In an interview that appeared in the March 12th issue of TV Guide, Chuck Connors, star of The Rifleman, took great pains to point out that his show was not exceptionally violent, that there are killings in only about half the episodes (from what I've seen, the number is somewhat higher than that): "You got to have them, I guess or it wouldn't be a Western." Connors' defense of his show was likely in response to increasing criticism of too much violence on TV, and those involved with the show probably had much to lose from such a backlash given how heavily the brand had been licensed for items like board games, lunch boxes, action figures, and a series of story books, all marketed to children. And the show certainly had a violent beginning, based as it was on a rejected Gunsmoke script called "The Sharpshooter" written by Sam Peckinpah, who would later in his career be known as "Bloody Sam" for directing films such as The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs. The rejected script became the first episode of The Rifleman starring a young Dennis Hopper in the title role. But Peckinpah was not involved in the show after that initial season of 1958-59, and by 1960 the focus of the show had shifted from showing off the shooting exploits of Connors' character Lucas McCain and more on his role as a widower raising his son Mark (played by Johnny Crawford). For example, in "Day of the Hunter" (Jan 5, 1960) Lucas refuses to take part in a shooting contest with legendary frontiersman Cass Callicott, even when the latter calls him chicken, and even though Lucas decides to participate in North Fork's annual sharp-shooter contest in "The Promoter" (Dec 6, 1960), he only does so because Mark wants the new shotgun that is offered as first prize. However, there were still plenty of shoot-outs involving Lucas or others, but occasionally there were also violent-free episodes, whereas all of the episodes seemed to feature at least one conversation or two between Lucas and Mark of an educational nature. In fact, Mark even makes a comment about this element in "The Martinet" (Nov 8, 1960) when he says that sometimes it's the child who teaches the parent but that he knows who does most of the teaching in the McCain family. He also offers Lucas some of his own advice in "Trail of Hate" (Sep 27, 1960) when Lucas regrets that his obsession for revenge causes an outlaw to be shot and killed. Several episodes, such as "Sins of the Father" (Apr 19, 1960) and "The Prodigal" (Apr 26, 1960) offer a contrasting parent-child relationship that shows the pitfalls of not having honest, open communication in a family.
However, Connors felt that the stories had grown a bit too sentimental. In the same TV Guide interview he notes that his character says to Mark in one episode "I love you" (actually he has it backwards--in "Case of Identity" Mark says "I love you" to Lucas , who replies, "I know you do, son"): "Brother, that's corn. That's as pure as they grow it, but that's what people want." One senses that Connors has grown cynical in being trapped between his artistic impulses and the success of a popular show that must cater to its audience's wishes. Part of his cynicism could also have been due to the show's declining ratings--it fell to 27th place for the 1960-61 season. But he would continue in the role for another three years before moving on to starring roles in three other series during the decade (Arrest & Trial, Branded, and Cowboy in Africa), but none of them would be as successful or run as long at The Rifleman.
The show was set in the town of North Folk, New Mexico, in the 1880s, though Lucas and Mark lived on their own ranch (which they purchase in the second episode of the first season) just outside of town. Lucas sports a customized Winchester rifle that can fire a round in 3/10 of a second, and by the 1960 season, many outsiders who visit North Fork, whether they are law-abiding or criminals, have heard of his exploits. The show also featured Paul Fix as Marshal Micah Torrance in all but 18 of its 168 episodes during the life of the series. He first appears in the 4th episode of the first season as a drunk who has lost his nerve after killing a man. Lucas must nurse him back to health and restore his confidence. From then on, Lucas often helps in running down or killing criminals who threaten North Fork, with Torrance occasionally deputizing him temporarily. The 1960 season also saw the introduction of semi-regular Milly Scott (played by Joan Taylor) in the November 15th episode, "Miss Milly." She takes over the general store formerly run by semi-regular Hattie Denton (Hope Summers, who played Clara Edwards on The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D.), and though she initially clashes with Lucas (and everyone else in town), there is an obvious attraction between them, though nothing concrete seems to develop.
