THE RIFLEMAN – Concept and Back Story
Westerns were a popular genre when THE RIFLEMAN premiered in 1958. First telecast on Dick Powell's "Zane Grey Theatre" (CBS) on March 7, 1958, the pilot premiered on ABC in the regular television season on September 30 that same year. The show's creator, Arnold Laven, developed THE RIFLEMAN's core themes, which distinguished it from a crowded field of formulaic adventure programs. Set in New Mexico in the 1880s, originally, the main character was John—not Lucas—McCain, and he had no son. Also, the original premise had McCain packing a pistol, not a rifle. It was Laven who had the idea of making McCain a widower with a young son and making a customized Winchester rifle, not a six gun, the main protagonist's signature firearm.
The opening credits showcasing the skill of Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain firing his rapid-action Winchester rifle set the tone for the western action adventure, to be sure, but the show aspired to be more than a vehicle for gratuitous gun-slinging. Heart-warming human relationships, specifically the kinship between father and son, provided balance, and sometimes a paradoxical juxtaposition, to the violent backdrop of life on the frontier. The rifle complemented Lucas McCain's persona as a self-possessed, rugged individualist who had high ethical standards and a cool head. Connors in the title role, with rifle at the ready, portrayed the iconic western hero—a crackerjack marksman and cowboy-turned-single-father and homesteader facing life's challenges with a stoical, reasoned view about social justice and personal responsibility. Uppermost in his mind was being a good role model for his son and a solid citizen in his community. So, when McCain picked up his rifle, he wielded it not only with confidence and competence, but also with rational deliberation and fair-minded determination. He admonished his young son in one episode, "A man doesn't run from a fight, Mark, but that doesn't mean you go looking to run to one."
Family values and moral principles informed many storylines in THE RIFLEMAN series. Through the McCains' adventures with the townfolk of North Fork and the weekly influx of visitors, THE RIFLEMAN was a series of morality plays examining human nature's rich and varied complexity—with all its foibles and follies, sorrow and humor, venality and virtue. The inspiration for many episodes was drawn from Biblical parables, sometimes recapitulated explicity, such as the story of Job, which was related by Lucas to son Mark in the second episode, "Home Ranch." Second chances—redemption—was a prominent, recurring theme. It was often elicited in episodes featuring Marshal Micah Torrance, played by Paul Fix, a sometime derelict, recovered alcholic, who was a regular character introduced in the fourth episode, "The Marshal," after R.G. Armstrong, who played the sheriff in the pilot was killed off. The themes were timeless and universal, featuring sympathetic characters grappling with familiar human dilemmas and classic good-versus-evil conflicts.
Arnold Laven and series co-producers, Arthur Gardner and Jules V. Levy, presciently anticipated that the show's strength lay in the father-son relationship, and its best asset was the genuine filial affection between actors Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain and Johnny Crawford as Mark McCain. In fact, the depiction of a widowed father grappling with the challenges of raising a son alone in THE RIFLEMAN may have been a television first in its departure from the traditional depiction of a family as mother, father and child. Critics and viewers responded favorably to the novel family portrayal celebrating the father-son bond, and it appears to account for the enduring appeal of the series.  In the June 20, 2004 issue of "TV Guide," the character of Lucas McCain was ranked #32 in a list of the "50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time." In 1959, at age 13, Johnny Crawford was nominated for an Emmy for his role in THE RIFLEMAN. Chuck Connors later remarked with admiration how young Johnny Crawford comported himself on THE RIFLEMAN set with deferential respect toward the crew, addressing them as "sir" and "ma'am" upon arriving to the set on his first day until departing on the last day.
THE RIFLEMAN – Cast & Characters
The narratives that elicited THE RIFLEMAN's central themes were compelling because of the characters' capacity to animate the viewers' imagination and ability to kindle an emotional connnection to them. THE RIFLEMAN producers, writers and directors attracted the most gifted actors working in Hollywood to enliven the stories with a colorful and varied cast of characters. More than 500 guest stars in over 970 credited roles appeared during THE RIFLEMAN's five-season run, with many veteran character actors cast in recurring roles. Bill Quinn, who began his career in the silent film era, played Sweeney the Bartender at the North Fork Saloon, appearing in 40 episodes, while John Harmon portrayed the quiet hotel clerk in 15 episodes. Harlan Warde, representing the stolid integrity of a civic-minded businessman, portrayed president of the North Fork Bank in 18 episodes. Hope Summers played Hattie Denton, the owner of North Fork's General Store. She appeared in 16 episodes, imparting a warm, maternal counterbalance to an otherwise rough and tumble atmosphere. Joan Taylor would replace Hope Summers as owner of the General Store, portraying "Miss Milly," a character introduced in episode 84. She would provide a romantic interest for Lucas in 18 episodes; however, in the fifth and final season of the show, actress Patricia Blair, potraying "Lou Mallory," would become the new romantic interest, taking ownership of the General Store from Miss Milly, who returned to her family the east. Blair appeared in 17 episodes. Other recurring characters, some portrayed by different actors, would turn up North Fork, including Toomey the Blacksmith, played by Robert Foulk, who made five appearances, the reassuring stalwart Doc Burrage, who was played by six different actors, including Edgar Buchanan and Rhys Williams, and the character Nels Swenson (also Swensen and Svenson), alternately North Fork's farrier or the blacksmith, who was played by several actors, including Richard Alexander, John Dierkes, Joe Higgins and Karl Swenson.
