"There were a lot of widowers in the old west."

- W.J. Flywheel, Webporium Curator


Sept. 30, 1958 to July 13, 1963 on ABC.
169 Black and White, 30 minute episodes.

Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain
Johnny Crawford as Mark McCain
Paul Fix as Marshal Micah Torrance
Bill Quinn as Sweeney the bartender
Hope Summers as Hattie Denton the storekeeper
Patricia Blair as Lou Mallory as hotelier

Horses: Razor (Lucas McCain) and Blue Boy (Mark McCain)
Rifleman Theme Song: "The Rifleman" by Herschel Burke Gilbert


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Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) was a widowed rancher living outside of North Fork, New Mexico and trying to raise his young son, Mark (Johnny Crawford). Although how he had time to ranch is a mystery as he was always in town confronting a desperado. According to network publicists, the series was set in the 1880s. There are also numerous episodes where the date is given in the 1880s. A wooden plaque next to the home stated that it was rebuilt by Lucas McCain and his son Mark in August 1881.

Westerns were popular when The Rifleman premiered, and producers struggled to find gimmicks to distinguish one show from another. The Rifleman's gimmick was a modified Winchester Model 1892 rifle with a trigger mechanism allowing for rapid-fire shots. Despite the anachronism of a Model 1892 in the 1880s, Connors demonstrated its rapid-fire action during the opening credits as McCain dispatched an unseen bad guy on North Fork's main street. Although the rifle may have appeared in every episode, it was not always fired, as some plots did not lend themselves to violent solutions, e.g., a cruel teacher at Mark's one-room school. There were several episodes where McCain dispatched the bad guys without the use of the rifle at all and he once threw the rifle to knock his opponent off his horse instead of killing him because he was a friend. In one episode McCain even "spiked" the barrel of his own gun when he knew it was going to fall into the hands of the villain so that it would backfire. McCain was also well versed in the use of a six gun although he did not own one and this aspect was rarely shown.

The various episodes of The Rifleman promote fair play toward one's opponents, neighborliness, equal rights, and the need to use violence in a highly controlled manner ("A man doesn't run from a fight, Mark," McCain tells his son, "But that doesn't mean you go looking to run TO one!"). In other words, the program's villains tend to be those who cheat, who refuse to help people down on their luck, who hold bigoted attitudes, and who see violence as a first resort rather than the last option. Indeed, a curious aspect of the program is that when they meet African-Americans, the people of North Fork are truly color-blind. In "The Most Amazing Man", a black man (played by Sammy Davis, Jr.) checks into the only hotel in town; for the entire show, no one notices his race. Not only is this noteworthy for the 1880s setting, it was radical for Hollywood of the early 1960s. While the message was clear, it was neither heavy-handed nor universal. A certain amount of xenophobia drifts around North Fork, however, forcing McCain to defend the right of a Chinese immigrant to open a laundry ("The Queue") and the right of an Argentine family to buy a ranch ("The Gaucho"). This racial liberalism does not extend to villains, however. The Mexicans in "The Vaqueros" are portrayed as indolent, dangerous, and speak in the caricatured way of most Mexican outlaws in Westerns of the time.

Another fundamental value of the series is that people deserve a second chance. Marshal Micah Torrance is a recovering alcoholic. Similarly, McCain gives an ex-con a job on his ranch ("The Jailbird"). Royal Dano appeared as a former Confederate States of America soldier, given a job on the McCain ranch, who encounters the Union soldier who had cost him his arm in battle. The soldier, now a general, arranges for medical care for the wounded former foe, quoting Abraham Lincoln's orders to "Bind up the nation's wounds." (Dano also appeared as a wealthy tanner who mistakenly believes Mark is his lost son and again as a preacher with a haunting gunfighter past in an episode where Warren Oates and L. Q. Jones, as unsavory brothers, try to goad him into a gunfight and attempt to bushwhack him.)

The show was created and initially developed by a young Sam Peckinpah, who would go on to become the director of classic Western movies (The Wild Bunch, Ride the High Country, etc.). Peckinpah, who wrote and directed many of the best episodes from the first season, based many of the characters and situations on real-life scenarios from his childhood growing up on a ranch. The first season was the best. In retropsect this series was somewhat darker than other Westerns. To lighten things up, in 1962 they brought Lou Mallory (Patricia Blair) on board as she worked life's grey areas a bit. She was a love interest for McCain, who, not to put too fine a point on it, needed a love life.

Peckinpah also used many character actors such as Warren Oates and R.G. Armstrong (the marshall in two early episodes who was killed by James Drury before Paul Fix joined the cast) who would later feature prominently in his films. His insistence on violent realism and complex characterizations, as well as his refusal to sugarcoat the lessons he felt that the Rifleman's son needed to learn about life, soon put him at odds with the show's producers at Four Star. He left the show and created another classic TV series, The Westerner, starring Brian Keith, which was short-lived.


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