THE RIFLEMAN was produced during the Golden Age of Television, debuting on the CBS anthology series "Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater" on March 7, 1958. In an era when westerns proliferated on the small screen, the show's producers sought to differentiate it from a crowded genre in which a six-gun was the signature firearm. The show's title was the conception of Jules Levy. Although Sam Peckinpah wrote the original screenplay for "The Sharpshooter" pilot and is generally credited with developing the show's premise and overall tone, the core themes which anchored each and every episode were conceived by producer and director Arnold Laven. The custom Winchester rifle was his conception, as was building the show around a close father-son relationship, which was a striking departure from the grittier grown-up fare in other westerns of the 1950s. Rather than emphasizing gratuitous violence and rites of passage that left the young Mark McCain estranged, disaffected and disillusioned—themes Peckinpah wanted to explore—many of the storylines were crafted as parables with an object lesson or moral teaching to impart.
Aspiring to convey a positive message, Laven wanted to focus on the life lessons and growing pains of a young boy, and in a first for primetime television, the struggles of a single parent who strives to be a good role model for his son and an upstanding citizen in his community. If the show's core themes was a premise that resonated with viewers, the casting and the chemistry between the actors was serendipity. The affection between Chuck Connors (Lucas McCain) and Johnny Crawford (Mark McCain) portraying father and son was genuine—they remained lifelong friends. Co-stars Paul Fix as Marshal Micah Torrance and Joan Taylor as General Store owner Miss Milly, along with a troupe of capable regular co-stars, anchored the stories in the plight of characters viewers cared about.
More than 500 actors guest-starred in THE RIFLEMAN, portrayed more than 980 characters in 168 episodes that aired over five seasons. Many were veterans of stage and film, many were legendary character actors, including Edgar Buchanan, John Carradine, Lon Chaney, Jr., Dabbs Greer, Agnes Moorehead and Fay Roope, among scores of others. Many up-and-comers who guest-starred on the show who would go on to have illustrious careers in the entertainment industry, including James Coburn, Robert Culp, John Dehner, Jack Elam, Dennis Hopper, Michael Landon, Kevin McCarthy, Vic Morrow, Warren Oates, Lee Van Cleef, and Robert Vaughn. Many of these actors would later become familiar faces in Sam Peckinpah's films.
In addition to the show's founding core themes and vision, other creative factors differentiated it from other westerns of the period, beginning with the musical signature in the opening credits. Composer Herschel Burke Gilbert wrote one of the most recognizable musical scores and theme music in television history, accentuating a sprightly western melody with dramatic foreboding of the show's violent tension.
Directors Arthur Laven and Ted Post set the THE RIFLEMAN's cinematic and authorial tone; however, noir film auteur Joseph H. Lewis ("Gun Crazy," 1950), who directed 51 episodes, made an indelible imprint by suffusing it in a brooding atmosphere with his dramatic lighting. As a venture of Four Star Productions, which was founded by a group of Hollywood elites, some of its company members, including Ida Lupino, Richard Donner and Arthur Hiller, directed some of the more memorable episodes. Screenwriter-directors Lawrence Dobkin, who also guest-starred in several episodes, and James Clavell, who later became famous for his historical "Shogun" novels and mini-series, also directed episodes of THE RIFLEMAN. More on The Rifleman back story »
Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford portrayed Lucas and Mark McCain. The bond between father and son is a central theme of the show and many storylines revolve around their close relationship and the challenges they face together as a family. The special father-son relationship and the genuine affection captured on-screen between Connors and Crawford proved to be one of the principal factors in the success of THE RIFLEMAN show and its lasting appeal after more than 50 years.
Playing a father was a natural role for Connors, who had four sons of his own in real life. As a professional ball player in major league baseball and in the NBA, his athleticism lent authenticity to the physical demands of his role. Being a team player in real life credibly informed his character's consensus-building abilities as a leader in the town of North Fork. It also imbued him with an authentic sense of responsibility about being a good role model for his on-screen son, as well as his off-screen fans. His sense of fun and fair play and his off-screen credentials as a professional athlete were qualities that inspired the admiration of both his young co-star and his television audience.
Having been a Walt Disney Mouseketeer and already having accummulated screen credits before being cast as young Mark McCain at age 12, Crawford brought not only charm and a winning personality to THE RIFLEMAN, but he reported to the set with the consummate professionalism of an actor far older than his young years. Decades later, crew members would recall him fondly, remarking on his seriousness and respect toward people—his elders—with whom he worked. At age 13, Crawford earned an Emmy nomination for his role as Mark McCain. The leading protagonists remained close friends years after the iconic series ended. When Connors died in November, 1992, Crawford gave a moving eulogy at his memorial service.
In addition to the remarkable on-screen chemistry between Connors and Crawford, so believable as father and son, the relationship also set a precedent in the annals of television history. When it first aired in the regular season beginning in September 1958, it was the first time a television show had depicted a non-traditonal family.1 As unremarkable as the portrayal on the small screen of a single-parent family became later, before THE RIFLEMAN, only the traditional mother-father-child family unit had ever been depicted on primetime serial television.
THE RIFLEMAN pilot aired as a special on March 7, 1958. When the show was picked up for the fall schedule, it debuted on ABC on September 30th in the same year.
