After falling and breaking my left elbow, I wasn’t paying much attention to the news as the month of May began, but as I slowly became aware of the death of one of my favorite childhood actors, I officially count myself as old now.
I grew up in the era of only having three television networks to choose from, the local affiliates of CBS, NBC or ABC. Those were the days of black and white television programs and TV remotes were not yet invented, you actually had to get up from your seat and physically turn the dial to find another show.
Because my hands and clothing were often covered with remnants of Tootsie Roll Pops, strawberry jam or Bazooka bubble gum, I usually parked myself on the floor in front of my parent’s large Sylvania console television to watch my favorite shows after dinner to keep their furniture clean.
Back then, network programming didn’t start until 8 p.m. after the evening news, and a half-hour reserved for local stations. Operating on shoestring budgets, the local stations typically filled the half-hour with syndicated programming consisting of older cancelled network shows or independent fare such as “The Lone Ranger” or game shows like “Truth or Consequences” hosted by Bob Barker long before his gig on daytime TV’s “The Price is Right.” The 7:30 p.m. TV time slot belonged exclusively to me as my mother would be washing dishes or tending to my younger brother and my father would be doing something out in the garage or in the basement. As I laid on the floor in front of the TV set, I imagined myself traveling through the Old West as a sidekick of the character Johnny Yuma on “The Rebel,” singing on stage with Ricky Nelson on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” or helping Lassie rescue Gramps from a catastrophe on an episode of “Jeff’s Collie.”
But my favorite show airing at 7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday was “The Rifleman” with Chuck Connors. The show was a western about a widower named Lucas McCain who was raising his young son Mark McCain, portrayed by Johnny Crawford, on a ranch on the outskirts of North Fork, New Mexico. McCain had a special Winchester rifle equipped with a customized mechanism to allow repeated firing by cycling its lever action.
Each episode was a never-ending parade of bad guys, gunslingers and evil criminals all who had the misfortune to run into the good guy Lucas McCain who zealously stood up for law and order and taught his son Mark the value of honesty, fair play, telling the truth and the meaning of unconditional love. Crawford was just 12 when the show first aired on television and he played Mark McCain for five seasons, also using his popularity with teenage girls as a springboard to a recording contract and a few Top-40 hits such as “Cindy’s Birthday” in 1962. Before landing the job as Mark McCain, Crawford has been a Mouseketeer on the first season of “The Mickey Mouse Club” in 1955.
His popularity grew so much that in the second season of “The Rifleman” in 1959, Crawford was nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor in a dramatic television role.
For boys who were my age growing up in the early 1960s, Johnny Crawford was firmly cemented into our consciousness as Mark McCain, someone we aspired to be like in our own lives. He could ride a horse, rarely got in trouble, had a great relationship with his dad, possessed good looks and girls swooned over him.
As he got older, Crawford continued to make guest appearances on television and acted in movies, served a stint in the U.S. Army and performed on stage in plays and dinner theater productions. In the early 1990s, he formed the Johnny Crawford Dance Orchestra, a group that specialized in touring and playing vintage Big Band music for older Americans.
I learned on May 1 that Johnny Crawford died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 75 on April 29 and felt devastated as yet another cherished part of my youth was gone.
When I occasionally watch old episodes of “The Rifleman” on YouTube now, it leaves me longing for that simpler time and role models I admired like Johnny Crawford.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that many of the lessons and values I learned watching television growing up aren’t necessarily old-fashioned and are as applicable today as they were when I was young. <