6 failed TV pilots starring Chuck Connors
After The Rifleman, he typically played the bad guy! And one of these shows almost killed The Rifleman.
Chuck Connors is one of those rare television stars to headline a handful of acclaimed series. Everyone knows him as The Rifleman, of course, but Branded cast him as another tough Western hero. In the Sixties, he also dabbled in legal drama (Arrest and Trial, a sort of prototype of Law & Order) and animal-friendly family fare (Cowboy in Africa). But they can't all be successful, or even make it to series.
In the following decades, however, the former good guy turns villain. He became frequently typecast as the baddie. Several of the failed TV pilots below feature him as such.
And speaking of villains, the first show on our list nearly killed The Rifleman. We begin in 1957…
1. Big Foot Wallace
"Big Foot" Wallace was a real man, and no, he wasn't a Sasquatch. William A. A. Wallace served and fought as a legendary member of the Texas Rangers. In 1957, ABC shot a pilot about the man, a sort of Davy Crockett-type. "Hello, my name is Chuck Connors. It's going to be my privilege to play Big Foot Wallace for the next, oh, fifty years or so―leastwise I hear tell," Connors said to the camera at the start. "We're all pretty excited about this series, and I'd like to take this opportunity to tell you a little about our plans, and about Big Foot. Big Foot was a real and fabulous character, one of the most exciting figures in frontier history." The pilot never aired. Even if it hadn't aired for "fifty years of so," it would have prevented Connors from ever playing The Rifleman, which kicked off the following season.
2. Which Way'd They Go?
Well, this comedy did air — as an episode of The Rifleman. Yes, The Rifleman made a sitcom as a backdoor pilot for a potential spin-off. The silly tale of the hillbilly Jackman clan would not have starred Connors, but his Lucas McCain character appears in the episode, naturally. Western comedy is a harder genre to have stick, and always has been. The tone here felt a bit like Bonanza meets The Beverly Hillbillies. Perhaps it is not so shocking that Rifleman fans did not want to follow the Jackmans on the frontier.
3. Banjo Hackett
Ike Eisenmann was one of the ubiquitous child stars of Seventies television. Disney fans will know him from Escape to Witch Mountain, but we also fondly remember him from the fantastically titled Afterschool Special The Amazing Cosmic Awareness of Duffy Moon. Banjo Hackett aired shortly after those two films, and cast Eisenmann as the orphaned nephew of the title character (Don Meredith). Connors played the adversarial bounty hunter, Sam Ivory. He roughly dunked the teen idol into a watering trough. Eisenmann didn't take it too hard — he posted it on his Facebook page.
4. Capture of Grizzly Adams
This made-for-TV movie was an "attempt to revive the 1978 NBC series The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams," according to the book Unsold Television Pilots, 1955–1989. The plot was eerily similar to Banjo Hackett, with Grizzly fighting to save his niece (Kim Darby) from a bounty hunter, played by Chuck Connors.
5. Lone Star
An attempt to revive Westerns for a new generation, Lone Star began its life as a gritty drama before succumbing to the buddy-cop action-comedy tropes of the Eighties. "We were doing a hard-edged thing, like Wanted: Dead or Alive," series costar Lewis Smith explained in the book Unsold Television Pilots. "The network stepped in and said the stars gotta smile the whole [bleeping] time… it was terrible." Connors, again, was the villain. The newspaper critics at the time called it "cookie-cutter," when the failed pilot was dumped in the summer.
Image: The Morning Call / Detroit Free Press
6. Steel Collar Man
Saturday Night Live cast member Charles Rocket starred as a robot soldier in this — we hope — comedy. The opening credits are hilariously amazing, as Rocket jogs in place as a sort of "Six Hundred Dollar Man." It's so deeply Eighties and we love every second of it. Connors was the villain, yep, an obsessed government agent who hunts the android, as the robot man roams the country with a trucker. You know, that old chestnut.