The Rifleman: Surprising Facts You Never Knew About The Hit TV Series
The Rifleman is a hit American Western TV series that aired during the 1950s and 1960s and won over the hearts of millions worldwide. In fact, the series was so popular that it even became a hit in a country that was considered the US’s biggest enemy at the time. The series was centered around rough and tough cowboy Lucas McCain, who had rifle skills like nobody’s business. He raised his son Mark McCain alone in the Wild West town of North Fork, New Mexico Territory and their bond was like none other. Read on to find out some surprising facts and reminisce about the hit TV series The Rifleman.
1. The Original Pitch
Although The Rifleman became a huge success, people certainly didn’t think so when the show was first being pitched to the networks, at least not in its original form. Before landing a spot on ABC’s lineup, the show had been pitched for a few years to other networks.
The original name of the show was actually Gunsmoke, which later became a separate show completely. The pilot was completely different from what The Rifleman eventually became. Things were changed around and The Rifleman was born. The lead character’s name was originally John McCain, but later changed.
2. No From Chuck Connors
Chuck Connors, the actor who played the lead role of Lucas McCain, initially turned down the offer to act in The Rifleman because the show didn’t offer him enough money. In fact, Connors was making more money as a freelance actor.
The producers had a change of heart after seeing Connors act in Old Yeller and decided to offer him more money. The actor beat out over 40 other actors vying for the part. The producers even gave Connors 5% ownership in The Rifleman series.
3. The Plot Thickens
By the time The Rifleman hit the airwaves, it was a completely different show than its original pilot had set out to be. Many key features of the show were changed in order to make the plot as dramatic as possible.
For starters, the creators of the show decided to make the main character, Lucas McCain, a widower and also give him a son that he would raise on his own. Those plot changes greatly helped draw the audiences in and tug on our heartstrings.
4. A Television First
The Rifleman was known for a number of first-time moments on televisions, but one that stands out from the rest is Lucas McCain’s backstory. The show marked the very first time in American primetime TV that the main character was a widower.
That part of McCain’s background wasn’t a part of the original script but was later added in. The fact that McCain was a single father raising his son and teaching him how to be a man came to be the revolving theme of the series.
5. The Iconic Opening Credits
The show’s opening credits became an integral part of the series and showed off Lucas McCain’s shooting skills, a very big aspect of the show The Rifleman. Because, not only did he use a rifle, he was also extremely skilled at using it.
Lucas McCain shoots off 12 shots from his Winchester rifle in rapid-fire during the opening credits. Another 13th shot was added to the soundtrack for aesthetic purposes. The rifle was able to hold more bullets than a normal rifle as the cartridges for blanks are shorter than real bullets.
6. The Rifle Behind The Rifleman
TV Westerns were highly popular during the ’50s and ’60s when The Rifleman aired. The show had to compete against other hit-series such as Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, and Have Gun – Will Travel. So they needed a gimmick to set their show apart from the others.
The producers decided to make Connors’ rifle the gimmick by modifying it with a D-shaped lever that allowed Connors character to cock the rifle simply by spinning it around in his hand. The rifle appeared in every episode of The Rifleman.
7. Futuristic Rifle
The rifle used by character Lucas McCain in The Rifleman was an 1892 Winchester caliber .44-40, but there is one issue with that specific model. Throughout the show’s run, it seems that not even those involved in the show noticed it.
The Rifleman was set in the 1880s, meaning that McCain’s 1892 Winchester rifle didn’t exist just yet. That was just one continuity fact the producers of the show overlooked. Read on to find out what else didn’t quite fit in.
8. The Sound of Gunshots
If you paid close attention to the show then you probably noticed that the sound of McCain’s Winchester rifle had a distinctly different ring than all other gunshots. That’s because the sound all of the gunshots were dubbed in editing.
The different sound helped viewers distinguish McCain’s shots from all the others on The Rifleman. Quarter-load 5-in-1 blank cartridges were used during filming and contained a smokeless powder, as opposed to the cartridges in the 1880s which released a black powder.
