The Rifleman embraced Julie Adams during her most daring rebellion against Hollywood
The Fifties scream queen defiantly broke her Universal contract to play more complex characters on TV. The Rifleman was her first big shot with "Nora."
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"I don't know what to tell you," Nora tells Lucas McCain in an episode of The Rifleman that's named for her character, a duplicitous former flame of the famous TV cowboy. "The gun just went off."
Someone's just been murdered — and Lucas has finally caught onto Nora's games by this late point in the episode. He knows it was her who pulled the trigger, and that the death was by design.
"You have to cock the lever before the gun goes off, Nora," Lucas tells his ex-girlfriend, who is still crying crocodile tears. He takes the gun from her, pointedly disarming her as the villain of this episode, which proved a tour de acting force for Julie Adams, cast as Nora.
You have likely seen this riveting episode many times if you're a fan of The Rifleman. What you may not have realized is that, for Adams, taking this role marked the height of her greatest rebellion against Hollywood in 1960.
When Adams first started making movies, the studio called all the shots. They told her what roles to take — mostly mothers and wives, although most famously she became a desired target of the Creature from the Black Lagoon — and they even told her that she'd do better as a redhead than a natural brunette.
"Wasn't that red hair awful?" Adams asked The Abilene Reporter-News in 1960 about her artificial dye job. "That was the studio's idea, but it was so wrong for me. But when you're under contract, you don't argue. I feel no good comes from destroying a person's basic individuality."
During that interview, Adams was on set of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, one of the first TV roles the actor took on after she decided to end her contract with Universal and strike out as a "freelancer" by guest-starring in TV roles.
"Enough!" she cried, rejecting the red hair dye and appearing as a brunette in shows like Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip.
It was on The Rifleman, however, when Adams finally felt she got the kind of dynamic role she always wanted to do on the big screen, but never got the chance.
"Nora loves a young man; is fond of Lucas McCain, star Chuck Connors and his son Mark, Johnny Crawford; she flirts with an older man and is, in the final analysis, a murderess," Adams described her character to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1960. "It's amazing how much characterization can be given in just half an hour."
She saw this appearance on The Rifleman as the peak of her triumph after performing magnetic TV roles that proved Hollywood was wrong, and she could take whatever roles she wanted.
"Emancipation complete!" she declared to the Star-Bulletin, distancing herself from what could've been a comfortable movie career playing "the girl next door, like the girl that dad married."
That was too boring a future for a bright star such as Adams, who had otherwise settled down and married her second husband by then, giving birth to her first child. She wanted to do more onscreen, and TV gave her the chance to play housewife only in her own home!
"I'm getting roles that I've never had before, but I've done a lot of growing up," she told the Reporter-News.
For the beauty queen who was crowned "Miss Little Rock" before getting her break doing B-movie westerns, portraying a complex woman like Nora on The Rifleman required a sophistication she felt she could finally do justice, after growing out of her more innocent image that the studio concocted for her as a redhead.
"I wanted to be sophisticated long before I was ready," Adams explained. "This is something that can't be rushed. Sexy clothes are out of place with innocent eyes and naivete. You have to be sophisticated inside or you look silly."