Sixty years ago, a pretty good Major League Baseball first baseman – who also happened to be a decent professional basketball player – decided to quit athletics in favor of a movie career. Chuck Connors thought he could do better at acting than professional sports. And perhaps he was right.
Chuck Connors and son Jeffrey on the set of the television program The Rifleman. (Wikimedia Commons/ABC Television)
Connors, who died 20 years ago today, broke into movies almost immediately after his career change, landing a role in the 1952 Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn flick Pat and Mike. Over the next few years, he appeared in more than a dozen films, including a small but crucial role in the classic Old Yeller.
Just a year after Yeller, Connors took on the role that would define him as an actor. For five seasons, he was Lucas McCain, the title character of TV western The Rifleman. Connors was a ground-breaker as he was one of the first television stars to play a widower raising a child. McCain was also a Civil War veteran, a crack shot with a Winchester rifle, and a good man who believed in giving people a second chance.
The Rifleman was such a success that it led to Connors being typecast as a cowboy. Though he occasionally played other types of roles – a slave owner in Roots, a fisherman in Flipper – we most often remember him in the wild west, as in the TV series Branded.
How different would the entertainment world have been if Chuck Connors – who had played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Boston Celtics and Chicago Bears (who drafted him, though he never suited up for a single football game) – had decided to continue his career in sports? It certainly would have been short one fine cowboy. We're glad Chuck Connors made the switch.
Written by Linnea Crowther