Chuck Connors

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Chuck Connors
Chuck Connors 1974.JPG
Chuck Connors in 1974.
Born Kevin Joseph Connors
(1921-04-10)April 10, 1921
Brooklyn, New York
Died November 10, 1992(1992-11-10) (aged 71)
Los Angeles, California
Cause of death
Pneumonia, as a complication of lung cancer
Resting place
San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Los Angeles
Occupation Actor, athlete
Years active 1952–91
Height 6 feet 5 inches (1.96 m)
Political party
Republican
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Riddell (1948–61) (divorced)
Kamala Devi (1963–72) (divorced)
Faith Quabius (1977–80) (divorced)
Children Michael (born 1950)
Jeffrey (1952 - 2014)
Steven (born 1953)
Kevin (1956–2005)

Kevin Joseph "Chuck" Connors (April 10, 1921 – November 10, 1992) was an American actor, writer and professional basketball and baseball player. He is one of only 12 athletes in the history of American professional sports to have played both Major League Baseball and in the National Basketball Association. With a 40-year film and television career, he is best known for his five-year role as Lucas McCain in the highly rated 1958–1963 ABC series The Rifleman.

Early life[edit]

Connors was born Kevin Joseph Connors in Brooklyn, New York City, New York, the second of two children and the only son of Allan and Marcella Connors, immigrants from the Dominion of Newfoundland, now a Canadian province. He was raised Roman Catholic and served as an altar boy at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Brooklyn.

His sister learned that Connors did not like his first name and was seeking another one. He tried out "Lefty" and "Stretch" before settling on "Chuck", because while playing first base, he would always yell, "Chuck it to me, baby, chuck it to me!" to the pitcher. The rest of his teammates and fans soon caught on and the name stuck. He loved the Brooklyn Dodgers despite their losing record during the 1930s, and hoped to someday join the team himself.

Connors' athletic abilities earned him scholarships to both the Adelphi Academy (where he graduated in 1939) and Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. He left college after two years.

During World War II, he enlisted in the Army at Fort Knox, Kentucky. He spent most of the war as a tank-warfare instructor, stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky and later at West Point, New York.

Sports career[edit]

Chuck Connors
Chuck Connors Brooklyn Dodgers.JPG
Connors as a Dodger.
First Baseman
Born: (1921-04-10)April 10, 1921
Died: November 10, 1992(1992-11-10) (aged 71)
Batted: Left Threw: Left
MLB debut
May 1, 1949 for the Brooklyn Dodgers
Last MLB appearance
September 30, 1951 for the Chicago Cubs
Career statistics
Batting average .238
Home runs 2
Runs batted in 18
Teams

During his Army service, Connors moonlighted as a professional basketball player, joining the Rochester Royals and helping to lead them to the 1946 National Basketball League championship.[1] Following his military discharge in 1946, he joined the newly formed Boston Celtics of the Basketball Association of America.

Connors left the team for spring training with Major League Baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers. He played for numerous minor league teams before joining the Dodgers in 1949, for whom he played in only one game. He joined the Chicago Cubs in 1951, playing in 66 games as a first baseman and occasional pinch hitter.[2] In 1952, he was sent to the minor leagues again to play for the Cubs' top farm team, the Los Angeles Angels.

Connors was also drafted by the NFL's Chicago Bears, but never suited up for the team. He is also credited as the first professional basketball player to break a backboard. During warmups in the first-ever Boston Celtics game on November 5, 1946 at Boston Arena, Connors took a shot that caught the front of the rim and shattered an improperly installed glass backboard.[3]

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

Acting career[edit]

Television roles[edit]

Connors realized that he would not make a career in professional sports, so he decided to pursue an acting career. Playing baseball near Hollywood proved fortunate, as he was spotted by an MGM casting director and subsequently signed for the 1952 Tracy-Hepburn film Pat and Mike. In 1953, he starred opposite Burt Lancaster as a rebellious Marine private in the film South Sea Woman and Trouble Along the Way opposite John Wayne as a football coach.

Connors was cast as Lou Brissie, a former professional baseball player wounded during World War II, in the 1956 episode "The Comeback" of the religion anthology series Crossroads. Don DeFore portrayed the Reverend C. E. "Stoney" Jackson, who offered the spiritual insight to assist Brissie's recovery so that he could return to the game. Grant Withers was cast as Coach Whitey Martin; Crossroads regular Robert Carson also played a coach in this episode. Edd Byrnes, Rhys Williams, and Robert Fuller played former soldiers. X Brands is cast as a baseball player.[4]

In 1957, Connors was cast in the Walt Disney film, Old Yeller in the role of Burn Sanderson. That same year, he co-starred in The Hired Gun.

