Chuck Connors: American Actor/Athlete, Rifleman Star

Posted on Aug 01, 2013 under ARCHIVES, Uncategorized | No Comment

 

April 10, 1911 to Nov 10, 1992

Chuck Connors was born Kevin Joseph Connors on April 10, 1921 in Brooklyn, NY.  His parents, Allan and Marcella, were from the Dominion of Newfoundland.  He was one of two children, sister Gloria was 2 years younger.  Gloria discovered that Connors disliked his first name and went on a campaign to select another name for him.  He tried “Lefty” and “Stretch” before deciding on Chuck.  Chuck came about because while playing first base, he would yell to the pitcher “Chuck it to me baby, chuck it to me!”

Chuck was only one of 12 athletes in the history of American professional sports to have played in both Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association.  His athletic abilities earned him scholarships to both Adelphi Academy and Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ.

During World War II he enlisted into the Army at Fort Knox, KY.  He spent the majority of the war as a tank warfare instructor stationed at Fort Campbell, KY and later on at West Point, NY.

His Athletic Career:

He moonlighted, during his Army service, as a professional basketball player with the Rochester Royals, helping to lead them to the 1946 National Basketball League Championship.

Upon leaving the military, he joined the newly formed Boston Celtics and left the team for spring training with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949.  He always loved the Dodgers and hoped someday to join their team!  He only played one game with the Dodgers and in 1951 joined the Chicago Cubs in which he played 66 games as the first baseman and occasional pinch hitter.

In 1966 Connors played an off field role by helping to end the famous holdout by Los Angeles Dodgers pitchers Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax.  He acted as an intermediary during the negotiations between the team and players and can be seen in the Associated Press photo with Drysdale, Koufax and the Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi, announcing the pitchers’ new contract.

His Acting Career:

Chuck Connors realized he would never make a professional career in sports, so focused his future by pursuing a career in acting.  He was spotted by an MGM casting director and was signed for the 1952 Tracy/Hepburn film “Pat and Mike”.

He was continually casted in supporting/character roles in films for many years to follow.  In 1957 he was cast in the role of Burn Sanderson in Disney’s “Old Yeller”.  This was the same year he co-starred in “The Hired Gun”.

The Rifleman (Sept 30, 1958 to April 8, 1963)

J Crawford and C Connors The Rifleman

Chuck Connors beat out 40 actors for the leading role as Lucas McCain on the newly created television series The Rifleman.  McCain was a widowed rancher known for his skill with a customized Winchester Rifle.  The ABC Western was the first show ever to feature a widowed father raising a young son.

The producers offered a lower amount of money to do 39 episodes for the 1958/59 season.  Chuck realized he was making more as a freelance actor and turned it down.  The producers were Dick Powell, Charles BoyerIda Lupino and David Niven and known as “Four Star Television“.

A few days after turning down the role, the producer brought their children to see Old Yeller.  They watched his performance as the neighbor who originally owned Old Yeller and gave the dog to the Coates boys (Travis & Arliss).  They believed after watching the movie that Connors should be cast as Lucas McCain and made him a better offer, including a 5% ownership of the show.

The show was an immediate hit ranking in at #4 in the Nielsen Ratings following behind Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and Have Gun Will Travel.

The show wanted to cast an unknown child actor to play the part of McCain’s son Mark.  Johnny Crawford was a former Mousketeer and a big fan of both Westerns and baseball.  He beat out 40 other young stars and remained on the show from 1958 until its cancellation in 1963,

Johnny Crawford on Chuck Connors:

“I was very fond of Chuck, and we were very good friends right from the start. I admired him tremendously.” “I was a big baseball fan when we started the show, and when I found out that Chuck had been a professional baseball player, I was especially in awe of him. I would bring my baseball and a bat and a couple of gloves whenever we went on location, and at lunchtime I would get a baseball game going, hoping that Chuck would join us. And he did, but after he came to bat, we would always have trouble finding the ball. It would be out in the brush somewhere or in a ravine, and so that would end the game.”

Johnny stayed in touch with Chuck until his death in 1992.

His Personal Life:

He was married three times.  He met his first wife, Elizabeth Riddell Connors, at one of his baseball games.  They were married on Oct. 1, 1948 and they had 4 sons: Michael (born 1950), Jeffrey (born 1952), Steven (born 1953) and Kevin (1956 – 2005).  He and Elizabeth divorced in 1961.

He was married to Kamala Devi from 1963 to 1972 and Faith Quabius from 1977 to 1980.

Chuck Connors passed away on November 10, 1992 at the age of 71 in Los Angeles.  He developed pneumonia, stemming from lung cancer.  He was interred in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Los Angeles.  At the time of his death, his companion was Rose Mary Grumley.

Chuck Connors was blessed with a long and successful life with millions of fans.  One of those fans was Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev of the former Soviet Union.  They met at a party given by Nixon at the Western White House in San Clemente, CA in June, 1973.  The Rifleman was one of the few American shows allowed on Russian television because it was Brezhnev’s favorite show!

I’m not sure I can expound more on the influence and character of Mr. Connor, so I will leave it with more memories of Johnny Crawford:

“We remained friends throughout the rest of his life.  He was always interested in what I was doing and ready with advice and anxious to help in any way that he could…  He was a great guy, a lot of fun, great sense of humor, bigger than life and he absolutely loved people.  He was very gregarious and friendly and not at all bashful… I learned a great deal from him about acting, and he was a tremendous influence on me.  He was just my hero.” — J Crawford

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