As I began to review some ideas I had scribbled on a notepad for this week’s column, a name in today’s obituary caught my eye which changed my entire focus. Johnny Crawford, the young actor who became a child star on the western “The Rifleman” in the late 1950s had passed away on April 29 in Los Angeles. He was 75.
His death, at an assisted-living home, was announced on the website johnnycrawfordlegacy.com by his wife, Charlotte McKenna-Crawford. It had been revealed back in 2019 that he had Alzheimer’s disease, and he had been in failing health since his hospitalization last year with Covid-19 and pneumonia.
Johnny Crawford’s character was one of my favorite television portrayals growing up. His show, “The Rifleman,” which ran from 1958 to 1963, was a low-key half-hour series shot in black and white on ABC. It told the story of Luke McCain (Chuck Connors), a widowed Civil War veteran and sharpshooter raising his son (Johnny Crawford’s character) on their ranch in the New Mexico territory. The boy, Mark, was always identifiable by his Stetson hat and his seemingly permanent intense expression — usually one of earnest concern or unabashed hero-worship directed towards his dad. The show stood out in my mind not only because it uniquely featured a single dad (never portrayed on television) but also because it promoted on a weekly basis miniature morality plays, which, as a 10-year-old, I eagerly consumed. Typical of a youth my age, I related to young Mark, as if he was my best friend. I particularly enjoyed the exchanges between father and son when Mark asked his “pa” tough questions. For example, in one episode Mark asked his dad why people are cruel to others who look or dress differently from them, his father explained simply: “It’s fear.”
During these pre-cable years, westerns flooded the airwaves. Their popularity was due to a myriad of factors including wonderful actors, good scripts, and their ability to allow the viewers to escape into a world free from complexity. There were good guys and bad guys. Black hats and white hats. It was that simple. But in my opinion, “The Rifleman” added a certain degree of nuance to that rudimentary formula. First, it was the only show that I can recall that featured a single dad raising a child. Second, Chuck Connor’s character was a study in morality, but demonstrated time and time again that he was clearly flawed. Prone to stubbornness and anger, he often had to learn to keep his emotions in check as he desperately tried to set a suitable fatherly role model for his young son. He also carried with him the heavy burden of knowing that his wife had died years back when he could not get life-saving medicine to her in time. He was not a gunslinger (like Paladin in Have Gun Will Travel) but rather was a farmer who helped the sheriff who himself wrestled with alcoholism. But to avoid getting too humanistic and in an effort to cater to the viewers who preferred “action,” the show’s creator, Arnold Laven, cleverly featured a very sexy customized Winchester rifle, not a six-gun, as Luke’s signature weapon. (In reality, that type of firearm had not been invented at the alleged time portrayed in the show).
If you have ever seen the production, I am sure your attention was immediately fixed by the opening credits. They dramatically showcase the skill of Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain firing his rapid-action Winchester rifle in astonishing succession. But in the final analysis, what made the show different than the multitude of westerns populating the airwaves at the time was that it intended to be more than a vehicle for gratuitous gun-slinging. Heartfelt human relationships, especially the connection between father and son, provided balance, and sometimes a paradoxical juxtaposition, to the violent backdrop of life on the frontier.
Although the initial focus was the unique rifle which undoubtedly symbolized Lucas McCain’s persona as a self-possessed, rugged individualist, the show also sought to emphasize his high ethical standards and a cool head. Connors, in the title role, with his amazing firepower, offered the audience the iconic western hero. Yet show after show Lucas faced life’s challenges with a nuanced stoical, reasoned view about social justice and personal responsibility. As a young impressionable viewer, uppermost in my mind was the example he set for his son as both a dad and a solid citizen in his community. So, when McCain picked up his rifle, he wielded it not only with confidence and competence, but also with rational deliberation and fair-minded determination. I recall him admonishing his young son in one episode, “A man doesn’t run from a fight, Mark, but that doesn’t mean you go looking to run to one.”
Besides “The Rifleman,” I was fortunate to come across other cinematic portrayals of positive role models growing up. In 1962 I was awestruck by Gregory Peck’s rendition of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. This experience was on the big screen, but the movie was shot in black and white because the director thought it would underscore the serious nature of the topics under consideration. Peck played a widower, raising his kids as best he could, and setting a strong ethical standard along the way, fighting racism in a small fictitious southern town. I believe that the emotional impact of that movie was one of the factors that compelled me to devote my life to fighting injustice. Although I would never claim to be as effective or eloquent as Atticus, I do hope that over my 45-year career as a public defender I made a difference in balancing the scales of justice ever so slightly.
I was sad to learn of Johnny Crawford’s passing and even more to hear that he suffered so greatly. For me, sadder still is the fact that the ethical standard that his show and others like it promoted, seems to have been abandoned in recent years. Power-hungry individuals, who should know better, are more inclined to take actions that benefit themselves than humankind.
Each day the astuteness of the Buddhist principle that wisdom times compassion equals freedom becomes more obvious to me. Like the heroes of my youth, we have a responsibility to set an example for our children and grandchildren by standing up against prejudice, closed-mindedness, hatred, and anything else that seeks to divide us and diminish our humanity. The truth is that we are all interconnected or as Martin Luther King once said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” I am sure Johnny Crawford’s character Mark would agree that we would all be better off if we just heeded Luke McCain’s advice and always chose love over fear.