Actor, singer, and musician Johnny Crawford talks to C&I about his time on the hit western series The Rifleman.
Cowboys & Indians: From the very first episode of The Rifleman, you and Chuck Connors developed a compellingly believable father-son relationship. What sort of preparation did you have to do to make that work?
Johnny Crawford: Well, we’d both been doing things before that, and even before I met Chuck, I was very impressed when I saw him in The Big Country. When we got together to do The Rifleman, we just hit it off. He was very easy to work with. And we had such wonderful scripts. In fact, we had several scripts by Sam Peckinpah in the first season. And the father-son relationship was a great handle for a lot of the writers as they told their stories.
C&I: The Rifleman continues to attract new viewers and longtime fans in reruns. What do you think is the secret of its enduring popularity?
Johnny: Oh, that’s easy to answer. It’s like you mentioned — the strongest thing about it has always been that father-son relationship. That, and the fact that there was always a lesson at the end of every episode. Really, it’s such a wholesome show — a healthy show. And Chuck was so perfect. You know, I still miss him. He was unique — I’ll never meet anybody else like him again. He tried to be a good influence for me, even off-camera. And he treated me like an adult when we were working. He made it much easier than it might have been. He was a lot of fun.
C&I: What would you say is your happiest memory of your working relationship?
Johnny: [Laughs.] Oh, there are so many to choose from. I’ll tell you something that comes to mind. Our first live appearance was during the St. Louis Police Circus around 1958. Or ’59, maybe. Anyway, he and I had a little routine and a silly little song. And at the end, we took off our hats — and I was in heaven.
C&I: That’s a nice memory.
Johnny: And the funny thing is, while we were in St. Louis, a rancher loaned us three horses — one for me, one for Chuck, and one for the Indian who took a fall off his horse when we’d make our entrance. [Laughs.] Yeah, I know: It was corny. But this rancher, this wonderful guy who loaned us these horses, he invited me to spend an off day riding on his ranch. And then he asked my mother if he could send me a horse, because he had some foals coming along. She gulped — and then I had a wonderful horse. I didn’t use him for The Rifleman. But I did use him in 1965 when I did a movie in Texas called Indian Paint with Jay Silverheels. I played an Indian, and that was a lot of fun — because I enjoyed riding bareback.
C&I: During your five seasons on The Rifleman, you got to work with some notable up-and-comers — like Dennis Hopper, Warren Oates, Robert Vaughn, Harry Dean Stanton, and Dan Blocker — and established names like John Carradine, Agnes Moorehead, and Sammy Davis Jr. Do you remember who impressed you the most?
Johnny: Well, I was impressed by almost all of them. I learned a lot from talking with those people and watching them work. Of course, I was in awe of Paul Fix. He played the marshal on The Rifleman. He got into the movies in the early ’20s, and he was a great storyteller. We took a liking to each other, and whenever I could ask him about some actor, he’d have a good story. In fact, while they were setting up the lights, he’d sit in his chair and everybody would kind of get as close as they could to him, because he was so delightful to listen to.
WATCHING RERUNS: The Rifleman continues to be an audience magnet wherever the series is available. Its newest showcase: the commercial-free subscription streaming video site ProClassicTV.
MAKING MUSIC: During the 1950s and ’60s, Johnny Crawford scored as a pop music singer with such hits as “Cindy’s Birthday” and “Your Nose Is Gonna Grow.” More recently, he has enjoyed a second career singing, recording, and performing with his vintage music ensemble, The Johnny Crawford Dance Orchestra.
From the October 2017 issue.