted, the former Rebel starts making trouble on the ranch and refuses to accept that the South lost the war.
Cool and calm, McCain quickly deescalates the situation and catastrophe is averted, showing the audience that sometimes The Rifleman leaves the gun over the mantle. It generally can either go one of two ways with The Rifleman. Option one is the potential threat sees reason and stands down with a lesson learned. The other is a colorful and bloody display of The Rifleman’s skills.
The first season of The Rifleman was a smash hit, and ended up surprising pretty much everyone, even the actors. The first season of the show topped out at number four out of all the shows on the air at the time. An impressive 14 million people watched the show. Wow, that’s a big number. Westerns were so big back in the day. Even more impressive is the fact that the vast majority of American households didn’t have a TV in the 1950s or even 1960s because they were seen as big luxuries.
The show was never as successful as it was in its first season, and saw a steady decline, so that by the fifth season the series wasn’t even ranked in the top 30 shows. That is quite the decline. Well, at least they enjoyed some time near the top. Westerns are just so hard to keep fresh. The Rifleman killed over 100 people during the show’s run, meaning it must have become a little old after a short while.
The End Of The Show
Officially, the word is that The Rifleman was canceled after its five year run on air due to low ratings. There were also some theories surrounding Crawford getting too old and the father and son relationship growing a bit stale to some audiences. It is perfectly natural for teenagers’ relationships with their parents to change as they get older. It might be hard to pull off, but wouldn’t there be some way to make that part of growing up part of the show?
It might have been a tad forced, but all it takes is one brilliant writer. In an interview some years later, Crawford said that he never found out why the show was canceled for real, but didn’t really care that much about it in the end. As told by Crawford, he remembers everyone being ready to move onto the next thing. More acting for Connors and perhaps a career in professional baseball for growing Johnny? Why not?
It is a well-established fact that when a show is rather epic and has really made its mark, there is a mad dash to produce spin-offs once the show is off the air. The Rifleman did just that. Michael Ansara was a guest star in a few episodes, as The Plainsman. There is Better Call Saul, That 80s Show and Joey. But the most successful was Frasier, after Cheers.
Ansara was so well received in his role as The Plainsman, that eventually he was cast in his very own show of the same name. Based on the character he played on the Rifleman, the show was called Law of the Plainsman. The series was made by the same production company, Four Star Television, but unfortunately only stayed on the air for one season. It’s not so bad. Joey didn’t even make it to one season.
Johnny Crawford After The Rifleman
Johnny Crawford, the actor who played the role of Mark McCain, The Rifleman’s son, took the part at the tender age of 13. This was only the beginning of Crawford’s career. He went on to become a very talented singer and teen heart-throb. As if he wasn’t a heart-throb already, being on a show that young. Did he ever go to school though? He might not know his multiplication tables, but who cares when you can act, sing and dance?
Crawford had four hit singles during his time in the music biz, that were on the Billboard Top 40 chart. His single called, “Cindy’s Birthday” reached number eight and was his highest charting single ever. But Crawford was no stranger to fame, joining the original cast of the Mickey Mouse club in 1955. Crawford blazed a trail so many others could follow in his footsteps, such as Justin Timberlake, Ryan Gosling, Britney Spears.
Always A Cowboy
Chuck Connors was so popular and loved in his role as Lucas McCain on The Rifleman, that it ended up having a bit of a negative effect for a while after the show ended. He was consistently cast as a gun-slinging cowboy and was relegated to the Western genre, finding it difficult to find other roles. He was the Jason Alexander of his time maybe.
After the five years run on The Rifleman, Connors appeared in a number of short-lived shows, including Arrest and Trial, Branded, and Cowboy in Africa. He also played a Texan Rancher in the NBC show The Yellow Rose. Wherever he went, he was constantly being cast as a cowpoke. Later on, cowboys started expanding their reach into other genres outside the ilk of Westerns, such as Drugstore Cowboy and Midnight Cowboy. Great films too.
A Change Of Name
Chuck Connors wasn’t his actual name. In reality, it was Kevin Joseph Connors. He was born in 1921 in Brooklyn, New York. Never having liked the name Kevin, he decided to change his first name while attending Seton Hall University. His new name, “Chuck” was inspired by his days on the baseball diamond. He was also a talented basketball player, making him a triple threat: baseball, basketball and acting.
Apparently, he would always scream at the pitcher while he was hitting, taunting “chuck it to me, baby, chuck it to me!” And henceforth, the name Chuck was born and stuck with him the rest of his days. He is very lucky the pitcher didn’t just “chuck” the ball at his head. They didn’t wear helmets back then, so if this had happened, I bet Chuck Connors would still be Kevin Connors.
