|Intro||Athlete and actor|
|A.K.A.||Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors|
|Was||Athlete Basketball player Baseball player Actor Film actor Television actor|
|From||United States of America|
|Type||Film, TV, Stage & Radio Sports|
|Birth||10 April 1921, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, USA|
|Death||10 November 1992, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California, USA (aged 71 years)|
Kevin Joseph Aloysius "Chuck" Connors (April 10, 1921 – November 10, 1992) was an American actor, writer, and professional basketball and baseball player. He is one of only 13 athletes in the history of American professional sports to have played both Major League Baseball (Chicago Cubs, 1951) and in the National Basketball Association (Boston Celtics 1947–48). With a 40-year film and television career, he is best known for his five-year role as Lucas McCain in the highly rated ABC series The Rifleman (1958–63).
Early life and education
Connors was born on April 10, 1921 in Brooklyn, New York, the elder child of two children born to Marcella (née Londrigan) and Alban Francis "Allan" Connors, immigrants of Irish descent from Newfoundland and Labrador. He had one sibling, a sister, Gloria, who was two years his junior.
His father became a citizen of the United States in 1914 and was working in Brooklyn in 1930 as a longshoreman and his mother had also attained her U.S. citizenship in 1917. Raised as a Roman Catholic, he served as an altar boy at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Brooklyn.
Connors was a devoted, avid fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers despite their losing record during the 1930s, and he hoped to join the team one day. A talented athlete, he earned a scholarship to the Adelphi Academy, a preparatory school in Brooklyn, where he graduated in 1939. He received additional offers for athletic scholarships from more than two dozen colleges and universities.
From those offers, he chose to attend Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. There, he played both basketball and baseball for the school, and it was there, too, where he changed his name. Since childhood, Connors had disliked his first name, Kevin, and he had sought another name. He tried using "Lefty" and "Stretch" before finally settling on "Chuck". The name derived from his time as a player on Seton Hall's baseball team. He would repeatedly yell to the pitcher from his position on first base, "Chuck it to me, baby, chuck it to me!" The rest of his teammates and spectators at the university's games soon caught on, and the nickname stuck.
Connors, though, left Seton Hall after two years to accept a contract to play professional baseball. He played on two minor league teams (see below) in 1940 and 1942, then joined the United States Army following America's entrance into World War II. During most of the war, he served as a tank-warfare instructor at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and later at West Point in New York.
Minor League Baseball (1940–1942)
In 1940, following his departure from college, Connors played four baseball games with the Brooklyn Dodgers' minor league team, the Newport Dodgers (Northeast Arkansas League). Released, he sat out the 1941 season, then signed with the New York Yankees' farm team, the Norfolk Tars (Piedmont League), where he played 72 games before enlisting in the Army at Fort Knox, Kentucky at the end of the season, on October 10, 1942.
Professional basketball (1946–1948)
Following his military discharge in 1946, the 6' 6" Connors joined the newly formed Boston Celtics of the Basketball Association of America. He played 53 games for Boston before leaving the team early in the 1947–48 season.
Connors is one of 13 athletes to have played in both the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball. The twelve others to have played are: Danny Ainge, Frank Baumholtz, Gene Conley, Dave DeBusschere, Johnny Gee, Dick Groat, Steve Hamilton, Mark Hendrickson, Cotton Nash, Ron Reed, Dick Ricketts, and Howie Schultz.
Minor/Major League Baseball (1948–1952)
Connors attended spring training in 1948 with Major League Baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers but did not make the squad He played two seasons for the Dodgers' AAA team, the Montreal Royals before playing one game with the Dodgers in 1949. After two more seasons with Montreal, Connors joined the Chicago Cubs in 1951, playing in 66 games as a first baseman and occasional pinch hitter. In 1952, he was sent to the minor leagues again to play for the Cubs' top farm team, the Los Angeles Angels.
Sports career notes
In 1966, Connors played an off-field role by helping to end the celebrated holdout (see reserve clause) by Los Angeles Dodgers pitchers Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax when he acted as an intermediary during negotiations between management 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.
Notably Connors was the first professional basketball player to be credited with shattering a backboard when he brought down an improperly installed glass backboard with a 40-foot heave as warmups ended before the season opener was to start at the Boston Arena on November 5, 1946.
Contrary to (erroneous) entertainment outlets, Connors was not drafted by the Chicago Bears of the NFL.
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, performing in the role of a police captain. In 1953, he starred opposite Burt Lancaster as a rebellious Marine private in South Sea Woman and then as a football coach opposite John Wayne in Trouble Along the Way.
Connors had a rare comedic role in a 1955 episode ("Flight to the North") of Adventures of Superman. He portrayed Sylvester J. Superman, a lanky rustic yokel who shared the same name as the title character of the series.
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.
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.
Connors acted in feature films including The Big Country with Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston, Move Over Darling with Doris Day and James Garner, Soylent Green with Heston and Edward G. Robinson, and Airplane II: The Sequel.
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, Screen Directors Playhouse, Four Star Playhouse, Matinee Theatre, Cavalcade of America, Gunsmoke, The Gale Storm Show, The West Point Story, The Millionaire, General Electric Theater hosted by Ronald Reagan, Wagon Train, The Restless Gun with John Payne, Murder, She Wrote, Date with the Angels with Betty White, The DuPont Show with June Allyson, The Virginian, Night Gallery hosted by Rod Serling, Here's Lucy with Lucille Ball, and many others.
Connors beat 40 other actors for the lead in 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. Johnny Crawford, an unfamiliar actor at the time, former Mousketeer, baseball fan and Western buff, beat 40 other young stars to play the role of Lucas's son, Mark. 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 and ratings began to drop. The show was canceled in 1963 after five seasons and 168 episodes.
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 1991 television western movie, The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw.
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. The rifle levers were modified from the round type to more "D" shaped in later episodes.
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 by Connors and it was on display at The World Golf Hall of Fame.
The popularity of the show led to tie-in products, such as toy models of the Rifleman's rifle, with the twirl-around-the-trigger lever-action that made the customized rifle a match for any six-shooter hand-gun used by villains. Also a Milton Bradley board game, called The Rifleman Game, had two players each competing to move their herd of cattle from a Start to a Finish, across a prairie landscape, with a river-crossing and other hazards. The cattle were represented by die-cut cardboard cattle-pieces mounted in plastic counters, red or blue for either player.
Typecasting/other TV roles
In 1963, Connors appeared in the film Flipper. He also appeared opposite James Garner and Doris Day in the comedy Move Over, Darling in the role earlier played by Randolph Scott in the original 1940 Irene Dunne/Cary Grant version entitled My Favorite Wife.
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 (1963–1964), an early forerunner of Law and Order 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.
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.
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, Cybill Shepherd, Ken Curtis and Noah Beery, Jr. 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.
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 (1950–2017), Jeffrey (1952–2014), Stephen (born 1953), and Kevin (1956–2005), but 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.
Connors was a supporter of the Republican Party and attended several fundraisers for campaigns for U.S. President Richard M. Nixon. He campaigned for Ronald Reagan, a personal friend, and marched in support of the Vietnam War in 1967.
Connors was introduced to Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the 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.
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.
Connors started smoking in 1940. He smoked three packs of Camel cigarettes a day until he quit in the mid-1970s, though he occasionally smoked afterward. He died on November 10, 1992, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center 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. His body was buried in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Los Angeles.