By far, most of the fan mail that still pours in about THE RIFLEMAN series attributes the most compelling and inspirational aspect of the show to actors Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford and the quality of the relationship between the father and son characters they portrayed. 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 the opening credits, Lucas McCain demonstrates expert skill wielding his specially modified rapid-fire action rifle, discharging a burst of successive shots as he strides toward unseen villains on North Fork's main street. Lucas' 1892 Winchester rifle holds eleven rounds plus one in the chamber for a total of twelve. In the show's opening credits the audio and film tracks are not synchronized, so more shots can be heard than are shown being fired. Several videos posted on YouTube slow down the opening sequence, demonstrating definitively that thirteen shots were dubbed onto the original audio track.
Several rifles were made for the show. The working rifle is a modified 1892 Winchester SRC model, .44–.40 caliber, with a large loop lever fitted with a screw pin, which enabled Connors to twirl the rifle and trip the triggering mechanism upon closing the ring in rapid-fire action. There were some differences in the functional rifle and the prop models, which a few eagle-eyed viewers report having noticed.
A viewer wrote to point out that Connors is seen firing the rifle left-handed in the opener of the 5th season; although, his custom Winchester is right-handed (source: J. Stella). A natural lefty, we surmise Connors inadvertantly favored the wrong hand, and none of the production crew spotted the gaffe. The most obvious continuity flaw is the show's early 1880s setting and the rifle's 1892 date of manufacture.
During its five-year run (1958–1963), THE RIFLEMAN was regarded by some critics as the most violent western on television. Director/screenwriter Sam Peckinpah, noted for his violent films, especially in the western genre ("Ride the High Country," "Major Dundee," "The Wild Bunch," "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid"), had screenwriting or director credits on six episodes (1, 2, 4, 22, 33, 52) of THE RIFLEMAN, including writing credits for the pilot "The Sharpshooter." He envisioned a darker, more violent trajectory in the series storylines than the show's producers wanted, leading Peckinpah to depart early in the second season. His original vision, however, left a lasting imprint on the series. In several episodes McCain wrestles with his own darker side, and in "The Deadly Image" (episode 132), he literally confronts his evil alter ego. In an interview, Chuck Connors was asked how many villains he had dispatched over the life of the series. He reckoned the body count was about two bad guys per show.
In Chuck Connors' book "The Man Behind the Rifle," Bob Costas is quoted asking Chuck what became of the rifles he used in the series. Connors replied, "I gave one of the two rifles we used on the show to Arnold Palmer, and it hangs over his fireplace in Latrobe. And the other one, along with approximately 80 weapons that I gathered over the years, I sold to the former Secretary of the Treasury, Bill Simon.
"There were two matching rifles that we used in the show, so those two guns are reposed in those two particular places." In December 1994, Arnold Palmer's administrative assistant, Doc Griffin, verified the story (source: M. Straub). Reportedly, one of Chuck Connors' sons now has one of the rifles.
Each episode of THE RIFLEMAN is a simple narrative imparting lessons in moral values, its characters grappling with issues of right and wrong, good and evil, human frailty and triumph of spirit. Emphasis on Judeo-Christian values tempered the violent themes in the series. Many of the stories propel the characters through a series of object lessons which contrast action against consequence, a state of grace versus woe. The stories are inspired by the timeless universality of the teachings of the Beatitudes – mercifulness is met with mercy, comfort soothes sorrow, sustenance satiates hunger, the righteous who are persecuted find vindication.
The values of fair-dealing and honesty, fair-mindedness and tolerance, compassion and forgiveness are recurring themes explored in many episodes. In "The Horse Traders" (episode 60), a friend of Lucas' is swindled by an unethical businessman, but rather than seeking retribution or passing off the trouble onto another unsuspecting shill, Lucas plays the honest broker in rectifying the wrong. "The Deserter" (episode 65) deals with the concepts of fairness, retribution and forgiveness, with Lucas interceding on behalf of a young soldier who deserted in order to prevent his abusive commanding officer from exacting the ultimate punishment. In "The Queue" (episode 110), new Chinese residents who have moved into town and are trying to establish a business in North Fork become the object of bullying by a pair of local farmers. Inspired by the actual history of Asian immigrants to the American West in the 1800s, the episode confronts the ignorance of racial bigotry directed at Wang Chi and Wang Lee. In "The Sheridan Story" (episode 16), an embittered, crippled Civil War veteran comes to the McCain ranch in search of respite and a bit of work. Testing his empathy with the soldier's derelict appearance and angry disposition, Lucas extends compassion and support; he derives an unexpected insight—a benefit—in helping to alleviate the suffering of another.
Sometimes the show drew its storylines from specific Biblical parables, such as the story of Job in the second episode "Home Ranch," in which Lucas relates the troubles of Job to Mark after their home burns down. At first angry and resentful at their misfortune, Job's story tempers Mark's outlook to one of philosophical acceptance and gratitude for not having lost the most important things—his own life and well-being and that of his father. In "Trail of Hate" (episode 77), Lucas is sorely tested to resist the temptation of seeking vengeance on a trio of bandits who force him to help them rob a bank and hold Mark hostage to force his participation. Blind with rage, it takes supreme discipline for Lucas not to seek his own vigilante justice when Mark is injured.
Many of THE RIFLEMAN stories deal with reversal of fortune or personal failing and absolution. Several episodes visit the regular character of Marshal Michah Torrance, portrayed by Paul Fix, a recovering alcoholic, who wrestles his personal demons, makes atonement and finds redemption. Great personal dignity, warmth and compassion are embodied in the flawed, but wonderfully human character of North Fork's lawman.
M. Straub's RiflemanConnors.com web site was consulted as source material for this entry.