The show was nominated for an Emmy for Best Western Series in 1959 and Crawford was nominated for best supporting actor that same year, but neither won.
The theme music for the show was composed by Herschel Burke Gilbert, who also composed the theme music for The Detectives, Starring Robert Taylor (1959-61) and Burke's Law (1963-66). He also served as music supervisor on many other TV shows of the era, including Perry Mason, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Johnny Ringo, Gunsmoke, The Lawless Years, and Gilligan's Island.
The complete series of 168 episodes of The Rifleman has not been issued on DVD. MPI issued a pair of 4-disc box sets that have since gone out of print. There are a few other single-disc issues with various episodes, but nothing with complete seasons. There are also bootleg releases of the entire series, though they are reported to be of dubious quality. However, imdb.com has 50 episodes available for free online viewing (I'm guessing they are from the MPI releases, as they are spread out across the various seasons). And as of this writing, the cable channel AMC has been airing 4-hour blocks of consecutively sequenced episodes on Saturday mornings. Many of the episodes from 1960 not available on imdb.com can also be found on youtube.com, sometimes split into 2 or 3 parts, with less than stellar video quality.
Connors began acting roles in 1952 after an athletic career in which he played briefly for the Boston Celtics basketball team in 1946-47, and the Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago Cubs baseball teams and their minor league affiliates from 1947-1952. In 1952 while playing for the Cubs Triple-A team, the Los Angeles Angels, he was spotted by an MGM casting director who recommended him for a part in the Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn film Pat and Mike. From there, he appeared in several more films and began appearing in single episodes of many TV series throughout the 50s before landing the lead role on The Rifleman in 1958.
Besides his other 1960s TV series mentioned above, Connors continued acting in movies throughout his career, appearing in such popular titles as Old Yeller, Flipper, and Soylent Green. He died November 10, 1992.
Crawford was only 12 years old when he began playing Mark McCain on The Rifleman, but he had begun appearing in other TV shows, like The Lone Ranger, two years before that. He apparently peaked early in his career because the show was his only regular role in television. He appeared in single episodes of Mr. Ed, Rawhide, Hawaii 5-0, and Little House on the Prairie, amongst others. But perhaps the die was cast and he will forever be thought of as Mark McCain, just as Adam West was never able to escape the shadow of Batman.
Born in 1901, Fix began appearing in films as early as 1925, and was quite active as a minor character throughout the 30s and 40s, frequently uncredited. His first television appearance was in a 1950 episode of The Lone Ranger, and later in the 50s he also appeared in episodes of Adventures of Superman, The Adventures of Falcon, and The Adventures of McGraw. After The Rifleman, he made numerous single episode appearances on TV shows up until 1981, including four appearances as Prosecutor/D.A. Hale on Perry Mason. He died October 14, 1983.
Notable Guest Stars
Season 2, Episode 15, "Day of the Hunter": John Anderson (Harry Jackson on MacGyver, Dr. Herbert Styles on Dallas) plays legendary frontiersman Cass Calicott, who challenges Lucas to a shooting match. Dick Elliott (Mayor Pike on The Andy Griffith Show) plays Mr. Hardiman, a local apple farmer.
Season 2, Episode 16, "Mail Order Groom": Peter Whitney (Sergeant Buck Sinclair on The Rough Riders and Lafe Crick on The Beverly Hillbillies) plays John Jupiter, the mail order groom.
Season 2, Episode 17, "Case of Identity": Herbert Rudley (Sam Brennan on The Californians, Will Gentry on Michael Shayne, General Crone on Mona McCluskey, Herb Hubbard on The Mothers-in-Law) plays Captain James Gordon, an unscrupulous "detective."
Season 2, Episode 18, "The Visitor": Christine White (Abigail Adams on Ichabod and Me) plays Ann Dodd, a widow and friend of Lucas McCain's late wife.
Season 2, Episode 19, "Hero": Robert Culp (Kelly Robinson on I Spy) plays Colly Vane, a mild-mannered stable hand who kills a wanted outlaw.
