‘Rifleman’ star Connors dies at 71

Chuck Connors, who gained fame as the tough, gun-toting single father on the long-running television series “The Rifleman,” died yesterday in Los Angeles of lung cancer. He was 71.

Connors, a two-sport professional athlete in the days before Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, also appeared in at least 28 movies. He had entered Cedars-Sinai Medical Center a week ago, said hospital spokesman Ron Wise.

Married and divorced three times, he is survived by four sons.

The Brooklyn-born Connors left Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., to sign as a professional baseball player with the Brooklyn Dodgers and later was a professional basketball player with the Boston Celtics and a baseball player with the Chicago Cubs. He then went to the old Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League.

Better known for his humorous sideline antics than his baseball prowess, the 6-foot-5 Connors picked up acting roles in such movies as “Pat and Mike” in 1952 , “Target Zero” in 1954, “Hold Back the Night” in 1956 and “The Big Country” in 1958. His last major starring role in a film was in 1979’s “The Tourist Trap.”

Connors’ career didn’t take off until “The Rifleman” TV series, which ran from 1958 to 1963 and was the top-rated new show its first season. Connors, playing a New Mexico homesteader raising a son by himself, battled villains with the aid of a Winchester rifle that he cocked as he drew. Johnny Crawford played his son.

In a 1983 Associated Press interview, Connors said he didn’t mind being remembered most for “The Rifleman.”

“It’s no problem at all for me. My whole ability to make a living is derived from the fact that I was ‘The Rifleman,’ ” the actor said.

Connors also starred in the 1963 “Arrest and Trial” and the 1964-65 “Branded” series. His other TV shows include “Cowboy in Africa” 1967-68, “The Thrill Seekers” in 1973-74, “The Yellow Rose” in 1983-84 and “Werewolf” in 1987-88.

Among his numerous TV guest-starring roles was his Emmy-nominated turn as a lustful slave owner in the “Roots” miniseries.

Vidpix include “Banjo Hackett” in 1976, “Nightmare in Badham County” in 1976 and “Standing Tall” in 1978.

Connors also appeared in the films “South Sea Woman” in 1953, “Designing Woman” in 1957, “Geronimo” in 1962, “Move Over Darling” in 1963, “Soylent Green” in 1972 and “Airplane 2: The Sequel” in 1982.

A longtime friend of former President Reagan, Connors once contemplated entering politics. He decided not to, he said, “because from being around so many politicians, I became a little cynical about politicians in general.”

During a 1973 poolside party at then-President Nixon’s Western White House in San Clemente, Connors was greeted with a bear hug from then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The actor gave Brezhnev two six-guns.

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