9. North Fork, New Mexico
The iconic town featured in The Rifleman, called North Fork, was based on an actual place, but not in New Mexico where it was supposed to be in the series. The town of North Fork was actually based on a town by the same name in northern California.
The producers wanted the series to be as authentic as possible and wanted part of the filming to be shot in New Mexico, where the town in the series was located. The cast members, however, weren’t will to travel so far away from Los Angeles, so the filming was done in California.
10. Gunslinging Errors
McCain’s Winchester rifle is a big part of the show (it is called The Rifleman after all). But apart from the fact that its model is historically inaccurate, there is another, more technical error with the rifle. Can you guess what it is?
It all has to do with the firing of the gun. McCain’s Winchester rifle is modified to shoot every time it’s cocked. But if you notice, McCain cocks his gun before every fight and it doesn’t shoot… Oops, that’s another thing the producers overlooked.
11. Off to A Great Start
Season 1 of The Rifleman was by far the most popular season of the series’ five-season run on television. And we don’t just mean popular, it became a nationwide phenomenon. As far as rankings go it came in fourth overall.
The Rifleman came in behind three other Westerns that were airing at the time. Chuck Connors himself once said in an interview that the production company, Four Star Television, must have been specifically directing their target audience towards 40-to-50-year-old males.
12. “Tone It Down”
While The Rifleman was considered a family-oriented show, there was a very significant amount of gun violence. Lucas McCain only resorted to using his gun as a last resort but that didn’t stop him from killing over 120 villains in the show’s five-year span.
By 1961, the F.C.C. felt the need to step in and began pressuring the producers of the show to “tone down the violence.” One of the creators of the show, Sam Peckinpah, actually left the show because he felt The Rifleman had turned into a “children’s program.”
13. Friendship Among The Rifleman Cast
Actor Chuck Connors and his on-screen son Johnny Crawford had a remarkably special chemistry on screen and were also friends off-screen. Young Crawford looked up to Connors and loved the fact that he used to be a professional baseball player.
The two actors would play games of catch on set and at lunchtime. They would even arrange baseball games. “I was very fond of Chuck, and we were very good friends right from the start. I admired him tremendously,” Crawford later said.
14. Chuck Connors The Joker
Chuck Connors may have been a wholesome model father on screen to young Johnny Crawford but apparently off-screen he had a penchant for being quite the jokester. Regardless, Crawford certainly learned plenty about acting from observing Connors’ example on set.
“He was incorrigible; a practical joker,” Crawford later said 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.”
15. Soviet Fans
It might surprise you to hear, but The Rifleman was actually pretty big in the Soviet Union. It was one of the few American shows to be allowed to air under the Communist regime and Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the USSR at the time, was even a fan of the show.
Chuck Connors was introduced to Brezhnev when he visited the US to meet with then-president Richard Nixon. The two even hugged. After the Soviet leader’s death, Connors requested to attend Brezhnev’s funeral as part of the official US delegation but was unfortunately denied.
16. Staying Single
In the show, Lucas McCain was a widower, having lost his wife Margaret to a smallpox outbreak during the time they lived in Oklahoma territory, but he did toy with the idea of marrying again. He even told his son that he would when he finds “the right woman.” But he never ended up remarrying after all.
Much of the show was based on the father/son dynamic between Lucas and Mark so it could well be that the producers of the show didn’t want to try and fix something that wasn’t broken. Therefore, Lucas McCain stayed single ’til the end.
17. Rat Pack in the Wild West
Many guest stars graced the set of The Rifleman, but one, in particular, stood out from the crowd and that was singer, dancer, actor, and comedian Sammy Davis Jr. The actor stunned viewers everywhere with his gun tricks and skills.
His character on the show, Tip Corey, was a former circus trick-shot performer and angers Lucas McCain when he starts showing off his skills to little Mark. Even though Sammy Davis Jr. only appeared in one episode of The Rifleman, he made a lasting impression.
