Chuck Connors bought a horse for 50 bucks to turn himself into a cowboy
The Rifleman had to change his voice and hair before he could convincingly become a Western actor.
Chuck Connors knew he was lucky. "How many 40-year-old baseball players do you know?" he asked entertainment reporter Rick Du Brow in 1961. He had just celebrated his 40th birthday and wrapped filming a historical Western called Geronimo. Of course, at the time, he was also one of the toughest guys in TV Westerns as Lucas McCain, the Rifleman.
None of that would have happened had Connors been a little better at baseball. Not that he was a slouch. He suited up for both the Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, but his low batting average sent him to the minor league. As a ballplayer, he was a ham, clowning around on the diamond, reciting Shakespeare to umpires. One time, in 1953, when on a local celebrity panel show on television, he famously told Zsa Zsa Gabor to "Shut up" when she interrupted one of his gags. He had an outsized personality — and some friends in showbiz.
So, when his baseball career washed out, Connors got some acting gigs from his buddies.
"Let's not kid each other," he told Du Brow. "I got into this [acting] business because I was a ballplayer, not an actor. My pals in the movie business — the stars, casting directors and others — gave me a break."
As they say, it's all about who you know.
Initially, Connors saw himself as a cowboy.
"After two years in pictures, I had never been in a Western, and my secret desire was to be a Gary Cooper," Connors admitted. "I was tall, thin and looked like one of those guys."
His voice and haircut didn't help either. He did not just play for Brooklyn — he was born in Brooklyn, and talked like it.
"I had a Brooklyn accent, didn't know how to ride a horse and wore a crewcut that hardly looked western," Connors said.
So he worked at it. Hard. The acting work might have fallen into his lap thanks to some ins he had with Hollywood, but the guy strived to turn himself into a Western star. That started with a horse.
His mind set on becoming a cowboy, Connors bought a rough horse for $50.
"It had a game leg," he explained. "The wrangler wouldn't sell me a real good one." Connors then rented an acre of land, put up a fence and stable, and started teaching himself riding and general cowboy behavior.
"I fed the horse, watered it," Connors said, adding that he worked just as hard on himself. "I worked on the accent and let the hair grow."
The effort paid off. He certainly looked right at home on the ranch in The Rifleman. You'd never guess he was a Brooklyn kid.
If there's one thing Connors took from sports to Hollywood it was this: practice.