Character actor[edit]

Connors acted in feature films including The Big Country, Move Over Darling with Doris Day and James Garner, Soylent Green with Charlton Heston, and Airplane II: The Sequel.[5]

He also became a lovable television character actor, guest-starring in dozens of shows. His guest-starring debut was on an episode of NBC's Dear Phoebe. He played in two episodes, one as the bandit Sam Bass, on Dale Robertson's NBC western Tales of Wells Fargo. Other television appearances were on Hey, Jeannie!, The Loretta Young Show, Schlitz Playhouse, Adventures of Superman, Screen Directors Playhouse, Four Star Playhouse, Matinee Theatre, Cavalcade of America, Gunsmoke, The Gale Storm Show, West Point, The Millionaire, General Electric Theater hosted by Ronald W. Reagan, Wagon Train, The Restless Gun, Murder, She Wrote, Date with the Angels, The DuPont Show with June Allyson, The Virginian, Night Gallery, and many others.[6]

The Rifleman[edit]

Main article: The Rifleman
Publicity still of Connors for The Rifleman, 1962

Connors beat 40 other actors for the lead on The Rifleman, portraying Lucas McCain, a widowed rancher known for his skill with a customized Winchester rifle. This ABC Western series, which aired from 1958 to 1963, was also the first show to feature a widowed father raising a young child. Connors said in a 1959 interview with TV Guide that the producers of Four Star Television (Dick Powell, Charles Boyer, Ida Lupino and David Niven) must have been looking at 40–50 thirty-something males." At the time, the producers offered a certain amount of money to do 39 episodes for the 1958–59 season. The offer turned out to be less than Connors was making doing freelance acting, so he turned it down. A few days later, the producers of The Rifleman took their own children to watch Old Yeller in which Connors played a strong father figure. After the producers watched him in the movie, they decided they should cast Connors in the role of Lucas McCain and make him a better offer, including a five-percent ownership of the show.

The Rifleman was an immediate hit, ranking No. 4 in the Nielsen ratings in 1958–59, behind three other Westerns – Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, and Have Gun - Will Travel.

The producers were looking for an unfamiliar child actor to play Mark McCain. Johnny Crawford, a former Mousketeer, baseball fan and Western buff, beat 40 other young stars to play the role. Crawford remained on the series from 1958 until its cancellation in 1963.

The Rifleman landed high in the Nielsen ratings until the last season in 1962–63, when it was opposite the highly rated return to television of Lucille Ball on The Lucy Show ratings began to drop. The show was cancelled in 1963 after five seasons and 168 episodes.

Connors with Johnny Crawford, 1960

Johnny Crawford said of his relationship with Connors: "I was very fond of Chuck, and we were very good friends right from the start. I admired him tremendously." Crawford also said about the same sport that Connors had played: "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."

Crawford stayed in touch with Connors until his death in 1992. "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." He and Connors reprised their roles as the McCains in a television western movie, The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw.

The rifle[edit]

There were three rifles made for the show. Two identical 44–40 Winchester model 1892 rifles, one that was used on the show and one for backup, and a Spanish version called an El Tigre used in the saddle holster.[7] The rifle levers were modified from the round type to a more "D" shaped in later episodes.[8]

Two rifles were made for Chuck Connors personally by Maurice "Moe" Hunt that were never used on the show. He was a fan of the show and gave them to Connors. Arnold Palmer, a friend and Honorary Chairman of the annual Chuck Connors charity golf event, was given one of the personal rifles[9] by Connors and it was on display at the The World Golf Hall of Fame.[10]

Typecasting/other TV roles[edit]

Connors opposite Broderick Crawford in Arrest and Trial, 1963

In 1963, Connors appeared in the film Flipper. He also appeared opposite James Garner and Doris Day in the comedy Move Over, Darling.

As Connors was strongly typecast for playing the firearmed rancher-turned-single-father, he then starred in several short-lived series, including: ABC's Arrest and Trial, featuring two young actors Ben Gazzara and Don Galloway, NBC's post-Civil War-era series Branded (1965–1966) and the 1967–1968 ABC series Cowboy in Africa, alongside British actor Ronald Howard and Tom Nardini. Connors guest-starred in a last-season episode of Night Gallery titled "The Ring With the Red Velvet Ropes". In 1973 and 1974 he hosted a television series called Thrill Seekers.

Connors in Branded, 1965

He had a key role against type as a slave owner in the 1977 miniseries Roots, and was nominated for an Emmy Award for his performance.[11]

Connors hosted a number of episodes of Family Theater on the Mutual Radio Network. This series was aimed at promoting prayer as a path to world peace and stronger families, with the motto, "The family which prays together stays together."