18. Johnny’s Favorite Episode
Out of the 168 episodes of The Rifleman, which one was Johnny Crawford’s favorite? According to him, his favorite episode is “The Vision” which was episode 26 of Season 2. In the episode, little Mark McCain is forced to make a difficult decision.
Mark must decide whether to stay in heaven with his mother or return to his father on Earth. In real life, Crawford was sick during the filming of the episode and there was a scene where he was supposed to have a high fever. Apparently, Johnny Crawford’s welfare worker was convinced he was just good at acting, but they eventually discovered that he was actually sick and had to send him home. The episode took nine days to film in the end.
19. Rifle-Slinging Super Hero
Westerns were huge in the 1950s and 1960s and people just couldn’t get enough of them. In today’s terms, Lucas McCain was somewhat of a superhero with his incredible ability to always hit his mark with that iconic Winchester rifle.
McCain never missed an opportunity to show off his rifle-slinging skills. He was also ambidextrous with the rifle, could shoot with his eyes closed, did flips and spun his rifle back and forth without ever missing his mark (or accidentally shooting the wrong person).
20. Standing Up For What’s Right
The Rifleman was a family-oriented show chock-full of wholesome entertainment. Lucas McCain only used his gun when necessary and only if there was no other option left. He also stood up against prejudice and racism in the town of North Fork.
In one episode, McCain stands up to the townspeople in defense of a Chinese immigrant who was trying to make an honest living in North Fork. He also befriended an Argentinian family in The Rifleman’s very first season and defended them against the townspeople’s prejudice.
21. Uniting The Union
In one episode entitled “The Sheridan Story” in Season 1 of The Rifleman, McCain (himself a former Union soldier during the US Civil War) hired a former Confederate soldier for work on his ranch. Things didn’t work out as planned, though.
Taking the job and kind gesture for granted, the former Confederate soldier started making trouble on the ranch and refused to accept defeat in the war. Level-headed McCain quickly took the role of peacemaker and smoothed things out. It just goes to show what a stand-up guy the Rifleman was.
22. Ratings Star
The Rifleman’s first season was a huge hit and surprised everyone, even the actors. The first season of the show ranked at number four out of all the shows on the air. Viewership of the show reached an impressive 14 million people.
That’s even more impressive when you remember that having a television set during the 1950s and 1960s was still a big luxury. The show’s ratings eventually declined and by the fifth season, The Rifleman did not even rank in the top 30 shows.
23. End Of An Era
The official word on the street was that The Rifleman was cancelled after its five-year-long stint on air due to low ratings. But at the same time, rumors were swirling that it was because Johnny Crawford was getting to old and the father-son dynamic was losing its touch with audiences.
In an interview years later, Crawford said that he never really found out the real reason why the series was cancelled but at the same time he didn’t really care too much about it. According to him, everyone, including himself, was ready to move on to new things.
24. A Spin-off Show
You know a show is epic and has made its mark on television history when people rush to make spin-off shows, and The Rifleman did just that. Michael Ansara guest-starred in a few episodes of the show as the “Plainsman.”
Ansara was so well received that he eventually got his own show based on the same character he played in The Rifleman. The show was called Law of the Plainsman, also produced by Four Star Television. The series unfortunately only lasted one season before being canceled.
25. Johnny Crawford’s Success After The Rifleman
Actor Johnny Crawford took on the role as Mark McCain, Lucas McCain’s son, at the ripe young age of 13. But that was only the beginning of Crawford’s successful career. He went on to become a highly successful singer and teen heart-throb.
Crawford had four hit singles during his music career that charted on the Billboard Top 40 chart. His single entitled “Cindy’s Birthday” reached number eight and was his highest charting single. Crawford first found fame way back in 1955 when he joined the original cast of The Mickey Mouse Club.
26. Chuck Connors The Cowboy
Chuck Connors was so well-known and beloved for his role as Lucas McCain on the show that it ended up working against him for a good part of his career afterward. He was heavily typecast as a gun-slinging rancher and had difficulty finding different roles.
