The Rifleman

The Rifleman

1958 - United States

Set in the late 19th century, The Rifleman revolves around Lucas McCain, a widowed rancher played by Chuck Connors, and his young son Mark (Johnny Crawford). The show not only portrayed the struggles of a single father raising a child in the rugged Western frontier but also presented thought-provoking narratives that explored themes of justice, morality, and the pursuit of peace.

Western's were a popular genre when The Rifleman premiered in 1958. The series was created by Arnold Laven and developed by Sam Peckinpah, who wrote and directed many early episodes, apparently based on many characters that he grew up with, and plots taken from his own experience as a child growing up on a ranch.

The Rifleman

What set The Rifleman apart from other Western series of its time was the balance it struck between thrilling action sequences and heartfelt storytelling. While Connors' character is undoubtedly a skilled marksman, the show focuses more on establishing a deep emotional connection with the viewers. The relationship between Lucas and Mark is at the core of the series, emphasizing the importance of a familial bond even in the harshest of circumstances. The show's strength lay in the father-son relationship, even more so due to the absence of a mother figure, who had died prior to us meeting the characters for the first time. The lone-parent father had never been explored by any television series beforehand.

The 'pilot', titled The Sharpshooter, appeared as an episode in the US Western anthology series Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre (1956-1961). Although many of the episodes were based on Grey's novels there were a number of exceptions of which The Sharpshooter was one. The episode was reshown as the first episode of The Rifleman series which then went on to run for 158 episodes up until 1963.

In the opening story, Lucas is looking for a ranch to buy in the North Fork region where he can settle down with Mark and concentrate on his education. They come across a property that they like, and Lucas decides to join the town’s yearly Turkey Shoot to earn some money for the purchase. However, Lewis, the local bully who has a lot of influence in the town, threatens to hurt Mark because he wagered a lot of money on another shooter in the Turkey Shoot. Lucas sacrifices his chance of winning to save Mark, but Lewis, not content with his victory, starts a gunfight and is shot dead. Having dispatched Lewis, Lucas and Mark are welcomed by the townsfolk.

The Rifleman

In order to make the series stand out from the numerous other Westerns on US television in the late 1950s, the producers needed to find the show a 'gimmick'. It was found in Lucas' modified Winchester Model 1892 rifle, with a large ring lever drilled and tapped for a set screw. The lever design allowed him to cock the rifle by spinning it around his hand. In addition, the screw could be positioned to depress the trigger every time he worked the lever, allowing for rapid fire, emptying the magazine in under six seconds during the opening credits on North Fork's main street. Clearly, Lucas McCain was a man years ahead of his time as the series was set in 1881, eleven years before that particular model of the Winchester had been designed. Nevertheless, the rifle gave the series its title and nobody seemed to care about the anachronism.

The Rifleman

More than 500 guest stars in over 970 credited roles appeared during The Rifleman's five-season run, with many veteran character actors cast in recurring roles.  Paul Fix as Marshall Micah Torrence made his screen debut in 1925 and appeared in 151 episodes of the series.  Bill Quinn, who also began his career in the silent film era, played Sweeney the Bartender at the North Fork Saloon, while Harlan Warde, who would go on to accrue over 200 screen credits, portrayed the president of the North Fork Bank. Hope Summers played Hattie Denton, the owner of North Fork's General Store until Joan Taylor replaced her as the store’s new owner, Miss Milly, a character who would provide a romantic interest for Lucas.

The Rifleman

Alongside the regulars, The Rifleman boasted a stellar cast of guest stars, either famous or well on their way to fame.  Warren Oates, Lee Van Cleef, Dennis Hopper, Sammy Davis Jr., James Coburn, Vic Morrow, Robert Culp, Robert Vaughn, Adam West, Lon Chaney Jr., Dan Blocker, Harry Dean Stanton, James Franciscus, Grace Lee Whitney, Agnes Moorehead and Martin Landau all rode through North Fork during their careers. Robert Culp actually wrote two episodes, as did Chuck Connors.

The Rifleman

One of the defining characteristics of The Rifleman is its unique blend of action, drama, and family values. Each episode manages to seamlessly combine intense shootouts and thrilling stunt work with heartfelt emotional depth. The show ambitiously tackles relevant themes, such as social justice, redemption, and the power of friendship. In many ways, The Rifleman is a series of morality plays. Lucas wanted to be a good example for his son and a respectable member of his community. That’s why, when McCain took his rifle, he used it with not only skill and assurance but also with sensible reasoning and impartial resolve. He warned his young son in one episode, “A man doesn’t run from a fight, Mark, but that doesn’t mean you go searching for one.” The Rifleman is a timeless masterpiece that transcended the limitations of its genre.

Published on October 18th, 2023. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.

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