Chuck Connors had faith in The Rifleman before anyone else did

Chuck Connors said he used to be the "Boris Karloff of TV Westerns," until he found The Rifleman.

Each week, The Rifleman would broadcast to around 35 percent of all TV-equipped homes. That's the way Chuck Connors, the lead star of the series, planned it to be.

"Before the season started, I said if I couldn't be in the top five shows I didn't want to be in a TV series," Connors said in a 1959 interview with the Detroit Free Press.

There is no question that Connors had the right formula for a successful TV Western, but what was it? He played the role of one of the coolest cowboys in the Old West as Lucas McCain. 

According to the interview, he and his wife had faith in The Rifleman even before it aired. It was the producers who worried about the ratings as The Rifleman had to step up against other major series including: Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Bonanza and Have Gun - Will Travel. 

"Women identify with this show," Connors said. "They see a widowed father raising a small boy in the wilderness, and they appreciate his problems. I can tell how the people like it when I go to the supermarket or a service station. I'm recognized and loved."

At the time of this interview, The Rifleman was third in the Nielsen ratings list, and was breathing down the neck of both Gunsmoke and Have Gun - Will Travel.

To understand just how successful Connors was in the role, a toy model of the Winchester rifle he used in the series sold for $600,000 in the '60s. It's clear that the fans wanted more of Connors.

"I don't talk ratings," Connors said. "If you talk about 'em when they're high, then you've got to talk about 'em when they go down. Six weeks from now they may be down. I just want to do a good show, to entertain the people."

Connors insisted that the basic purpose of television was to provide light entertainment. In the role, Connors received high praise from critics at a time when critics were tiring of the Western genre. He considered that a win for him and the hit series.

"They turn to television for entertainment as they do to the movies," Connors said. "They pick the TV box for escapism. Every day they are subject to complex tensions. It is our job to relieve them. Television is just a part of life, not the whole thing."

Although The Rifleman was a late starter among many other Westerns, Connors insisted it wouldn't be a copycat TV series. He and The Rifleman producer, Jules Levy, planned the series in 1955 before Westerns started taking the world by storm.

They just had to wait their turn for the spotlight.

With more time to plan the Western series, there was more time to develop Connors' character. He said he wanted to establish the forgotten fact that there is such warmth in the relationship between a father and son.

"Julie got the concept of a man living in the West with a rifle rather than a six-shooter," Connors said. "What we are going to do is bring you a type of show WE enjoy watching."

Obviously, Connors knew what he was talking about because it seemed as though everyone wanted to watch The Rifleman on ABC. 

"For a while there I was the Boris Karloff of TV Westerns, but now everything has changed," Connors said. "I'm The Rifleman. I'm the good guy, and I hope to stay that way."

Watch The Rifleman on MeTV!

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7 Comments

Runeshaper 4 months ago
Chuck Connors was perfect for The Rifleman!
justjeff 4 months ago
Who the heck is Anderson? The producers of "The Rifleman" were Levy-Gardner-Laven...
cperrynaples 4 months ago
Could someone explain the Karloff headline? I don't think Lugosi called him a Limey c---s-----....LOL!
justjeff cperrynaples 4 months ago
...er... I think this was posted on the worng page...?????
cperrynaples justjeff 4 months ago
And another questionable fact: I doubt many parents could pay $600,000 for a toy rifle! I think they meant the actual prop sold for that much at an auction and it was long after the show ended! BTW, that Boris Karloff line is a Conners quote, so maybe ask the writers for clarification!
Yes I think a decimal point is missing.
Yep and too many zeros!
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