With sitcoms ruling the airwaves today, it's hard to remember the late '50s, when Westerns were the genre of the masses.
During the 1958-59 television season, the top four series were "Gunsmoke," "Wagon Train," "Have Gun Will Travel" and "The Rifleman." Twelve of the top 25 shows that year were Westerns, in fact.
"The Rifleman" hit No. 4 in its debut season--thanks to some help from its lead-in: "The Rifleman" aired Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC after the popular "Cheyenne" and "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp."
"The Rifleman" was different from most of the Westerns on the air then, and not just because it was one of the few that was 30 minutes. Although there was the requisite amount of gunplay every week, the series explored family relationships. (Two seasons later, "Bonanza" would follow suit.)
Although "The Rifleman" has been off the air for 30 years, it has remained popular over the decades in reruns; it airs weeknights on KDOC and Saturdays on the Family Channel as part of its block of Westerns.
A great deal of the enduring success of "The Rifleman" rests on the square shoulders of Chuck Connors, a former professional baseball player who had appeared in such films as "Pat and Mike" and "South Sea Woman." Connors, who died Nov. 10 of lung cancer, played the heroic Lucas McCain, a homesteader struggling to raise his son, Mark (Johnny Crawford), and eke out a living on his ranch.
The McCains lived in North Folk, N.M., where the marshal never was able to rid the town of ornery outlaws and other scoundrels without the help of McCain and his trick rifle. The modified Winchester, always at McCain's side, sported a large ring that cocked the gun as he drew. A bit of "Rifleman" trivia: McCain could fire off his first round in three-tenths of a second.
"The Rifleman" dropped out of the top 25 during its third season, when the producers tinkered with the basic premise, adding Joan Taylor as Miss Milly Scott, a storekeeper who became McCain's love interest. Taylor was history in the spring of 1962, and Patricia Blair was added in the fifth and final season as Lou Mallory, a con artist with a heart of gold who took a shine to McCain.
In 1991, Connors and Crawford (a real estate broker who still dabbled in acting) reunited for a cameo in the Kenny Rogers NBC miniseries "The Gambler: The Luck of the Draw."
"The Rifleman" airs weeknights at 7 on KDOC and Saturdays at 1:30 p.m. on The Family Channel.