American actor Chuck Connors (1921–1992) was best known and beloved for his role as single father and frontier hero Lucas McCain on The Rifleman, a mid-20th-century television show. The iconic character was warmly embraced by viewers, served as a role model for youth, and catapulted Connors to international fame.
Chuck Connors was a popular and instantly recognizable show business figure due to his tall frame, lantern jaw, and arresting, blue-eyed gaze. He played multiple character types over decades in movies and television, though the lanky cowboy image stuck. Before acting, Connors had been a versatile professional athlete whose passion was baseball, though he also played basketball and was drafted for (but never played) pro football. He enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II, serving as a tank warfare instructor while moonlighting as a professional basketball player. After the war, Connors's ebullient personality shone through his athleticism and attracted the attention of a Hollywood casting director. Small movie roles led to better ones, and a career change soon followed. Connors devoted the rest of his life to film and television acting.
Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors was born on April 10, 1921, in Brooklyn, New York, to Allen and Marcella Connors, immigrants from Newfoundland, the easternmost province of Canada. Connors's parents became U.S. citizens in 1914 and 1917, respectively, and his sister Gloria was born in 1923. The Connors family was Roman Catholic, and his father worked as a longshoreman.
Kevin Connors had never really liked his name. He experimented with a few nicknames in childhood, such as “Lefty” and “Stretch,” but none stuck. As an athlete at Seton Hall College, however, he earned an acceptable moniker. As a first baseman for the college baseball team, Connors had a habit of calling out to the pitcher, “Chuck it to me, baby, chuck it to me!” His teammates and fans started calling him Chuck, and Connors had his new name.
As part of his academic studies, Connors learned “poetic elocution,” or the art of reciting poems in an interesting and dramatic way. He learned several “manly” favorites by heart, such as The Ballad of Dan McGrew by Robert Service, and was always happy to perform them. This art of capturing an audience's attention in order to tell a story creatively would serve him well throughout his life.
Connors left Seton Hall after his second year to play with the New York Yankees. He only played with them for a season, however, opting to enroll in the U.S. Army. The United States had finally joined in fighting World War II, a massive conflict from 1939–1945 involving most of the world's countries, and young men were expected to fight. Connors was stationed stateside for the duration of the war, and served as an instructor in tank warfare at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, as well as at Westpoint.
During the later years of his army service, Connors managed to play professional basketball on the side, helping to propel the Rochester Royals to a National Basketball League championship in 1946. After he was discharged from the army late that year, he signed with the newly formed Boston Celtics. Tapping the talent that would fuel Connors's future career, the Celtics often sent the personable young player to represent the team as an after-dinner speaker. Connors was popular with his audiences, not only speaking about the team, but taking the occasion to perform story poems such as Casey at the Bat and Face on the Barroom Floor. Baseball great Ted Williams was so impressed upon hearing Connors dramatically perform Casey that he laughingly urged Connors to give up sports for acting.
While Connors played for the Celtics from 1946 to 1948, he also found opportunities in baseball during the off season when the Brooklyn Dodgers invited him to spring training. Assigned to their minor league “farm teams” for further development, Connors played for affiliated teams around the country before finally getting his chance to join the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949. Unfortunately, his tenure was brief—only one game—before he was sent back to the minors. Connors played for teams up and down the East Coast and also in Montreal, Canada. It was in Montreal that he met and married his wife, Elizabeth (Betty) Riddell. They would be married for 13 years and raise four sons.
A second shot at playing for the major leagues came in 1951, when he was signed by the Chicago Cubs, playing 66 games and staying in contention for more. Connors was disappointed to be demoted to the Cubs' top, Triple A–rated farm team, the Los Angeles Angels, while a fellow player with similar stats was chosen to stay, but he accepted the demotion, knowing that the Angels were well respected and considered a great team to play for. He and Betty bundled up their baby son and moved west, little knowing how their lives would change in the next few years.
After a half season with the Angels, Connors signed a “no draft” clause so that he could remain with the farm team. He and Betty loved the climate and settled in, buying a home in the San Fernando Valley. Connors had racked up good years on several of the better farm teams and he did as well or better while playing for the Angels. While no major league teams had been established on the west coast, he believed that their formation in California was inevitable due to the state's growing population and media sophistication. He hoped to still be playing for the Angels when the change came.
