Chuck Connors was the most unique sort of Hollywood star. As we celebrate the iconic Rifleman and what would be his 100th birthday, we’re going to tell you why he’s so worthy of a weekend party.
Connors was born in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were Irish-Catholic immigrants from Canada. His dad worked as a longshoreman to take care of his family.
Connors was super athletic. And at 6-foot-6, he towered over most anyone. He signed with a private high school, then moved on to Seton Hall to play sports. He left school months after the attack on Pearl Harbor to join the Army. Connors became a tank/warfare instructor at Fort Campbell, then at West Point.
After his discharge from the Army, Connors returned to his athletic roots, playing a season for the Boston Celtics. He then went back to baseball, his true love, and played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, his favorite team as a kid. Connors trudged around the Minors for several years, reaching the parent club in May, 1949. He spent all of five weeks with the Dodgers before being sent down again. Connors played some for the Chicago Cubs and was optioned back to the Cubs Triple-A team in Los Angeles. And that’s where an MGM talent director saw him.
After a series of small movie roles. Connors finally landed the part that defined the rest of his life. He played Lucas McCain, The Rifleman. Watch the intro to this popular TV western. You come away very intimidated of Chuck Connors as he quickly shoots about a dozen times, then glances at the camera. Or, you fall in love with his skills because this is someone who can handle a gun.
Chuck Connors Played First Single Dad on TV
Connors also played a family man on the show. The Rifleman was the first primetime series to feature a widowed dad/single father. The series was set in the 1880s. On the show, Connors was a Civil War vet who fought for the Indiana Infantry. He settled into the New Mexico territories.
Now about those shooting skills, Connors used a Winchester Model 1892 rifle. It was customized to allow repeated firing. He also used a move called “spin-cocking.”
Chuck Connors, as Lucas McCain, was a rancher who raised his son, Mark, played by Johnny Crawford. Here’s a fun fact. Crawford was an original Mouseketeer.
The Rifleman premiered in 1958. It enjoyed its highest ratings in its rookie season, ranking fourth nationally. The series lasted until 1963. There were three spinoff series and/or reunion movies.
In the 1970s, Connors Was in ‘Roots’ and Found Out His Biggest Fan Might Be Russian
Chuck Connors guest starred in a variety of TV roles and in some movies. The most significant of those was the mini-series Roots. He played a slave owner and earned an Emmy nomination for his performance.
Also, in the 1970s, Connors found out how popular he was in Russia. Richard Nixon invited Connors to the Western White House in San Clemente, Calif. in 1973. Connors’ biggest fan was Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union. He was the guest of honor at the party. Connors gave Brezhnev a pair of Colt Single Action Army revolvers. The Soviet Union allowed few western shows to be shown on television. But the Rifleman was an exception because it was Brezhnev’s favorite show.
Brezhnev invited Connors to visit him in Moscow. A decade later, when the Soviet leader died, Connors wanted to attend his funeral. But the U.S government wouldn’t allow it.
Chuck Connors was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame in 1991. He also earned a spot in the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Connors died in 1992 of pneumonia related to lung cancer. He’d been a heavy smoker earlier in his life but had given up the habit 15 years before. He was only 71.
Chuck Connors lived an amazing life. Happy 100th on the other side.