In 1983, Connors joined Sam Elliott and Cybill Shepherd in the short-lived NBC series The Yellow Rose, about a modern Texas ranching family. In 1985, he guest-starred as "King Powers" in the ABC TV series Spenser: For Hire, starring Robert Urich. In 1987, he co-starred in the Fox series Werewolf, as drifter Janos Skorzeny. In 1988, he guest-starred as "Gideon" in the TV series Paradise, starring Lee Horsley.

In 1991, Connors was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

Personal life[edit]

Connors and son, Jeffrey, on The Rifleman set in 1959. Jeffrey had a role as Toby Halperin in the episode "Tension".

Connors was married three times. He met his first wife, Elizabeth Jane Riddell Connors, at one of his baseball games, and married her on October 1, 1948. They had four sons, Michael (born 1950), Jeffrey (1952-2014),[12] Steven (born 1953), Kevin (1956–2005), and divorced in 1961. Connors married Kamala Devi (1963) the year after, co-starring with her in Geronimo. She also acted with Connors in Branded, Broken Sabre, and Cowboy in Africa. They were divorced in 1973. Connors played in Soylent Green (1973), as Tab Fielding, and Faith Quabius played an attendant. They were married in 1977 and divorced in 1979.[13]

Connors was a supporter of the Republican Party and attended several fundraisers for campaigns for U.S. President Richard M. Nixon.

General Secretary Brezhnev meets actor Chuck Connors, 1973

Connors was introduced to Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev of the former Soviet Union at a party given by Nixon at the Western White House in San Clemente, California, in June 1973. Connors presented Brezhnev with a pair of Colt Single Action Army "Six-Shooters" (revolvers) which Brezhnev liked greatly. Upon boarding his airplane bound for Moscow, Brezhnev noticed Connors in the crowd and went back to him to shake hands, and jokingly jumped up into Connors' towering hug. The Rifleman was one of the few American shows allowed on Russian television at that time; that was because it was Brezhnev's favorite. Connors and Brezhnev got along so well that Connors traveled to the Soviet Union in December 1973. In 1982, Connors expressed an interest in traveling to the Soviet Union for Brezhnev's funeral, but the U.S. government would not allow him to be part of the official delegation. Coincidentally, Connors and Brezhnev died on the same day, ten years apart.

Charity[edit]

Connors hosted the annual Chuck Connors Charitable Invitational Golf Tournament, through the Chuck Connors Charitable Foundation, at the Canyon Country Club in Palm Springs, California. Proceeds went directly to the Angel View Crippled Children's Foundation and over $400,000.00 was raised.[14]

Death[edit]

Connors had started smoking in 1940. For many years he smoked three packs of Camel cigarettes a day until he quit the habit in the mid-1970s, though he occasionally resumed smoking afterwards. He died on November 10, 1992 in Los Angeles at the age of 71 of pneumonia stemming from lung cancer. At the time of his death, his companion was Rose Mary Grumley. He was interred in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Filmography[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Sacramento Kings History". NBA.com/kings. Retrieved November 29, 2012. 
  2. ^ "Chuck Connors's career page at". Retrosheet.org. Retrieved November 4, 2013. 
  3. ^ November Classic Moments. ESPN.com. 
  4. ^ "The Comeback". Internet Movie Data Base. October 5, 1956. Retrieved February 16, 2013. 
  5. ^ "Chuck Connors (I) (1921–1992)". Retrieved November 4, 2013. 
  6. ^ Chuck Connors at the Internet Movie Database
  7. ^ "The Rifleman's Rifle". Retrieved November 4, 2013. 
  8. ^ "Chuck Connors Last Modified Winchester "Rifleman" Style Rifle (w/Connors Family Letter and Original Case)". Retrieved November 4, 2013. 
  9. ^ "Chuck Connors' Last Modified Winchester "Rifleman" Style Rifle". Retrieved November 4, 2013. 
  10. ^ "The Rifleman's Rifle on display at the World Golf Hall of Fame". Retrieved November 4, 2013. 
  11. ^ "Chuck Connors, Actor, 71, Dies; Starred as Television's 'Rifleman'". The New York Times. November 11, 1992. Retrieved November 4, 2013. 
  12. ^ "Our Chuck Connors". Retrieved May 1, 2014. 
  13. ^ "Chuck Connors – Biography". Riflemanconnors.com. Retrieved May 18, 2013. 
  14. ^ "Chuck Connors Charitable Invitational Golf Tournament". Retrieved November 4, 2013. 

External links[edit]