The Common Man was surprised to find out, when he got home last night, that his Tivo has been making some strange suggestions. For instance, The Common Man has little use for telenovelas like El Corazon Prohibido, or for something called Degrassi: The Next Generation. However, Tivo was right in its guess that its owner would appreciate a look at the iconic Western The Rifleman. The Rifleman, which aired on ABC from 1958 to 1963, ran for 168 episodes and starred Chuck Connors. It was the story of Lucas McCain, a widower who moves with his son to New Mexico, and uses his modified Winchester rifle (which allows him to fire a bullet in .3 seconds) to help the local Marshall.
The Common Man was excited because Connors, who got his big break playing the original owner of Old Yeller in the Disney classic and led to his role in The Rifleman, also was a bit of ballplayer. Connors was originally signed by his hometown Dodgers in 1940, but enrolled in Holy Cross soon after. After being drafted by the Yankees in 1942, he was drafted by the Army and served as a tank maintenance instructor until 1945. In 1946, he convinced Branch Rickey to sign him again to a minor league contract, and played four years in the Dodgers’ minor league system (and playing in the NBA during the offseason before getting a one at-bat tryout in 1949 (he grounded into a double play).
While Connors had significant success for the Dodgers’ farm clubs through 1949, he took a significant step backward in 1950. In 1951, Connors was shipped with Dee Fondy to the Cubs, where he was assigned to the Los Angeles Angels of the PCL. Connors had great success in LA in the spring of ’51 and was called up by the Cubs to take over for a faltering Fondy at 1B. He was given a disastrous extended trial as a 30 year old rookie, hitting .239/.282/.303 and 2 HR in 215 plate appearances. The next year, Connors was sent back to LA, where he struggled with injuries and eventually retired.
Before he did, Connors’ square jaw, on-field antics, and wavy hair were noticed by a fan in the entertainment industry. The unnamed fan inspired Connors to try acting after his baseball career was over. His success in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, however, dried up as the public moved on from straight-laced, earnest John Wayne-types and embraced the darker, more rebellious, anti-establishment heroes played by Eastwood, Newman, Beatty, and Redford. Connors retreated to occasional movie roles (as the father in Flipper, and the heavy in Soylent Green, and The Sarge in Airplane II) and guest spots on Spencer: For Hire, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and Murder, She Wrote.
The life of Chuck Connors, despite reaching the pinnacle of both of his chosen professions, is something of a disappointment. Connors clearly had the talent to play major league ball; his minor league stats are Andre Ethier-like (low .300s BA, 15-25 HR/year power), particularly impressive given the developmental time he missed in college and in the Army. By the time he got back to playing ball full time, Connors was 25, and only got a real shot at 30. And while his good looks made him a terrific hero for early-TV Western morality plays, his limited range and lack of emotion left him unable to adjust to the changing needs of Hollywood following his short peak. If Connors had debuted in the early ‘40s, in either field, he might have truly become a legend and a household name.
Connors died in 1992 from pneumonia related to lung cancer. He was 71.