In the 1950s, it was considered very glamorous and cool to smoke cigarettes, and smoke a lot. The characters rarely if ever smoked while in front of the camera, but off camera, Connors was a chimney. He was constantly smoking, to the point it was hard to fathom how he managed his on-camera time with his smoking time. You have to have your priorities straight. The second you get off camera, light up. The second before you go on camera, take a big puff. This is not that hard.
Chuck Connors, The Rifleman, was such a prevalent smoker, he smoked up to three packs a day! That is 60 cigarettes, for those keeping track. It finally all caught up to The Rifleman when he suffered from smoking-related afflictions later in his life. He died in 1992 from complications regarding lung cancer. What a tragedy. Although he lived a full life, there must have been so much left to do on his list.
A Star Athlete
In addition to having a great acting career, Chuck Connors was a very successful athlete as well, as he played many different sports. He is one of a very select few to have played both Major League Baseball and in the National Basketball Association. This would be darn near impossible now, considering the two regular seasons overlap quite a bit and no team from either sport would want their player risking injury doing other things. Baseball and American football have been done by some, but even that is pretty hard.
Connors played in the MLB for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs. He did accept an offer to play for the New York Yankees, but was only able to play one season before joining the US Army. He also played for the expansion team, the Boston Celtics and was drafted by the Chicago Bears but didn’t end up accepting the offer. Wow, is there anything this guy cannot do? Three-sport athlete and actor? Is he also a dynamite cook?
A First In Basketball
The Rifleman star Chuck Connors, made NBA history during his time playing with the Boston Celtics. On November 5, 1946, he became the first basketball player to break a backboard. That’s a lot of power! Shaq has got nothing on Chuck Connors.
While that is very impressive, let’s all remember that the backboard wasn’t attached properly to the wall and shattered during warm-ups with the team. It still counts, though, the first backboard ever broken. Connors probably wasn’t as big as Shaq, so it is completely believable that the backboard wasn’t installed correctly.
"I Owe It All To Baseball!"
Although he loved acting, it was baseball that played a huge part in Chuck's life. In fact, he credited baseball for his successful career in all areas. He learned valuable lessons and teamwork from the game known as America's favorite pastime. It is a pretty inspiring game.
Was Chuck Connors ever in a baseball movie? That role would have seemed great for him. “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 done it alone. The greatest game in the world, I shall be eternally in debt.” Connors said.
The Remake That Never Was
There was a remake of the original series, The Rifleman, announced by CBS in late 2011, but alas, nothing ever came to fruition. In an interview, Johnny Crawford, who played the role of Mark McCain, said he was interested in the project and possibly even becoming involved. He could play a wise old grandpa or an old-timer who can still handle an 1892 Winchester. The remake was going to feature the producing and directing talents of Chris Columbus with Robert Levy, Steven Gardner and Arthur Gardner as executive producers.
Unfortunately, the reboot was canceled only a few short months later. No pilot episode was ever filmed for the series and there was no reason ever given by the producers as to why the show never happened. The reason why the original was so successful is that it showed a widower taking care of his son in the hostile world of the wild west, for the very first time. A reboot would have to match that level of intrigue to be successful, which in this day and age, would be pretty hard coming from the Western genre. Westworld is a Western in a sense, but Chuck Connors would spin in his grave if he found out they made The Rifleman remake similar to that show.
The Rifleman’s iconic 1892 Winchester rifle may have been an unusual, and historically inaccurate, choice of weapon at the time, but it was hardly the first time it was used in a hit movie or TV series. The rifle, in fact, had belonged to none other than John Wayne in the movie Stagecoach. Using John Wayne’s gun? Wow, the 1892 Winchester is like the Forrest Gump of movie props.
The film Stagecoach was so big and successful, that it was recognized as being “Culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the US Library of Congress. The rifle was also the exact same model as the one once used by the infamous outlaw Billy the Kid, but his was an 1873 model. That rifle really should have had its own trailer and agent, it was almost as famous as Chuck Connors.
April Fools Day!
There were once again rumors eddying around a potential reboot of The Rifleman, when an article was released on April 1, 2016. As it turns out, not many people realized what that date meant and instead got super excited about a new The Rifleman series. With who playing The Rifleman? Robert Redford as Lucas McCain and Jack Black as a grown-up Mark McCain? That would be hilarious.
According to the article, Lucas was going to be played by Willie Nelson and fans were torn. Many said that Nelson was simply too old to play The Rifleman. Others loved the idea, but as it turned out, both were disappointed to hear it was a simple April fool’s day joke. Willie would have made a fine Lucas McCain, except The Rifleman might be a bit stoned all the time. At least they wouldn’t have had to change the name of the show, because in every episode, The Rifleman rifles through a bag of chips.
Every successful series has its fair share of others trying to hitch a ride on its coattails by following its exact formula. The Rifleman was one of the first shows to have a single parent watching over a child, and that part of the plot would set the world of television on fire. Hell, by the 1980s, rich white people were adopting less fortunate black kids on pretty much every other show.