After his five-year stint on The Rifleman, Connors appeared in a number of short-lived series such as Arrest and Trial, Branded, and Cowboy in Africa. He also played the role of a Texan rancher on the NBC series The Yellow Rose. It seemed like everywhere he went, he was seen as cowboy.
27. A Rose By Any Other Name
Chuck Connors was actually born Kevin Joseph Connors in 1921 in Brooklyn, New York. Never having liked the name Kevin, he decided to change his first name during his time studying at Seton Hall University. His nickname “Chuck” actually comes from his college baseball days.
He reportedly would always yell at the pitcher while he was up to bat, taunting “chuck it to me, baby, chuck it to me!” And thus, the nickname Chuck was born and stuck with him for the rest of his life.
28. Smoking and Smoking and Smoking
Back in the 1950s, smoking was glamorized and still considered cool. The characters on The Rifleman were rarely seen smoking on screen but actor Chuck Connors smoked plenty off-screen — so much so, it’s hard to believe that he even had the time for it.
Off-screen Chuck Connors would smoke up to three packs of cigarettes a day! That’s 60 cigarettes for those who are counting. Unfortunately, it caught up with him in his later years. He passed away in 1992 from complications with lung cancer.
29. Sport Superstar
Apart from having a successful acting career, Chuck Connors also had a successful career as a professional athlete in multiple sports. He’s one of the very few athletes to have played in both Major League Baseball and in the National Basketball Association.
Connors played in the MLB for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs. He accepted an offer to play with the New York Yankees but was only able to play one season before joining the US Army. He also played basketball for the newly-formed Boston Celtics. Connors was drafted by the Chicago Bears but never ended up playing.
30. Basketball Trailblazer
The lead of The Rifleman, actor Chuck Connors, made basketball history during his time playing for the Boston Celtics, and not for scoring. On November 5, 1946, he became the very first basketball player to actually break a backboard. That’s quite some power!
As impressive as that is, it is important to note that the backboard that Connors broke was actually improperly installed and it shattered during warmups with the team. But hey, he still holds the record as being the very first.
31. It’s All Thanks To Baseball
The all-American pastime of baseball played a huge role in Chuck Connors’ life. In fact, he attributed much of his success and career back to his baseball days. He credited his involvement in the game for having taught him valuable lessons and teamwork.
“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 made it alone. To the greatest game in the world, I shall be eternally in debt.” Connors said.
32. The Remake That Didn’t Happen
A remake of the original series, The Rifleman, was announced by CBS in late 2011 but unfortunately, nothing ever came of it. In an interview, Johnny Crawford, who played Mark McCain, said that he was intrigued in the project and interested in being involved.
The reboot was going to be produced and directed by Chris Columbus, along with Robert Levy, Steven Gardner and Arthur Gardner as executive producers. The remake was cancelled only a few short months later. No pilot episode was ever filmed for the project. No specific reason was ever given for the cancellation.
33. The John Wayne Connection
Lucas McCain’s iconic Winchester rifle may have been an unusual choice for the character at the time but it wasn’t the first time it had been used hit movie or show. In fact, it was the same weapon used by John Wayne in the film Stagecoach.
The film was so big that it was even called “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the US Library of Congress. The rifle was also the exact same model as the one used by the notorious outlaw Billy the Kid, only his was an 1873 version.
34. April Fools!
Rumors started swirling about another attempt at a reboot of The Rifleman when someone released an article on April 1, 2016. Apparently, not many people realized what date it was and were just super excited that the series was coming back.
According to the article, Lucas McCain was going to be played by Willie Nelson and fans were torn. Many commented that Nelson was just simply too old to play Lucas McCain. Other fans liked the idea, but it was later revealed to have been just an April fool’s joke.
For every successful series, there will be others that try to ride the wave of that success. The Rifleman was one of the very first shows to show the single-parent dynamic, and it proved to be a captivating angle for the rest of TV history.
The NBC show Julia, 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 hit, ranking at number seven, and stayed on the air for three seasons.
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