Lots of folks know about 6'5" (1.96m) Kevin Joseph "Chuck" Connors (1921
– 1992) as an American actor. But he ws also a professional
baseball player. He is one of only 2
athletes in the history of American professional sports to have played
both Major League Baseball and in the National Basketball Association.
With a 40-year film and television career, he is best known for his
five-year role as Lucas McCain in the highly rated 1958–1963 ABC series
Connors was born Kevin Joseph Connors in Brooklyn, New York City, New York, the second of two children and the only son of Allan and Marcella Connors, immigrants from the Dominion of Newfoundland, now a Canadian province. He was raised Roman Catholic and served as an altar boy at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Brooklyn.
His sister learned that Connors did not like his first name and was seeking another one. He tried out "Lefty" and "Stretch" before settling on "Chuck", because while playing first base, he would always yell, "Chuck it to me, baby, chuck it to me!" to the pitcher. The rest of his teammates and fans soon caught on and the name stuck. He loved the Brooklyn Dodgers despite their losing record during the 1930s, and hoped to someday join the team himself.
Connors's athletic abilities earned him scholarships to both the Adelphi Academy (where he graduated in 1939) and Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. He left college after two years. During World War II, he enlisted in the Army at Fort Knox, Kentucky. He spent most of the war as a tank-warfare instructor, stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky and later at West Point, New York.
During his Army service, Connors moonlighted as a professional basketball player, joining the Rochester Royals and helping to lead them to the 1946 National Basketball League championship. Following his military discharge in 1946, he joined the newly-formed Boston Celtics of the Basketball Association of America. Connors left the team for spring training with Major League Baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers. He played for numerous minor league teams before joining the Dodgers in 1949, for whom he played in only one game. He joined the Chicago Cubs in 1951, playing in 66 games as a first baseman and occasional pinch hitter. In 952, he was sent to the minor leagues again to play for the Cubs' top farm team, the Los Angeles Angels. Connors was also drafted by the NFL's Chicago Bears, but never suited up for the team. He is also credited as the first professional basketball player to break a backboard. During warmups in the first-ever Boston Celtics game on November 5, 1946 at Boston Arena, Connors took a shot that caught the front of the rim and shattered an improperly installed glass backboard. In 1966, Connors played an off-field role by helping to end the celebrated holdout by Los Angeles Dodgers pitchers Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax when he acted as an intermediary during negotiations between the team 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.
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. In 1953, he starred opposite Burt Lancaster as a rebellious Marine private in the film South Sea Woman and Trouble Along the Way opposite John Wayne as a football coach. 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, Move Over Darling with Doris Day and James Garner, Soylent Green with Charlton Heston, 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, Adventures of Superman, Screen Directors Playhouse, Four Star Playhouse, Matinee Theatre, Cavalcade of America, Gunsmoke, The Gale Storm Show, West Point, The Millionaire, General Electric Theater hosted by Ronald W. Reagan, Wagon Train, The Restless Gun, Murder, She Wrote, Date with the Angels, The DuPont Show with June Allyson, The Virginian, Night Gallery, and many others.
Connors beat out 40 actors for the lead on 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 958–59, behind three other Westerns – Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, and Have Gun - Will Travel.
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 , 948. They had four sons, Michael (born 1950), Jeffrey (born 19152), Steven (born 1953), Kevin (1956–2005), and divorced in 96. Connors married Kamala Devi (1963) the year after, co-starring with her in Geronimo. She also played 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. Connors was introduced to Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev of the former 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. Coincidentally, Connors and Brezhnev died on the same day, ten years apart.
Chuck Connors stars in the 950's TV show "The Rifleman." In this scene the evil bad guys tie him to a wagon. Then the bad guy leaves. The bad guy always leaves! That gives the Rifleman plenty of time to plot his escape. Why don't the bad guys just shoot people and be done with it? It's a lot more efficient. See Chuck's shirt pop open as he squirms. Watch as horses are tripped! So much for animal welfare.