The show Julia on NBC, which aired from 1968 to 1971, was the first to take inspiration from The Rifleman. The show starred Diahann Carroll as a widowed single mother. The first season of Julia was a smash hit, not unlike The Rifleman, ranking in at number seven, and stayed on the air for three seasons in total. The Rifleman really was great American television, and will probably never be duplicated, no matter how many tries, or April fools pranks, there are in the future.
Dennis Hopper Made an Appearance
More than ten years before Dennis Hopper became an icon of the hippie movement of the 60s, as the rebel motorcycle rider, Billy, on the 1969 cult classic, Easy Rider, he made an appearance on The Rifleman.
Hopper appeared in the serie's first ever episode, called “The Sharpshooter”. He also appeared on a second episode titled “Three Legged Terror”, as a completely different character.
Paul Fix Saves the Day
Back in the 1050s, it wasn’t easy to find men actors who could play believable cowboys on television. Thus, actor Paul Fix, who was cast as Marshal Micah Torrance in The Rifleman, made a cameo appearance on the Dennis Hopper episode, “The Sharpshooter”.
He played the part of a nice doctor that helps Hopper with an injury.
Johnny Crawford was a Disney Mouseketeer
Before he became Mark McCain, Johnny Crawford was one of the original members of the Disney Mouseketeers. After a year as a Mouseketeer, he was forced to leave because the club lowered the age limit to 12 years of age.
Shortly after, Crawford was cast in The Rifleman, and went on to act in the 1956 TV series, The Lone Ranger, and NBC’s Little Boy Lost.
The Rifleman Could Have Been Even Better
The Rifleman was created by Arnold Laven and the famous Sam Peckinpah, who helped develop the original story. Peckinpah directed the show’s pilot and many other episodes on the first season, and one of the reasons they were so successful was because Peckinpah actually grew up on a ranch.
A lot of the characters and story lines were based on real life situations from his childhood, growing up on a ranch. Obviously, Peckinpah’s first-hand experience with rural life made him perfect for writing the story, but unfortunately, he left the show after the first season to pursue a career in movies. He went on to become a famous director, responsible for classics like Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch.
The Fearless Stuntman
Stuntmen are usually known for being fearless, but the Hollywood stuntmen in the 1950s were especially known for being careless and taking crazy risks. Particularly in cowboy movies and TV shows, since horse stunts were some of the most dangerous to do.
In The Rifleman, stuntman Archie Butler appeared in more episodes than any other actor, except for the main cast. The show’s producer claimed Butler was one of the best and bravest stuntmen he ever came across.
The Show Had Over 500 Celebrity Guest Stars
We mentioned earlier that Chuck Connors was a professional athlete, and this prompted a lot of famous athletes to appear on the show.
During the show’s run, over 500 guest stars, athletes and famous actors alike, appeared on The Rifleman, including Buddy Hackett, Sammy Davis Jr., Warren Oates, Robert Vaughn, and many more.
McCain Had Only One True Love
Throughout the show, Lucas McCain dated a lot of different women, being the handsome widower that he was. Furthermore, the women that played his dates were some of the most actresses at the time, such as Amanda Ames, Ellen Corby, Julie Adams, Sherry Jackson, and more.
In the end, though, McCain’s one true love was Millie Scott, played by Joan Taylor.
Small Pox Outbreak
Towards the end of the 19th century, Small Pox first appeared in America, together with Yellow Fever, Typhus and Scarlet Fever. Even though the disease is said to have affected humans long before, going back even to Egyptian mummies found to have suffered from the disease, it still took some time for it to appear in the U.S.
There was a Small Pox epidemic throughout the country in the 19th century, claiming more than 30% of the West Coast Native Americans at the time. In The Rifleman, it was said that Chuck Connor’s wife died of Small Pox in 1870, which was a completely plausible story line, since the disease did claim many lives during that time.
Chuck Connors’ Hollywood Legacy
Chuck Connors had his acting debut in 1952, when he was cast in Pat and Mike, a film featuring legends of the time, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Connors claims that once he knew he wasn’t going to be a professional athlete, he dedicated himself to acting.
Connors’ role in The Rifleman certainly established him as an acting legend, but he also appeared on many films and TV shows throughout his life. Some of the most famous include Flipper, Old Yeller, The Hired Gun, The Six Million Dollar Man, Airplane II: The Sequel, and more.
The Beloved Milly Scott
Milly Scott was a character that was introduced to The Rifleman after producers decided it was time for Lucas McCain to find a serious love interest and finally settle down. During much of the show, we see Lucas struggling with the realities of being a single father and daily life in general, hence, it was time for the main character to go through a life changing event.
Milly Scott, an independent, practical, jean-wearing woman that bought the town’s general store, was played by actress Joan Taylor. Lucas fell for her, as did every fan of the show.