Meanwhile, along with being a strong contributor to the team, Connors gained a reputation as a jokester on the field. When he hit a home run, he hammed it up for the crowd as he rounded the bases, walking to first, trotting to second, cartwheeling to third, and racing to a slide in at home plate. While fans loved it, his strong game and showmanship caught the attention of local media, who sought him for interviews. He also heard from Bill Grady, a baseball fan and casting director for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), a major Hollywood movie studio. Grady wondered if Connors would be interested in acting, and Connors was eager to give it a try.
Connors was first cast as a state trooper in the destinedto-be-classic movie Pat and Mike, starring matinee idols Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. He enjoyed the experience and loved being in the movies. He was a natural actor and a hard worker, welcoming and preparing for the roles that soon followed. He soon won roles in two more major movies, playing opposite John Wayne, Burt Lancaster, and other top stars.
Diving into his new career with full attention, Connors was soon very busy, acting a range of roles in movies and early television. His biggest break came in 1958, when he was cast in the starring role of a new television Western series, The Rifleman. Connors played Lucas McCain, a widowed U.S. Civil War veteran from Oklahoma who is raising his young son, Mark, while ranching on the western frontier of New Mexico. Set in the 1880s, the show's plots revolved around the father-son relationship, as McCain tried to “raise his son right,” as he had promised his late wife. Action sequences involved McCain fighting for justice with the help of his customized, rapid repeating Winchester rifle, often as the deputy of the town marshall. Lucas and Mark had an abiding bond and were a good influence on people they met. The Rifleman received an Emmy nomination in its first year and lasted five years, hosting a pantheon of popular guest directors and actors before ending in 1963. Connors moved on to many other television and movie roles, but The Rifleman would follow him for the rest of his days.
Connors's marriage to Betty had ended in divorce two years earlier, leaving the separated couple sharing custody of their four sons. In 1962, Connors played the title role in the movie Geronimo, opposite Indian actress Kamala Devi. They were married the following year and co-starred in several television and movie projects over the course of their marriage, which lasted until 1973. He married a third time, in 1977, divorcing two years later. He said little about his marriages, other than to admit that his intense focus on his career led him to neglect his relationships.
While The Rifleman has assured Connors a place in television history, he continued to be a beloved and sought-after character actor. He was nominated for an Emmy for his role as a slave owner in the television miniseries Roots, the story of an African-American slave and his descendants. Connors never lacked for work in movies or television, accepting a variety of roles, including comedic ones, and starring in several short-lived but well-regarded series. He received his greatest honor, a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, in 1984, and was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers in the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1991.
Conservative politics was a passion for Connors. He actively supported the war in Vietnam, a deeply unpopular conflict waged in Asia in the 1960s and '70s, and campaigned for Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Upon learning that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was a fan of The Rifleman, Nixon made sure to invite Connors to meet him when Brezhnev visited the United States in 1973. Connors presented Brezhnev with a pair of Colt revolver pistols and a cowboy hat. Later Brezhnev caught Connors in a newsworthy bear hug.
In later years, Connors settled into life on his ranch near Tehachapi, California, working in movies and television as it suited him. He started a charitable foundation benefiting disabled children, raising significant sums of money for the cause by hosting the annual Chuck Connors Charitable Invitational Golf Tournament in Palm Springs, California. He was a longtime supporter of the United Way charities, often assisting with their film productions around the world.
A cigarette smoker since 1940, Connors eventually developed lung cancer. Although he had quit his three-pack-a-day habit in the mid-1970s, he continued smoking on occasion after, probably shortening his life. He died of pneumonia caused by his cancer on November 10, 1992, at age 71.
Fury, David, Chuck Connors: The Man behind the Rifle, Artist's Press, 1997.
Los Angeles Times, November 11, 1992, Myrna Oliver, “Chuck Connors, ‘The Rifleman,’ Dies at Age 71.”
New York Times, November 11, 1992, Bruce Lambert, “Chuck Connors, Actor, 71, Dies.”