Season 2, Episode 21, "The Spoiler": Ellen Corby (Esther Walton on The Waltons) plays Mrs. Avery, whose son is a ruthless killer.
Season 2, Episode 22, "Heller": Don Grady (Robbie on My Three Sons) and Gigi Perreau (Pat Strickland on The Betty Hutton Show, Kathy Richards on Follow the Sun) play a brother and sister bent on killing their abusive step-father (played by Peter Whitney--see "Mail Order Groom" above). K.T. Stevens (Vanessa Prentiss on The Young and the Restless 1976-80) plays his wife. Hope Summers also appears as Hattie Denton in this episode.
Season 2, Episode 25, "The Deserter": Robert Cornthwaite (Professor Windish on Get Smart) plays Major Damler, a discipline-crazed Army commander.
Season 2, Episode 26, "The Vision": Karl Swenson (Lars Hanson on Little House on the Prairie) plays Nils Swenson, a friend of Lucas' who recommends a doctor in Roswell when Mark gets dangerously ill.
Season 2, Episode 27, "The Lariat": Richard Anderson (D.A. Glenn Wagner on Bus Stop; Lt. Steve Drumm on Perry Mason; Chief George Untermeyer on Dan August; Oscar Goldman on The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman; and Buck Fallmont on Dynasty) plays Lariat Jones, an old buddy of Lucas' who comes to North Fork to open a gaming house. Dayton Lummis (Marshal Andy Morrison on Law of the Plainsman) plays Colonel Craig, a cheating card player.
Season 2, Episode 28, "Smoke Screen": Douglas Kennedy (Sheriff Fred Madden on The Big Valley) plays Pete Crandell, father of a headstrong young woman who is murdered.
Season 2, Episode 30, "Sins of the Father": Richard Evans (Paul Hanley on Peyton Place) plays Shep Coleman, a drunk who makes the mistake of challenging former convict and killer Andy Moon.
Season 2, Episode 31, "The Prodigal": Kevin Hagen (John Colton on Yancy Derringer, Inspector Dobbs Kobick on Land of the Giants, Dr. Hiram Baker on Little House on the Prairie) plays Billy St. John, a notorious gunslinger hiding a secret from his mother and trying to outrun two of his former bank-robbing partners, Stinger (played by Lee Van Cleef, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) and Santos (played by Warren Oates, In the Heat of the Night, The Wild Bunch).
Season 2, Episode 32, "The Fourflusher": Whit Bissell (Lt. Gen. Heywood Kirk on The Time Tunnel; Calvin Hanley on Peyton Place) plays Gabe Fenway, a share-cropper hoping to win a horse race in order to be able to buy the property he is currently living on. James Westerfield (Son of Flubber, True Grit, The Love God?) plays the duplicitous landlord Jake Preston, and K.T. Stevens (see "Heller" above) plays Molly Fenway, Gabe's wife. Hope Summers also appears as Hattie Denton in this episode.
Season 2, Episode 33, "The Jailbird": Dabbs Greer (Mr. Jonas on Gunsmoke) plays Farley Weaver, an ex-convict hired by Lucas as a ranch hand who is accused of murdering Charlie Manse (Karl Swenson, see "The Vision" above).
Season 2, Episode 34, "Meeting at Midnight": Claude Akins (Elroy P. Lobo on B.J. and the Bear, and Lobo, Sonny Pruett on Movin' On) plays Tom Benton, an undercover federal agent trying to find where some stolen government money has been hidden by Carl Miller (played by Frank De Kova, Chief Wild Eagle on F Troop).
Season 2, Episode 35, "Nora": Julie Adams (Creature From the Black Lagoon; Martha Howard on The Jimmy Stewart Show) plays Nora Sanford, a former love interest of Lucas who shows up in North Fork with a scheme to get her boyfriend out of a gambling debt.
