Quality Books for Intelligent Readers
Anthony Slide (Classic Images, September 1997)
...is very obviously a labor of love. That same energy and enthusiasm is evident in David Fury's "Chuck Connors: The Man Behind The Rifle" Readers will recall that some years ago, Fury wrote, designed, and published a book on Burt Lancaster. His latest work is similarly self-published and self-designed, but that is not to imply in any way that here is an unprofessional work. Both in appearance and in content, it is the equal of any volume from a mainstream trade publisher.
With enthusiasm and respectful affection, David Fury documents the life and career of Chuck Connors. He discusses Connors early sports career, beginning with the Brooklyn Dodgers at the age of 19 in 1940, and ending with his retirement from the Los Angeles Angels in 1952. It is, of course, for his acting career that Connors is best known, and I am surprised at just how substantial that was. Fury notes 71 feature films and made-for-television movies, together with countless television guest appearances and starring roles in seven television series. The most famous of the last is The Rifleman, which ran from 1958-1963, but I had forgotten how good Connors was in the short-lived but excellent series, Werewolf in 1987-1988.
David Fury spoke in depth to Chuck Connors and also learned much from his colleagues and his business associates. The discussion of the various roles is detailed, perhaps at times a little too uncritical but on the whole fair and balanced. The author does well in capturing the spirit of his subject. The biography is profusely illustrated and includes a detailed filmography, information on sports career statistics, and even a listing of Chuck Connors memorabilia. A nice tribute from a fan who knows how to deliver a work of quality and readability.
Lou Gaul (Burlington County Times)
"Fans of TV Westerns can spend some happy hours with David Fury's "Chuck Connors: The Man Behind the Rifle." Chuck Connors was a professional baseball player for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago Cubs before being bitten by the acting bug. The 6-foot-6 Brooklyn native appeared in films such as Pat and Mike with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and The Big Country with Gregory Peck before achieving his greatest fame as sharp-shooting widower-rancher Lucas McCain in The Rifleman (ABC; 1958-'63). According to "The Man Behind the Rifle," Connors landed the lead in The Rifleman over other actors such as James Whitmore thanks to a small role in Walt Disney's Old Yeller. Although only appearing briefly in the family film, Connors impressed the TV producers with the way he related to 13-year-old Tommy Kirk. The Rifleman required its star to look natural on screen with 12-year-old Johnny Crawford, who was to play Lucas McCain's son, Mark. After seeing the natural charm Connors displayed in Old Yeller, the producers wanted the athlete-turned-actor so badly that they offered him a five percent ownership of the show and the McCain role.
Boyd Magers (Western Clippings #19, Sept./Oct. 1997)
Chuck Connors as “The Rifleman” brought a fundamental moral message to TV screens that is missing today. David Fury’s authorized biography, CHUCK CONNORS: THE MAN BEHIND THE RIFLE, builds a 6’ 6” portrait of a highly extroverted, fun-loving guy with an often gruff exterior—but soft hearted in his own way. Connors was serious about his work but saw humor in all situations. As Gene Barry says, “He definitely traveled to the beat of his own drummer.” Fury began his bio with full cooperation and input from Connors, unfortunately “The Rifleman” died before the really detailed conversations could commence. Nevertheless, Fury finds Chuck’s personality through anecdotes and memories from over 40 personalities who crossed trails with the man in sports and entertainment—Johnny Crawford, Vin Scully, Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck, Robert Stack, Richard Anderson, Stan Musial, Andrew Fenady, Patricia Blair, Joan Taylor, Arnold Palmer and others give us real glimpses of the athlete/actor.
Paul Holbrook (BIG REEL, October 2001)
Chuck Connors: "The Man Behind the Rifle" By David Fury
Information for the series history above came largely from David Fury's 1997 authorized biography Chuck Connors: The Man Behind the Rifle". Fury had the opportunity to interview Connors near his death and had access to Connors family archive of personal papers and photos.
Chuck Connors was more of a phenomenon than his role as Lucas McCain might suggest. He was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. April 10, 1921, and spent his youth developing his athletic prowess playing baseball and basketball. He went on to play professionally with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago Cubs. In basketball, his career was spent with the Rochester Royals and the Boston Celtics. He was a better actor than athlete, although he said on several occasions that he would rather have been another Stan Musial than a Clark Gable. But he performed both careers with ease. He told Coronet magazine in 1959, "Handling a rifle or a baseball bat takes coordination and practice, that's all."