Many legendary icons of the stage and screen appeared during THE RIFLEMAN's five seasons. Some appearing several times in different parts, including John Carradine, Lon Chaney, Jr., Royal Dano, Dabbs Greer and Agnes Moorehead, among many other thespian luminaries. Young actors crackling with talent and energy and full of brash and bravado also appeared in THE RIFLEMAN. Some of them, such as Dennis Hopper Michael Landon and Harry Dean Stanton, would go on to have illustrious careers in Hollywood. Many of the most recognizable names in the entertainment industry of the late 50s and early 60s also graced THE RIFLEMAN's credits. Even after 50 years, the fond regard of fans and industry peers endures for many RIFLEMAN guest stars, including Chris Alcaide, Robert Culp, Sammy Davis Jr., Buddy Hackett, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Vaughn and Lee Van Cleef, all of whom imprinted their unique, indelible qualities upon the characters they played.
Chuck Connors' earlier career as a professional athlete included stints with the Boston Celtics, followed by a triple header in Major League Baseball, when he played briefly for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and LA Angels. He enlisted a few friends from his days in professional sports to make cameo appearances on THE RIFLEMAN, including baseball great Don Drysdale, former Dodger teammate outfielder Duke Snider and NFL coach and Football Hall of Famer Sid Gilman.
THE RIFLEMAN – Production Notes
The pilot episode, "The Sharpshooter," was first televised as a special on March 7, 1958 on CBS's "Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater."  It was broadcast again on September, 30, 1958, inaugurating THE RIFLEMAN series' five-year run on ABC. The last of 168 episodes, "Old Tony," aired on April 8, 1963. Among THE RIFLEMAN's 36 directors, was Sam Peckinpah, who also wrote the pilot and established the tone of the show. The series creator and co-producer, Arnold Laven, directed 22 episodes, including the pilot, "The Sharpshooter." The program is noted for its atmospheric lighting, unorthodox camera angles and cinematic qualities, as well as occasional brooding undertone, which is credited primarily to Joseph H. Lewis, who directed 51 episodes. Lewis is best-known for his 1950 film noir classic "Gun Crazy." Among its 64 writers, the most prolific contributors were Arthur Browne, Jr., Calvin Clements and Cyril Hume. The musical score, which is one of the most distinctive and best-remembered in the annals of television history, was composed by Herschel Burke Gilbert.
THE RIFLEMAN – Directors
- Lewis Allen
Joseph H. Lewis
- Arthur Nadel
THE RIFLEMAN – Assistant Directors
Norman S. Powell
THE RIFLEMAN – Writers
Arthur Browne, Jr.
Robert C. Dennis
Harry Julian Fink
George W. George
- Peter B. Germano
Frank D. Gilroy
David P. Harmon
William F. Leichester
Herbert Little, Jr.
Samuel A. Peeples
N. B. Stone, Jr.
THE RIFLEMAN – Directors of Photography
George E. Diskent
THE RIFLEMAN – Film Editors
THE RIFLEMAN – Stunts
Archie Butler (stuntman, stunt coordinator and actor)—according to Arnold Laven, Butler appeared in more episodes than any other actor except the regular cast
Fritz Ford (stunt double for Chuck Connors)
- Lewis Allen
Malibu Creek State Park, location for some of the early RIFLEMAN episodes. Photograph courtesy Susan Geary.
THE RIFLEMAN – Filming Locations (California)
Four Star Studios and Interior Western Street
Republic Backlot and Western Street
Janss Conejo Ranch
20th Century Fox Ranch
Season Rank Viewers Households w/ TV 1 (1958–59) #4 14,547,450 43,950,000 2 (1959–60) #13 12,581,250 45,750,000 3 (1960–61) #27 10,431,200 47,200,000 4 (1961–62) #27 10,827,765 48,555,000 5 (1962–63) Not in the Top 30 50,300,000