Season 2, Episode 36, "The Hangman": Whit Bissell (see "The Fourflusher" above) plays Volney Adams, an ex-con assumed to be the murderer of his employer. Michael Fox (Coroner George McLeod on Burke's Law, Amos Fedders on Falcon Crest)plays a nosy North Fork resident who stirs up accusations against Adams, as does elixir salesman Col. Jebediah Sims (played by Richard Deacon, who played Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show). The Hangman, Harold Tenner, is played by Denver Pyle (Uncle Jessie on The Dukes of Hazzard, Briscoe Darling on The Andy Griffith Show, Grandpa Tarleton on Tammy, Buck Webb on The Doris Day Show).
Season 3, Episode 1, "Trail of Hate": Harold J. Stone (John Kennedy on The Grand Jury, Hamilton Greeley on My World and Welcome to It, Sam Steinberg on Bridget Loves Bernie) plays Benjamin Stark, the leader of a trio of outlaws who hold Mark hostage to force Lucas to help them rob a bank.
Season 3, Episode 3, "Seven": Don Megaowan (Captain Huckabee on The Beachcomber) plays Dorf, the ring-leader of a group of seven convicts who break out of their jail wagon and hold the town hostage. Bing Russell (Deputy Clem Foster on Bonanza)plays another convict named Sanchez. Bill Quinn (Mr. Van Ranseleer on All in the Family and Archie Bunker's Place) plays Sweeney the bartender who is captured by the convicts.
Season 3, Episode 4, "The Pitchman": Bob Sweeney (Fibber McGee on Fibber McGee and Molly and producer of many shows, including 80 episodes of The Andy Griffith Show) plays Speed Sullivan, a traveling salesman who tries to scam Lucas out of the mineral rights to his property.
Season 3, Episode 5, "Strange Town": Claude Akins (see "Meeting at Midnight" above) returns as Bletch Droshek, accused of shooting a man in the back, as does Peter Whitney (see "Mail Order Groom" above) as Ott Droshek, Bletch's brother and the man who runs the Strange Town. Willam Schallert (Mr. Leander Pomfritt on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Martin Lane on The Patty Duke Show, Admiral Hargrade on Get Smart) plays Marshal Truce in the Strange Town.
Season 3, Episode 6, "Baranca": John Milford (Lt. Paul Hewitt on The Bold Ones and Captain Dempsey on Enos) plays Bro Hadley, who murders Pedro Sanchez and sets his house on fire. Linda Dangcil (Sister Ana on The Flying Nun) plays Sanchez's wife.
Season 3, Episode 8, "Miss Milly": Joan Taylor (Earth vs. The Flying Saucers) debuts as Milly Scott, who buys out and takes over Hattie Denton's general store.
Season 3, Episode 9, "Dead Cold Cash": John Hamilton (Sherriff John Brannan on The Virginian) plays Harlan Warde, the banker of North Fork; Ed Nelson (Michael Rossi on Peyton Place) plays Stacey Beldon, a hit man sent to assassinate Lucas; and Steve Darrell (Sherriff Hal Humphrey on Tales of Wells Fargo) plays Eli Benson, a cousin of Beldon's.
Season 3, Episode 11, "The Promoter": Dabbs Greer (see "The Jailbird" above) plays Jack Scully, a ruthless con man who makes bets that his protege Reuben Miles (Denny Miller, who played Duke Shannon on Wagon Train) can outgun anyone else.
Season 3, Episode 12, "The Illustrator": Richard Whorf (better known as a director of 18 episodes of Gunsmoke, 37 episode of My Three Sons, and 68 episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies) plays Jeremiah Crowley, a drunken New York painter accused of murder. Midge Ware (Amby McAllister on Gunslinger) plays Hannah Shaw, his portrait subject, while Dayton Lummis (see "The Lariat" above) plays her father Jake Shaw. Ed Nelson (see "Dead Cold Cash" above) plays Ben Travis, a hired hand of Jake Shaw.
Season 3, Episode 14, "Miss Bertie": Agnes Moorehead (Endora on Bewitched) plays the title role, an elderly lady from Philadelphia trying to cash in on the reward for wanted outlaw Duke Jennings (Richard Anderson--see "The Lariat" above).