His first role in a motion picture was as a police captain in the 1952 comedy PAT AND MIKE with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. He played another policeman in CODE TWO (1953) with Keenan Wynn, and in TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY (1953) he worked with John Wayne and developed a friendship. But his greatest experience as a beginner was with Burt Lancaster, who taught him much about his craft and the business of being a movie actor, during the filming of SOUTH SEA WOMAN (1953). Other work followed quickly as Connors developed skill and ease in front of the camera. Valuable experience in television in 1953 came by way of his supporting roles on THE DENNIS DAY SHOW, PRIVATE SECRETARY (Ann Sothern's sitcom), and TOPPER.
His most memorable television role from this period was on THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN as Sylvester J. Superman, an extraordinarily strong country bumpkin who comes to Metropolis with his mule in response to a newspaper ad asking for Superman's help. Connors was working steadily in movie and television roles when he was hired to star in THE RIFLEMAN. Following the cancellation of that series, he went on to star in several others, including ARREST AND TRIAL (1963-1964), BRANDED (1965-1966) COWBOY IN AFRICA (1967-1968), THE THRILLSEEKERS (1973-1975), THE YELLOW ROSE (1983-1984) and WEREWOLF (1987-1988). He was working on taping THE AMERICAN SHOOTER episodes as host when he died of lung cancer on Nov. 10, 1992.
Through the years he was able to contribute many memorable performances in TV movies and motion pictures, such as slave master Tom Moore on ROOTS (1977) and as the maniacal Slauser in TOURIST TRAP (1979). Fury delves into every area of Connors' careers and private side with deep respect and sensitivity. His appendices cover Connors' sports statistics, filmography of more than seventy films, TV series and stage work.
My enjoyable conversations with Chuck Connors in the past and researching his life story for this biography, revealed a fascinating tale of a one-of-a-kind maverick individual. Although Chuck had a rugged, imposing physical presence, he was actually soft-hearted with a huge capacity for love and generosity. He had a mighty big heart and was extraordinarily generous with his most valuable possession — his own time.
This man was highly intelligent with a natural affinity for relating to an individual whether he or she was another actor, a studio executive, a ranch hand, a ballplayer, or a cab driver. As the years went by, Connors grew disenchanted with the Hollywood glitz and glamour and stayed away from the cocktail circuit the final twenty years of his life. He was, simply, a man of the people. Chuck was also one of the hardest working actors in the business, and he had a driving passion to succeed. As an actor, he knew that quality acting came from the inner emotions; and he was a darn good actor who was appreciated for his talents.
When he wasn’t working at acting, Chuck was tending his 8½ acre ranch at Bear Valley Springs, in the Tehachapi Mountains in Kern County, California. He loved his dogs and horses, and even when he wasn’t filming a western movie, he enjoyed spending time in the saddle. In addition to the main house, there was a guest house, barn, corral, and depending on the time of the year, between two and nine riding horses. Chuck took great satisfaction from breeding horses, and he would often stay up all night with a mare that was about to foal.
His western-style ranch house fit Chuck like a glove, and was furnished entirely with beautiful antiques, including: a 5-cent Coca-Cola machine; a brass cash register; a 1910 cook stove; an antique brass scale; the requisite pool table; and a whole house full of fabulous collectibles. Chuck also treasured his photograph and memorabilia collection, and he actively sought autographs from the friends he made over the years in sports and entertainment.
Connors had a lifelong passion for the game of golf, and he was good enough that he could have been a pro golfer had his twig been so bent. While playing the Canyon Country Club in Palm Springs in the 1960s and ‘70s, he would often be approached by well-heeled golfers who thought they could take a few bucks from this famous actor fellow — but Chuck invariably won and pocketed a great deal of cash on the links during his lifetime. He didn’t need the money but he sure liked winning it — he always carried a huge roll of bills in his pocket in case a golf match or a poker game came his way. Chuck didn’t golf a lot in his later years, except when he was invited to a celebrity tournament — which was often, and he would make every effort to participate if possible. Chuck’s son Steve Connors was his golfing buddy through the years, and Steve said that shoulder and back injuries robbed his dad of the strength that had allowed him to drive a ball 350 yards when he was in his prime.
When I received the sad news from a good friend on November 10, 1992 that Chuck Connors had died, I was probably more stunned than I had ever been in my life. A wave of emptiness and remorse flooded through me, as my friend delicately relayed the report that Chuck succumbed to lung cancer at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles earlier that afternoon. I truly felt like crying, as I had when my own father had died many years before; my eyes were misty as this unbelievable news began to sink into my consciousness.
I had called Chuck on the phone in the early part of the summer of ‘92, and we bantered various topics of mutual interest such as baseball, Burt Lancaster, and a western screenplay I had written with Chuck in mind for the lead role. Later in the fall I wrote him a letter asking him if I could come out to his ranch in November to do some background work on the biography that I had planned about his life (with his blessings). I was excited that I was finally going to be able to accept Chuck’s standing invitation to visit him at his ranch, and spend a couple of days with a true Hollywood legend. I had first talked with Chuck Connors in 1989, and had done an extensive interview with him in 1990 for an article about his life and career.
