As widowed rancher Lucas McCain on ABC’s The Rifleman (1958-63), Chuck Connors found an enduring, prescient role: a single father struggling to raise his son (Johnny Crawford) in lawless, 1880s New Mexico. A grimly moralistic man with a righteous jut to his jaw, McCain was movingly sensitive with his boy, while he found good reason each episode to blast away a few bad guys with his modified .44 Winchester.
Created in part by Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch), who wrote and directed the first four episodes, The Rifleman benefited from guest performances by the likes of Dennis Hopper and James Coburn — as well as from the somber, moody touches of Richard Donner, Arthur Hiller, and other top directors, who employed solemn lighting and music to underscore the fragile nature of family life in a dangerous Old West. The occasional script by Paul Mazursky and playwright Frank D. Gilroy didn’t hurt, either.
Unfortunately, Connors (who died Nov. 10 at the age of 71) just missed the release of 30 episodes of The Rifleman in a 10-volume video series from Nu Ventures. As American history, the shows are inaccurate and hokey; but as a family drama, they blow most other TV Westerns away.