Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Special Guest Star: Chuck Connors

“Who’s green and carries a rifle?

“Mucus McCain.”

That’s a dumb damn joke from my childhood that nobody under the age of 106 will understand. It sure cracked my ass up when I was a kid and I used it whenever I could, being the budding little stand-comedian I aspired to be until I actually became one.

Anyway the gag in question refers to the TV western character Lucas McCain, memorably played by Chuck Connors on the 1960s series THE RIFLEMAN. I loved that show and still do to this very day. It was a neat, compact little oater, as they used to be known, that told damn decent stories within the confines of a half hour format. It amazed me how many dramatic series of the fifties and sixties proliferated with that time frame, probably an extension of their roots in radio. Created by Arnold Laven and developed by Sam Peckinpah, THE RIFLEMAN had a lot going for it, including an iconic musical score by Herschel Burke Gilbert that ranks as one of the memorable from that era. But at its core is the relationship between a father and son, widower Lucas McCain raising his son Mark (Johnny Cartwright) in the Old West, a single dad storyline that echoed that of Andy and Opie Taylor. Connors and Cartwright were a believable pair, a testament to excellent casting and even better performances.

Like I said, I was a fan, even playing with the replica of Lucas McCain’s rifle, a modified Winchester with a ring lever around its trigger that allowed it to be spin cocked and shoot rapid fire. This period piece semi-automatic plaything was available for young ‘uns across the nation wherever toys are sold. Okay, it was my brother’s gun, but I played with it more than he did, even after the plastic stock broke off. Yes, I played with toy guns. Let’s not turn this into the burning issue of the day issue. The bottom line is: I turned out fine. Now shut up and pass the ammunition.

Long after THE RIFLEMAN left the airwaves to go into what seemed to be eternal syndication, Connors continued on with BRANDED, then a few other series over the years, none touching the heights of his first effort. Still, he was a working actor right up until the time of his passing with roles in SOYLENT GREEN, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER, ROOTS and many a guest starring role on other TV shows. One of these was NBC’s THE NAME OF THE GAME in a 1971 episode shot in and about mein own hometown of Stockton, California.

It was during the filming of that show that my sister Valerie and I headed out to visit our dad at his job, running a snack shack on the 9th hole at Stockton Golf and Country Club. (See also the previous blog: SPECIAL GUEST STAR: GEORGE C. SCOTT for another blast from my past) The shack provided grub for hungry golfers, even a small bar for those wanting a belt or several before heading back out to the links for the next 9 holes in one condition or another. After Val and I arrived, my pop fried us up a couple of burgers before the next golf cart pulled in. When it did, that when I first laid eyes on The Rifleman himself.

Chuck Connors ambled up to my dad’s shack, flashing a sincere but very Hollywood smile in the direction of my sister and I. Dad took his order then told him what a fan I was of his work. This prompted this superstar to stand before me as I sat rigidly before him, my mouth agape and probably with the chewed remains of my burger falling to the table. It wasn’t that I was star struck, even though I will most certainly cop to that. To say he was larger than life would actually diminish him. I would offer that life seemed too small for him, especially within the confines of Stockton. But he lived up to his on screen persona, very obviously a star, yet maintaining a down to earth everyman quality that didn’t appear false. Chuck almost seemed apologetic for being so overwhelming.

But that’s not what stymied me into bug-eyed paralysis.

It was what he was wearing, most specifically, his pants. They were garishly bright Starburst colored two-toned slacks, one leg cherry red, the other lemon yellow. Together, they illuminated Chuck Connors in all their neon glory as though he was on his way to rave. These pants were so loud, Sherpas in Nepal turned around and said, “What the fuck is scaring the yak?”

Historically, golfers have always lacked the fashion gene as if it's some requirement of the game that one must wear the most hideously insipid garb imaginable. Those goes back to the days of jodphurs and tam o'shanters right through to the present. But even back then in the Technicolor yawn known as the 1970s, Connors' pantaloons were a horror show.

I was stunned. I was aghast. I was embarrassed. All I could think was, “What the fuck is he wearing?” This wasn’t The Rifleman. This was a giant Popsicle. Who dressed this guy…Sid and Mart Krofft? My heart sank as I witnessed this childhood idol of mine become a walking advertisement for Starburst.

The worst part of this was that Mr. Connors could not have been more amiable and gracious to the rude little bastard he was greeting. In truth, he embodied Lucas McCain himself at that moment, walking out of the TV screen to shake my hand, sign an autograph on the back of a scorecard, then with a friendly nod, return to my dad’s shack. Valerie and I left at that point. In my case, I would say I cowardly slunk away. Once in the car, my sister observed in her inimitable sarcastic way, “Mmm, baby. Nice pants.”

I felt like three kinds of dogshit all rolled into one. The pain of this missed opportunity
hurt, but not as bad as the disappointment I felt in myself. I had suddenly become aware of the shallowness of my fifteen year old soul, confusing and frustrating me even more than before as the onslaught of hormones raged about my pubescent mind and body like the Daytona 500. Awkwardness had become a way of life and incidents like this didn’t help. Angst for nothing.

This incident must have embedded into my self conscious years later as I was conceiving a screenplay called ME AND MY SHADOW about a man haunted by a spectral bully that is a dead ringer for Chuck Connors. In one scene, the man falls asleep on the couch and is awakened by the opening of THE RIFLEMAN, scaring the living hell out of him.

Since I abandoned this gem of an idea eons ago, I don’t remember what happened. I think the protagonist mistakenly kills Connors and the ghost ends up taking the actor’s place in the final scene. Like I said, a real gem. Look for it never.

One can only have so many regrets in this world, so I’ve given my 15-year-old self a break on this matter. I got a chance to meet Chuck Connors and thanks to him being a stand up guy who knew how to deal with the public, especially a dopey teenager, it was actually a positive experience, a close encounter of the decent kind. It almost made up for those scary-ass pants.

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