When THE RIFLEMAN debuted in 1958, it became an instant hit Western back in the heyday years of the great Westerns such as GUNSMOKE and WAGON TRAIN. THE RIFLEMAN was also a creation of the great director Sam Peckinpah, noted for his great Westerns such as THE WILD BUNCH with gritty characters and violence both.
Chuck Conners, a 6 foot 5inch, 190 lbs. former ABA basketball player as well as a former professional baseball player made an interesting choice as lead actor in the series. His huge large intimidating presence was especially good in not only in THE RIFLEMAN, but in professional basketball where he became the first player in history to twice break backboards, which predated Shaq by a lot of years since this was in the ’50 and ’51 seasons. Chuck Conners beat out 40 other actors to land the lead role, but nearly turned it down until a better deal was made that gave him a 5% ownership of the show. Conners was perfect for the role.
Conners wielded a customized Winchester rifle in every episode, solving his problems by rapidly cranking his custom rifle. It was such a contrast to the more reasonable other Western lead actor roles, giving THE RIFLEMAN a lot of action in every episode. For being the single father of a young boy, the Lucas McCain role was groundbreaking. Johnny Crawford, who played McCain’s young boy became a lifetime friend of Conners.
Chuck Conners proved to have an interesting life following THE RIFLEMAN. ABC would have gladly renewed the series for many more seasons, but Conners wanted to try his hand at other projects.
By the 1970’s he became a big name Republican Party fundraiser and good friend of President Richard Nixon. THE RIFLEMAN strangely became very good for U.S. Soviet relations since it was only one of very few U.S. television shows that aired in the old Soviet Union. This was largely because the show was a big personal favorite of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev who hugged the actor went President Nixon arranged for Conners and him to meet during a state visit. Brezhnev invited Conners to visit the Soviet Union as well. The warmness of the two was certainly good for relations for the two rival countries. Conners wanted to attend the funeral of Brezhnev in 1982, but the U.S. government didn’t have room for him among the official delegation. It was a strange friendship between the conservative California Republican and the Communist leader of the Soviet Union.
But, one big problem for Conners was that he was a very heavy smoker. And he died at the age of 1971 back in November 1992. It was quite a ride for Conners, who will forever be remembered as Lucus McCain for many fans of the classic TV Western.