Mr. Connors himself hadn’t known he was sick, as the deadly lung cancer swept through him the first week of November and ended his life. Everyone who knew him was stunned at his sudden death; sadly, he was just too full of life and vitality to die with so little warning. Chuck was seventy-one years old, but you’d never have known it — he looked, acted, and had the busy schedule of a much younger man.
Chuck’s close friend and executive administrator, Rose Marie Grumley, and his agent, Steve Stevens, were with him during his final hours at Cedars Sinai hospital. Rosie and Mr. Stevens were both very kind in filling the gaps in the personal life of CC (as he was known to those close to him), as I researched this biography. Initially, it was very painful for Rosie to talk about Chuck; she simply missed him so much. She was with him for two and a half decades, and the bond was very deep and emotional. Rosie called her years with Chuck, “wonderful and marvelous.”
Mr. Stevens related many stories of Chuck’s generosity, his kindness and big heart, his physical and mental toughness, his sensitivity, as well as the strong and weak points of his character. Stevens called Connors “Chucker” and he in turn called his agent “the little Dodger” — their relationship was that of two good friends as well as the requisite actor-agent contract. Stevens noted that when you were around Chuck, you always felt safe from harm; there was an aura of strength emanating from him that came from his towering height, his rugged features, as well as an almost fearless philosophy of life. Chuck’s four sons — Mike, Jeff, Steve, and Kevin — also were very kind in sharing the warm, personal side of his life.
That summer Chuck was preparing to host a new television series called The American Shooter, which was to be about the various types of rifles and handguns, hunting and target shooting. He had also filmed a commercial for McDonald’s (as a tough old westerner), and there was a crew out to his Tehachapi ranch in June to record introductions for a series of The Rifleman videocassettes that were soon to be released. The former major leaguer had made a number of recent personal appearances at baseball card shows, and a Hollywood producer was set to offer him a major role in one of the popular westerns that would be released in the summer of 1994.
This is a man whose accomplishments were so storied and numerous that it requires an entire book to recall them, not just this preface to his biography. To mention just a few of the highlights, he played baseball with and was a teammate of the great pioneer Jackie Robinson, during the decade that Connors starred in minor league baseball. He was truly a minor league baseball star — winning the home run championship of the Piedmont League in 1946, and leading his respective teams to four consecutive championships, 1946-1949. Chuck also made it to the majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs. As a young man just out of the military after World War II, he played tough defense on the champion Rochester Royals of the National Basketball League in 1946; the following season he was the starting center for the Boston Celtics.
Of his sixty motion pictures, Chuck Connors played his first scene with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn (Pat and Mike), and followed his memorable debut with supporting roles first to John Wayne (Trouble Along the Way), and then Burt Lancaster (South Sea Woman). His biggest break might have been The Big Country (1958), as Chuck superbly portrayed a cowardly bully opposite the staunch good guys, played on screen by Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston.
Who could ever forget his immortal character of Lucas McCain, the legendary Rifleman. He was also the star of an unprecedented four successful dramatic TV series, including Branded, Arrest and Trial, and Cowboy in Africa. In 1958, Chuck Connors was named “Most Promising Male Star” by the prestigious Television Champion Awards (Quigley Publications) and in 1959 he won a Golden Globe in the category of “Best Television Performers” for The Rifleman.
His fame was international, and when Chuck met Leonid Brezhnev (a huge fan of The Rifleman) at the Western White House in 1973, the photo of Connors as the recipient of a bear hug from the Russian leader appeared on page one of 1600 newspapers worldwide. Chuck was also a talented stage actor, and he starred in six off-Broadway productions in the 1970s. In 1977 he was critically acclaimed for his convincing portrayal of slave owner Tom Moore, in the history-making mini-series Roots. Here was a sensitive man who cried when his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was dedicated in March of 1985, and a Western hero who was elected to the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1991.
So, this is the life history of the man from Brooklyn who parlayed his lanky six-foot six-inch frame and a burning desire to succeed into a storybook career — pro sports star, movie and television hero (and sometimes villain), family man and father of four sons, and generally loved by a legion of fans. The man with the lantern-square jaw, mop of golden hair, and rugged features capable of the diametrical emotions of genuine warmth or frightening menace… had a career in the entertainment business rivaled by few and admired by many. Most assuredly he is remembered as Lucas McCain, “The Rifleman,” but as you will find out, he was much more than the one character for which he was most famous.
This is the story of the man behind the rifle... the Chuck Connors story.