Saturday, 28 June 2014

THE VERSATILE MR CONNORS



Chuck Connors as the Rifleman, 1962
(United States Public Domain)
In the history of sports only a dozen athletes have played in both Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association. That in itself is quite an accomplishment. But only one of those 12 took the next step in the entertainment world by becoming an actor, too, and a darn good one. This person became a much sought-after star in the Fifties and Sixties. I should also mention that he was drafted by a National Football League team, although he didn’t report. He had too many other things going on. He was Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors, otherwise known as “Chuck” Connors.

Connors was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1921 to Newfoundland immigrants from the Dominion of Newfoundland as it was called then before it became a Canadian province in 1949. Growing up in Brooklyn’s west side, Connors loved the Brooklyn Dodgers and hoped to play for them one day. He hated his first name of Kevin. Well into his teens playing baseball as a first baseman, he used to yell to his infielders, “Chuck to me, baby! Chuck it to me!” After a while, his teammates called him Chuck. The nickname stuck, and Connors liked it a lot better than Kevin.

Connors grew up tall, and powerful with big shoulders. By adulthood, the natural lefty stood a towering  6-foot-6 and weighed around 200 pounds of solid muscle. He signed with the Dodgers in 1940 and played D ball for them at Newport, Arkansas, but left after only a handful of games for a baseball scholarship at Seton Hall College in South Orange, New Jersey. Two years later, in the midst of World War II, the New York Yankees signed him as a free agent and sent him to Norfolk, Virginia for a season. Then he joined the wartime US Army, where he spent most of his time stateside as a tank instructor. During the Second World War, he moonlighted by playing pro basketball for a handful of teams in the American Basketball League, then, after his Army discharge in 1946, joined the Boston Celtics of the newly-formed NBA.

Also in 1946, the Dodgers reacquired Connors. By 1948 he worked his way up to their top farm club, the Triple A Montreal Royals of the International League where he spent three seasons as their regular first baseman. At one of the games he met a local woman named Betty Riddell, whom he married in October 1948 and razed four sons with until they divorced in 1961. And one of his sons was even named Kevin. Connors’ best season in Montreal was 1949 when he hit .319 with 20 homers and 108 RBIs. Earlier in the season, Connors had a good shot at making the Dodgers. The first base position was down to Connors or a converted catcher named Gil Hodges. The Dodgers chose Hodges. Connors’ only official at-bat as a Dodger was in a pinch-hit situation (for right fielder Carl Furillo) where he grounded into a double play.

After the 1950 season, Brooklyn traded him to the Chicago Cubs, who promptly sent him to their Triple A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League, the Los Angeles Angels. In July 1951, after clobbering 22 homers in only 98 games combined with a .321 batting average, he was called up to the Cubs and played most of the way from then on at first base as well as an occasional pinch hitter. His unimpressive totals of two homers and a .239 average led him to be sent  back to Los Angeles, however.

Then he got his big break in the movie business in 1952 when he was spotted by an MGM casting director who happened to be a big baseball fan. When he saw Connors on the playing field, he liked his tall, rugged good looks. Up close, Connors had a deep voice and cold blue eyes. Perfect. Connors signed on for a policeman’s role in the movie Pat and Mike, a comedy starring Spencer Tracey and Audrey Hepburn. At $500 a week, Connors soon realized that acting was his new profession. And the money was a whole lot better than his last Los Angeles Angels baseball contract for $5,500 a season.

After several more movies, including South Sea Woman, where he starred with Burt Lancaster; The Big Country with Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, and Burl Ives; and Old Yeller, a Walt Disney production, Connors was hand-picked out of 40 actors for a new Western Series called The Rifleman, about a widowed New Mexico rancher in the 1880s named Lucas McCain who raises a young son, while fending off bad guys with a customized Winchester lever-action repeater rifle.  But when Connors found out what they were paying for a two-year contract on the show, he turned the role down flat because he was making more than that freelancing.

Then, as the story goes, two of the show’s production staff saw Connors playing his  strong father-figure role in Old Yeller at a local theatre and contacted Connors. They raised the contract amount, plus kicked in a five percent share of the profits. Connors accepted and the rest is history. The series ran for five years, from 1958 to 1963, a show we seldom missed in our house. My parents didn’t mind it either. We were prairie people and liked Westerns. 


1950 World Wide Gum card of Chuck Connors, Montreal Royals (United States Public Domain)

The Rifleman was my all-time favorite Western. It was one of the first prime time series on US television showing a widowed parent raising a child, Mark McCain, played by Johnny Crawford. (Then, wouldn’t you know it--a year later, Bonanza appeared on TV with Lorne Green playing a widowed father of three lively young men). My friends and I loved that repeater rifle, which McCain used almost like a machine gun. In reality, it was a modified Winchester 1892 carbine that could fire a round every three-tenths of a second. In the 168 episodes of The Rifleman that ABC ran, Lucas McCain killed 120 desperados with the weapon. And every one of them deserved it. At least we all thought so at the time.

Chuck Connors as a Brooklyn Dodger in 1949
(United States Public Domain)
After “The Rifleman,” Connors did more movies and guest appearances, and a couple TV series, including the Civil War-based Branded in the mid-Sixties, where he pulled in a cool $12,000 a week. One of his best roles was an Emmy Award nomination as a slave owner in the 1977 miniseries Roots.
Married and divorced three times, Connors smoked heavily for decades, peaking at three packs a day before he cut back in the 1970s. He passed away 10 November 1992 in Los Angeles of pneumonia linked to lung cancer. He was 71 years old.
To his dying day, Connors was very proud of his Rifleman role. Once asked in the late 1950s, “If it wasn’t for Gil Hodges, you might still be playing for the Dodgers.” To which Connors replied, “Shhhh! He’d be the Rifleman.” On the 20 June 2004 TV Guide list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads,” Connors was rated #32.

To sum it up, Chuck Connors was a pro baseball and basketball player. He was drafted by the NFL Chicago Bears, although he never played any pro football. And he was a movie and TV actor for 40 years. But he will always be known as “The Rifleman,” where he didn’t take any crap from anybody.

We loved him…and that lever-action Winchester.

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