A Very Young Emmy Nominee
Johnny Crawford was talented from a young age, and one of his many accomplishments was being nominated for an Emmy when he was only 13 years old, for his performance in The Rifleman.
Even though he didn’t take the award home, since he was beat by Dennis Weaver, from Gunsmoke, it was still a unique honor to even be nominated at such a young age.
A 13th Shot in the Opening Credits
In The Rifleman’s opening credits, Lucas McCain fires 12 shots from his rifle, seven of which are filmed in close-up shots, and another five that are shot from different camera angles.
However, there was a 13th shot that was fired during the credits, because the producers wanted the firing sound to coincide with a specific part of the show’s soundtrack.
Moral Violence and Bible Passages
Even though The Rifleman was a big hit at the time it was aired, there was a lot of controversy surrounding the show’s violence. Many fans thought the show was one of the most violent Western TV shows of the time. However, all instances of violence on the show seemed to be morally justified, since the rifleman never killed anybody who didn’t deserve it. What’s more, many episodes had clear moral lessons, and even featured quotes from bible passages.
In fact, one fan wrote on TVParty.com, "The show was shown widely in syndication on local stations after it left the network for most of the mid-late '60s. I disagree with it being the 'most' violent western - most 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 - often quoting a biblical passage."
The Show Was Rather Dark
Even though the show was a Western set in the 1950s, in a time were most shows focused on traditional family values, The Rifleman had some dark themes. For example, the townspeople were closed-minded farmers who would eagerly form a mob whenever the opportunity arose and were unkind and unwilling to take in a stranger in need of help.
We see Luca’s son struggling a lot with the people in town, especially through his teenage years. In fact, this violent environment was part of the reason little Mark never wanted to do any homework or chores, because he knew he would grow up to be a rifle man in a hostile town, too. So, logically, he was much more interested in learning how to shoot than studying math.
McCain’s Love Interest Caused Ratings to Drop
When McCain started to fall for Milly Scott, not all viewers were as crazy about the idea as he was. In fact, when the two got serious and started a relationship during season 3, a lot of die-hard fans didn’t like that a woman was now more important to him than his rifle. As the couple got serious, ratings for the show started to drop.
So, producers decided it was time for McCain to leave Milly. Shortly after, McCain started dating another character on the show, Lou Mallory. The difference between Lou and Milly was that, with Lou, McCain often had to use his strength and shooting skills to help her, and fans loved that.
Yes, Sergeant, Sir!
Johnny Crawford was a big success as an actor and a singer, and he was constantly making career changes. But in 1965 he made a big change, as he decided to join the United States Army. He served for two years, and held an honorable rank of sergeant at the time of his discharge, in 1967.
During his service, Crawford worked as a production coordinator, script supervisor, assistant director and even actor sometimes, for army training films. Crawford went back to acting soon after his discharge.
Forgiveness Above All
There were a lot of morality lessons embedded within The Rifleman's plot, and one of the most recurring ones was to always practice forgiveness.
For example, in the episode "The Sheridan Story", a soldier loses his arm because of his General's mistakes, but nevertheless, he decides to forgive him after the General offers an authentic, heart-felt apology. Similarly, in the episode "The Marshal", Lucas gives a second chance to a former convict when he employs him on his ranch.
The General Store Owner
The owner of the general store in North Fork, Hattie Denton, was played by actress Hope Summers, and she quickly became a regular on The Rifleman. What many don’t know is that Summers also appeared in some of the era’s most popular TV shows, including Bewitched, Bonanza, The Andy Griffith Show, MASH and Little House On The Prairie.
Summers also had played the part of a satanist in Roman Polanski’s cult classic, Rosemary’s Baby, and then went on to focus on TV roles. In fact, she did the voice over for the famous 1960s talking maple syrup bottle, “Mrs. Butterworth”
The Show Was Influenced by Film Noir
The Rifleman featured production techniques that were way ahead of its time. In fact, one of the main directors, Joseph Lewis, also directed Gun Crazy, an acclaimed noir film. The film noir of the 40s and 50s came from German Expressionist cinema, and it had a very particular black-and-white style.
What was interesting is that Lewis used these noir techniques to film a Western! The Rifleman was the first Western to be filmed with specific lighting techniques that were usually reserved for noir films. This was one of the things that made the series so unique; its ever-changing, interesting camera shots, and a very particular atmospheric lighting.
The Rifleman on DVD
The show was released on DVD in many different versions. There was a single-disc DVD with only 5 episodes, and it was only in 2002 that the MPI Home Video company started releasing six box sets with 20 episodes each. The episodes were not in order, but were instead presented as a big collection of random episodes.
Unfortunately, these sets are no longer available to the general public, since a production company bought the rights back from MPI. Finally, in 2013, they started to release all 168 episodes, in chronological order.