The Chuck Connors Story

The One and Only Chuck Connors

With an acting career that spanned over four decades, Chuck Connors was known for his distinct voice, tall stature, and steely blue eyes. From Westerns to dramas, comedies to romances and more, Chuck Connors entertained moviegoers and TV fans for years. But his most beloved role—and the one that shot him to Superstardom—was as Lucas McCain in The Rifleman.


Early Life

Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors was born on April 10, 1921, in Brooklyn. His parents were Marcella (born Londrigan) and Alban Francis “Allan” Connors. They were Irish immigrants by way of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Connors had one sister named Gloria, who was 2 years younger than him.

Young Kevin Connors was brought up Catholic and went to The Basilica at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where he served as an altar boy.

Throughout his school years, Connors was a gifted athlete. In fact, it was his dream to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers one day. He received over 25 athletic scholarships to schools around the country and eventually chose to go to Seton Hall in Orange, NJ.

While he played first base, he had a habit of yelling to the pitcher, “Chuck it to me, baby! Chuck it to me!” The nickname stuck, partly because Connors had never liked his given name of Kevin, and he had tried other names like Lefty or Stretch. Chuck Connors simply had a great ring to it!


Athlete & Soldier

Chuck Connors left Seton Hall after two years because he was awarded a contract to play with the Dodgers’ Minor League team, the Newport Dodgers (Northeast Arkansas League). He played four games with them before he was released. He sat out the 1941 season, but soon returned to the sport to play on the Yankees farm team, the Norfolk Tars (Piedmont League). After playing in 72 games, he decided to enlist in the Army in 1942 to fight in World War II.

Connors was a tank instructor stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and later at West Point, New York. He was discharged from the service in 1946. Afterwards, he went back to playing baseball in the minors for the Newport News Dodgers (Piedmont League). He was a journeyman baseball player and bounced around from team to team from 1947 until 1952.

But that’s not all he played. Chuck’s 6’5” height and athletic prowess made him a formidable basketball prospect, as well. So, in addition to playing baseball, he also pursued his basketball dreams in parallel, from 1946-1948. During that time, he joined the Rochester Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) for their championship season, then played 53 games with the newly formed Boston Celtics in 1947-1948. Chuck Connors holds the distinction of being the first player to ever shatter a backboard.

Connors reached his long-sought-after goal of playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949. Unfortunately, after five weeks and one at-bat, he was sent back down to the minors in Montreal. He later played for the Chicago Cubs in 1951, when he hit two home runs. But he was sent back down to the Cubs’ Triple A farm team, the Los Angeles Angels.

Although Connors was heartbroken at the time, he later realized that it was the greatest thing that ever happened to him. While playing baseball one day, a casting director spotted Chuck from the stands. He approached Chuck and asked him to try out for a part in a Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy comedy called Pat and Mike. Connors did try out, and he landed the role of a state police captain.

Chuck Connors was one of only 13 players to ever play in the National Basketball Association (NBA) as well as Major League Baseball (MLB). But with the prospect of an acting career suddenly seeming to be a viable option, Connors decided to end his athletic endeavors and pursue acting full time.


Hollywood Calls, and Connors Arrives

With his sights set on a Hollywood career, Connors devoted all his time to making it in show business. In 1953, he ran into Burt Lancaster outside the auditions for South Sea Woman. Burt asked him why he was there, and when Chuck told him it was to audition, Burt took Chuck under his wing and practiced lines with him. Chuck got the part and gave Lancaster all the credit for helping him succeed. He never forgot Burt Lancaster’s kindness to him.\

In the years to come, Chuck landed parts in other movies, including Move Over Darling with James Garner and Doris Day, Soylent Green with Charleston Heston, and The Big Country with Gregory Peck, which was considered his finest role. He also starred in Old Yeller, Geronimo, Flipper, Support Your Local Gunfighter, and Airplane II: The Sequel.

Like many other budding stars who had come before him, Chuck made the rounds as a guest star on television. The shows he appeared on included Wagon Train, Frontier, Fireside Theater, Gunsmoke, Tales of Wells Fargo, The Millionaire, The Restless Gun, and The Adventures of Jim Bowie, among many others.


The Rifleman Brings Superstardom

In 1958, Chuck Connors was offered the role of Lucas McCain in The Rifleman. However, Connors felt the offer he received was too low, so he rejected it.

But when the producers of The Rifleman saw him portray the father in Old Yeller, they knew Chuck was their man. They loved the onscreen chemistry Chuck had with the boy who played his son, and they wanted him to play Lucas McCain. So, they offered him a bigger salary and a 5% ownership stake in the show—and finally, Chuck accepted.

The Rifleman was the first network television show to feature a single parent raising a child alone. Lucas is a widower, a Civil War veteran, and a topnotch marksman who buys a ranch just a few miles outside of the town of North Fork in the New Mexico Territory.

Crooked lawmen, ornery outlaws, and other desperados from the Wild West make life difficult for the residents of North Fork. Lucas does his best to do the right thing, but when lives and property are at stake, Lucas and his trusty Winchester rifle are compelled to mete out justice.

With Western movie directors and legends Sam Peckinpah, Ida Lupino, Budd Boetticher, and others lending their talents to The Rifleman, it was the 1950s and 1960s version of “must-see” television. With so many loyal and devoted fans, it turned Chuck Connors into a much-loved superstar.


Later Career

After The Rifleman ended, Chuck spent the next two decades appearing in television and film roles. He showed his versatility and range by playing good guys and bad guys too. Television shows included Arrest and Trial, Branded, Night Gallery, Thrill Seekers, The Yellow Rose, Spenser: For Hire, and Wolfman (a role about which he said he “wanted to be the Lon Chaney of the 1980s”), among many other projects. In 1977, he received an Emmy nomination for his role as a brutal slave owner in the miniseries, Roots. He continued to take interesting and varied roles well into the 1980s.


Personal Life

Chuck Conners was married three times. His first marriage was to Elizabeth Jane Riddell Connors. They met in Montreal when he was playing in the minor leagues there, and they were married from 1948-1961. They had four sons together: Michael, Jeffrey, Steven, and Kevin.

Chuck’s second wife was Kamala Devi. Chuck and Kamala met when they co-starred in Geronimo, and they worked together again in Branded, Broken Sabre, and Cowboy in Africa. They were married in 1963 and divorced in 1973.

Chuck’s third and final marriage was to Faith Quabius, another actress. They met while filming Soylent Green, and were married from 1977 to 1979.


Politics As A Hobby

Chuck Connors enjoyed politics and was friends with both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. At one point, President Nixon invited Connors along with other celebrities to meet Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union.

Connors knew that Brezhnev was a big fan of The Rifleman, but he was very surprised when the Russian leader wrapped his arms around him and lifted him a foot off the ground! Later, at a party given by Nixon, Connors presented Brezhnev with a pair of Colt Single Action Army “Six Shooters,” which delighted Brezhnev.


Life and Legacy

After a lifetime of smoking and a three-week-long hospital stay for pneumonia, Chuck Connors succumbed to lung cancer on November 10, 1992. He was 71 years old.

Although he passed away over 30 years ago, he left behind a body of work that still entertains TV viewers and film lovers of all ages. Connors’ passion, talent, and dedication to his craft continue to inspire and delight his multitude of fans.

Luckily, you can see him in his most famous role—as Lucas McCain in The Rifleman—from Monday through Friday at 8PM EST, right here on INSP!