One of the most unlikely friendships to ever come about between an actor and a fan developed when Western television star Chuck Connors, a lifelong Republican, became pals with the communist leader of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev.
Connors first met Brezhnev at Richard Nixon’s Western White House in 1973. It turned out that the Soviet leader was a huge fan of Connors’ Western series The Rifleman, which debuted on September 30, 1958 and aired for five seasons. Brezhnev loved the series so much that he made it the only American television show to be broadcast in Russia. Connors would later return the favor by visiting his friend in Moscow during the Cold War.
The Rifleman was developed by Sam Peckinpah, who would later make a name for himself by directing graphically-violent Westerns like The Wild Bunch. Connors, as Lucas McCain, played a widower who raises his son Mark (Johnny Crawford) on a ranch in New Mexico Territory in the 1880s. McCain was an expert marksman who was able to fire several rounds from his specially modified Winchester Model 1892 rifle in rapid succession. (The fact that there was no such thing as a Winchester Model 1892 rifle in the 1880s, missed the notice of most.)
McCain is reluctantly forced to use his rifle during most of the shows’ 168 episodes, often against gunmen who have come to town to take on “the rifleman.” The gentle relationship between Connors and Crawford made most viewers forget that McCain violently killed an average of two-point-five men per show.
Connors wasn’t always a cowboy. He was born in Brooklyn, a long way from the West, in 1921. Sports came naturally to the strapping 6’5” lad, who learned the game of baseball in the shadow of Ebbet’s Field, where his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers played. He was skilled enough as a first baseman to earn a scholarship to Seton Hall University, but dropped out after two years to become a tank-warfare instructor during World War II.
Connors’ first taste of professional sports actually came in basketball when he joined the startup Boston Celtics franchise in 1946. He played with the team just long enough to become the first man in professional basketball history to shatter a backboard during the Celtic’s very first game. He soon left basketball behind when he was offered a tryout with the Dodgers. He made the team in 1949, but only appeared in one game before being sent down to the minors. He made it back to “the Show” in 1951 after being traded to the Chicago Cubs, and appeared in 66 games, batting .238 with two homers and eighteen RBIs. (Amazingly, Connors nearly made it into professional football as well, after he was drafted by the Chicago Bears.)
Had he been a better hitter he may never have made it in Hollywood. In 1952, he was again demoted to the minors; this time to Los Angeles, where he was spotted by a talent scout and signed to play in the Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn film Pat and Mike. After Connors received a check for $500 for his work on the film (which was a huge boost in salary over what baseball was paying him), he said to himself, “Baseball just lost a first baseman.”
He would act steadily for the next four decades in films like Old Yeller, Flipper, and Soylent Green, and on television in Branded and Roots. But he would be best remembered as Lucas McCain, a role he remained proud of for his entire life.
When Premier Brezhnev died in 1982, Connors tried to attend his funeral in Moscow, but was barred by the State Department.
Coincidentally, Connors’ death came in 1992, exactly ten years to the day after his friend Leonid died.