Connors, Kevin Joseph Aloysius (“Chuck”)

views updated

Connors, Kevin Joseph Aloysius (“Chuck”)

(b. 10 April 1921 in Brooklyn, New York; d. 10 November 1992 in Los Angeles, California), professional baseball and basketball player and actor best known for his title role in the television series The Rifleman (1958-1963).

Connors was the older of two children born to Irish immigrants Allen Francis Connors, a watchman, and Marcella Connors, a domestic servant and custodian. His childhood hobbies included hunting, reciting, and baseball. As a teenager, Connors acquired his nickname because while playing baseball he frequently told the pitcher to “Chuck it to me!” During the Great Depression the family moved from a humble home to an unheated apartment at 455 Sixty-first Street in Brooklyn. In 1934 they moved to 358 Senator Street, also in Brooklyn, where they resided for many years.

Connors attributed his ambition to his family’s financial hardships. He attended a Catholic grammar school and, from ages thirteen to seventeen, he played baseball for John Flynn, a childless bank teller who formed a youth baseball team named the Bay Ridge Celtics. Flynn helped Connors develop integrity. On athletic scholarships, he attended Adelphi Academy in Brooklyn, from which he graduated in 1939, and Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. Connors stood six and a half feet tall and weighed slightly over 200 pounds. Although he did not graduate from Seton Hall, he majored in English and, when he won a recitation contest, discovered that he enjoyed entertaining an audience. He was a voracious reader and loved Shakespeare, often writing his own poetry. But baseball remained his lifelong passion, and he dreamed of playing first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In 1940 Connors persuaded the Dodgers to give him a tryout. This resulted in a contract and a $200 bonus check—the first check he had ever seen in his life—to play for their Newport News minor league team. Over the next thirteen years, Connors played mainly on minor league teams for the Dodgers, the New York Yankees, and the Chicago Cubs. The Newport News team won the 1946 Piedmont League championship, and Connors was the league’s home run champion. He played on the Dodgers’ Mobile, Alabama, minor league team that won the 1947 Southern Association championship. Connors also played on the Dodgers’ Montreal Royals minor league team. While playing for Montreal in 1949, he batted .319, hit twenty home runs, and had 108 runs batted in. His only at-bat for the major league Dodgers was on 1 May 1949, when he hit into a double play, ending the game in a Dodgers loss. A primary obstacle to his becoming the Dodgers’ first base-man was the fact that the legendary Gil Hodges already held that position.

On 20 October 1942 Connors joined the army and was inducted at Fort Dix, New Jersey; he trained in tank warfare. In November he went to Camp Campbell, Kentucky, and then in 1944 to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point as a tank-warfare instructor. He was fortunate to spend his entire tour of duty stateside, and he remained an instructor for the rest of the war. The army discharged Connors on 19 February 1946. While he was in the military, Connors played semiprofessional basketball with the Wilmington (Delaware) Bombers. In 1946 he played for the Rochester (New York) Royals, champions of the National Basketball League. For the next several years, he played both baseball and basketball, the latter during the baseball off-season. From 1946 to 1947 Connors played basketball with the Boston Celtics as their starting center. His strengths were defense and rebounding; he averaged 4.5 points per game. Although he started the 1947–1948 season with Boston and appeared in four games, the 1946–1947 season was his only full season with the team; Connors quit basketball to concentrate on baseball in 1947.

In 1948 Connors met the model Elizabeth Jane Riddell on a blind date. They married on 1 October 1948 and had four sons. On 10 October 1950, the Dodgers traded Connors to the Chicago Cubs, who sent him to play the 1951 season with their Los Angeles Angels minor league team. In so doing, the Cubs also sent Connors to eventual show-business stardom. Connors moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in the summer of 1951. In the early 1950s, he and his wife lived at 5813 Penfield Avenue in Woodland Hills. During his first season with the Angels, he batted .321, hit twenty-one home runs, and had seventy-seven runs batted in.

In 1951 Connors got a call from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s casting director—a passionate baseball fan—that led to a role in the 1952 movie Pat and Mike. His 1952 season with the Angels was his last in baseball, and he retired from the game in February 1953. While in baseball, he played with such greats as Duke Snider, Don New-combe, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Carl Furillo. After baseball and before real success in show business, Connors sold insurance and worked other odd jobs. As he succeeded in show business, he appeared in several movies and popular television shows. From 1953 to 1956, Connors played roles in such movies as Code Two (1953) and The Hired Gun (1957) and made guest appearances on several television shows, among them, Wagon Train, Topper, Superman, The Millionaire, and Gunsmole.

In 1957 Connors played Burn Sanderson, owner of the dog in the title role of Walt Disney’s Old Yeller. Two scenes in which he befriended two young brothers, which showed how well he could interact with young boys, helped him land the role of Lucas McCain in The Rifleman, a television Western set in the late 1870s. The Rifleman—created by Sam Peckinpah—ran from 1958 to 1963. McCain lived on a ranch near North Fork, New Mexico, and raised his son, Mark (played by Johnny Crawford), with moral lessons, not spankings. The show’s title referred to McCain’s wizardry with his modified Winchester rifle, with which he protected himself and others from the dangers of the Wild West. Connors described the show as a “love story between a father and his son,” and his role served as a positive parenting model. After its first season, The Rifleman was nominated for an Emmy, and Connors won a TV Champion Award and a Golden Globe Award.

In 1961 Connors divorced his first wife. He married Kamala Devi on 10 April 1963. They had no children and were divorced in 1972. In June 1973 he gave a cowboy hat and two Colt .45 revolvers to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, an ardent fan. On 5 September 1977 Connors married Faith Quabius; they did not have children and divorced in 1979. In 1977 he played the slave owner Tom Moore in Roots, a television miniseries. On 18 July 1984 Connors received his star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame. He worked with some of Hollywood’s greatest celebrities, including Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, and Burt Lancaster. He was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in March 1991. Connors died at the age of seventy-one of lung cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and was buried at San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills, California.

Connors was an unconventional, friendly extrovert with a strong physical presence. Via golf tournaments, he raised millions of dollars for charity. Politically, he supported the Vietnam War and campaigned for President Ronald Reagan. In baseball, his shenanigans entertained fans: He was known to cartwheel from base to base after hitting a home run. He also taunted umpires and other players with Shakespearean quotes. Although he is best remembered for The Rifleman, Connors’s first love was baseball. He would have preferred to swing a bat than to twirl a rifle.

David Fury reveals Connors’s life in Chunk Connors: “The Man Behind the Rifle” (1997), which contains many black-and-white photos of Connors. It also includes many quotes by Connors, some of his poetry and speeches, and lists of his baseball and basketball statistics, movies, television appearances, and stage plays. Connors is also covered in “Now Batting for Furillo, the ‘Rifleman, ’” in Tony Salin, Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes: One Fan’s Search for the Game’s Most Interesting Overlooked Players (1999). Articles about Connors include “The Rifleman Was a Ham,” TV Guide (22 Aug. 1959); G. Eells, “Chuck Connors: Man of Dimension,” Look (21 June 1960); and “Boys Have a Ball at Dad’s Work,” Life (3 Oct. 1960). Obituaries are in Louise Mooney, ed., The Annual Obituary 1992 (1993); the New York Times Biographical Service (Nov. 1992); and Emily J. McMurray, ed., Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television 11 (1994): 113.

Gary Mason Church