OPINION — The story seems biblical in many ways.
It’s about a father and a son. They are deeply moral and share a love and respect for each other as they try to assist everyone they meet.
There are elements of revenge, retribution and redemption. Many of the episodes feature dangerous men, seemingly bound for Hell with their crazed anger and evil intentions.
Even the names of the three main characters seem straight out of the Old and New Testaments: Lucas and Mark McCain and Marshal Micah Torrance.
Their legend wasn’t written on parchment but was filmed for TV for the Western series “The Rifleman.”
I have been a fan for about half a century, although I don’t recall watching it during its initial run on ABC from 1958-63. Instead, I first saw it on KELO-TV, where it was a late-afternoon mainstay for years.
There were dozens of TV Westerns in the middle of the 20th century, as America invented its own creation legend. While some made attempts to be historically accurate, others just wanted to provide stories about shoot-outs, saloons and rugged heroes battling an amazingly large number of bad guys, usually portrayed by a rotating cast of character actors who drifted from series to series.
Most of them appeared on “The Rifleman,” but there was a special feel to the show. Filmmaker Sam Peckinpah, who would create such enduring films as “Ride the High Country,” “The Wild Bunch” and “The Getaway,” got his start on TV, and he played a crucial role in shaping “The Rifleman.”
Peckinpah wrote the pilot episode and was heavily involved in the first season. As he would in his movies, “Bloody Sam” orchestrated violence in a sweeping fashion, with truly vile characters doing foul deeds, with only the tall man with the Winchester standing between them and epic destruction.
Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors was a Brooklyn native; the accent pops through from time to time on the show. Connors, who was 6-6, briefly played basketball for the Boston Celtics, and was a first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, although he mostly toiled in the bushes, including for the minor league Los Angeles Angels.
Producers spotted the tall, handsome and outgoing ballplayer, who had adopted the nickname “Chuck.”
After a few movie roles and guest appearances on TV, he became The Rifleman. Despite acting for nearly three decades after the series was canceled, he was best-known for the role and he accepted that.
Connors, a heavy smoker for 30 years, died of lung cancer in 1992.
Paul Fix, the veteran character actor in movies and on TV, gave a memorable performance as Marshal Micah Torrance. His lawman suffered from an injured arm that had slowed his draw, and he struggled with alcohol, falling off the wagon from time to time.
Usually, however, he was a brave, wise father figure to “Lucas Boy,” as he called McCain. Fix died in 1983 after more than half a century in front of the camera.
The characters were flawed. In some episodes, Lucas McCain alluded to wilder days as a younger man, and he was given to foul moods and at times violent behavior. That element of reality and depth is one reason it has been on TV for decades, with no signs of it being relegated to the TV glue factory.
Child actor Johnny Crawford, a former Mouseketeer, portrayed Mark McCain, the surprisingly weak, often teary son of The Rifleman. Perhaps seeing your dad kill dozens of people impacted him deeply.
Like the other two main actors, Crawford never entirely escaped from the role. He did take other parts, and led a touring orchestra for years, switching from guns and horses to swing music.
Crawford, now 74, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and is in a care center. Like many actors, he ended up with little to show for his career, and friends and fans have been raising money to ensure he is cared for in his final roundup.
An online study of the show reveals I am not alone in noticing the fact that faith-based ideas seem to appear in some episodes.
As early as “Home Ranch,” the second show produced, Lucas McCain endured pains and challenges that resemble the trials of Job, whom he mentions in one scene.
“The Sheridan Story,” one of my favorites, is a powerful and moving tale of forgiveness and compassion between a Union general and a former Confederate soldier.
“A Matter of Faith” is focused on a crisis of faith, according to the online report from FamilyFiction.com, while “The Martinet” offers a lesson in humility, “Closer Than a Brother” examines self-respect, and “The Queue” targets prejudice and the need for tolerance and understanding.
Of course, there is a lot of killing, as there is in The Bible.
Lucas McCain dispatches 120 people over 168 episodes, and in total, 245 people die. McCain usually kills with his specially made rifle, but people also are impaled on pitchforks, choked while swallowing dirt thinking it’s water, clubbed to death, strangled and stabbed to death with a sharpened steak bone.
Connors, in the book “The Man Behind the Rifle,” admitted it was a blood-soaked show.
“There was a lot of violence on ‘The Rifleman,’” he said. “We once figured out that I killed on the average of two and a half people per show. That’s a lot of violence.”
The opening of the show, with The Rifleman firing repeated rounds as he stills down a dusty street, is memorable, as is the music that frames scenes. Herschel Burke Gilbert created the score and other soundtrack music, which amazingly enough was conducted and recorded in Berlin, Germany.
I stumbled across a 24-hour “Rifleman” channel on the new Pluto app, so although I have seen every episode multiple times, and it is shown dozens of times a week on various networks, I have spent some time watching this old favorite in a new way.
Lucas, Mark and Micah are still worth seeing. If you haven’t watched them, give the show a shot.
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