When word got 'round that TV's Rifleman was going to ride off into the sunset forever at the end of this season, there were a few raised eyebrows and many sad sighs. After all, the tall, rangy gun-toter and his alert, dark haired young son were old family friends. For five years they had made regular weekly visits into millions of American homes. For five years, their faithful fans had watched Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford face and conquer crisis after crisis.
Now, with the show about to bite the dust, there are bound to be several questions in the minds of all the pardners who rooted so long and so hard for The Rifleman. What happens to Chuck and Johnny? Where do they go from here? Does this mean the end of them, too?
Rather than speculate, we decided to go right to the one person who could give us the best answers. We phoned Johnny Crawford at home one evening. Contrary to our expectations, he seemed anything but depressed. "We've known this was coming for quite a while," he cheerfully volunteered. "Chuck's five year contract was up this year. He was offered a great deal at Universal Pictures, he decided to take it, and that meant the end of the series."
Johnny paused, then he thoughtfully continued, "Of course, I'm going to miss everyone connected with Rifleman very much. You can't work with the same people for five years without developing some close ties. I've made some wonderful friends on the set, friends I hope to have for life. I can't help feeling a little sad when I think about this. And I also can't forget how much I owe to the show, in terms of recognition. Let's face it, no one really knew who Johnny Crawford was before Rifleman, and just plain, invaluable experience. The experience has been tremendous in all areas. From learning how to act, and especially about television techniques in general, to learning how to handle a horse. I have to thank Rifleman for inspiring my interest in the Old West and rodeos which, as you know, is my number one hobby today."
"It's going to be kind of weird going to public school again," he chuckled reminiscently. "For the last five years, I've been the only one in my class at the studio school. My teacher has been fantastic and I've had a great education, but it will be fun to be with kids my own age again in a public school."
He lapsed into his memories for a few seconds before confessing, "The biggest blow is going to be the end of a really steady job. A series can be tiring and, after five years, it can get to be a drag a little, but you can't ever forget the fact that your check comes in every week. And in show business, which isn't," he said wryly, "the most secure profession in the world, this isn't anything to sneeze at! It sure isn't"...his voice trailed off again.
Does this mean Johnny considers himself washed up in show business? We phrased the question a little more delicately, but Johnny didn't even let us finish before he exploded into a long, loud fit of laughter. "Are you kidding?" he finally gasped. "You've got to be kidding!" Assured that we were serious, he more soberly allowed, "Well, I guess that is a natural reaction. Lots of people who've identified you with one particular show assume that when it dies, you do, too. All I can say is that this boy is gonna be kicking around for a long time. I've said many times that I intended to stay in show business for the rest of my life. I still say that.
The end of The Rifleman just means that I'll have more time now to explore other areas." A note of eagerness colored his voice: "I'm going to be free-lancing now, and I can do anything I want. Movies, producing, TV, the stage, comedy, drama, you name it. Naturally, the first thing I'll concentrate upon is my recording career. This is one aspect of my career that's really surprised me", he confided. "I never thought it was going to go as far and as fast as it has. Do you know something? If my next records are as lucky as the first five have been, I could very easily make a full time project out of singing!
Doing Rifleman was steady income, but my fan mail has more than tripled in the little over a year that I've been recording. I used to get about 1,500 letters a month, and now it's more than 5,000. I can't get over it," he added, with genuine wonder in his voice. "But it sure is a great feeling to know that while I'm looking for movie and TV roles, I can support myself with my singing. I'll have more time now to spend with my friends and my family and that's something I'm really looking forward to," he declared, coming back to the original track. "You know how it's been these last couple of years. When I wasn't doing Rifleman, I was running off the studio to record, or trying to sandwich in personal appearances. I hardly ever saw my folks outside of hurried dinners. And I didn't get much more of a chance to be with my friends, except on the few weekends I had time to date and we could double, or else on a rare free Saturday or Sunday, when I could go to the stables and ride my horse, Two Bits."
That's another thing I'm excited about," he added, and we could hear the glow on his face. "Man! I'm going to finally have enough time to exercise and train Two Bits, and maybe even get around to my big dream of staging that junior rodeo in town here." He paused again and another wry snort crackled through our phone receiver. "Listen to me talking," he said sheepishly. "Making all these plans about what I'm going to do with my spare time. You know what's going to happen, don't you? As soon as I'm out of Rifleman, I'll have like, maybe one week with lots of time and then I'll be free lancing like crazy and recording and discussing a new series. I've already had an offer of one for a year from now," he revealed. "I'll bet that even though I'm not on a weekly series, after a very brief vacation it'll be starting all over again, just as hectic. You wait and see!"
We had no doubts, as we said goodbye and good luck to Johnny Crawford, that it would be "starting all over again." Because for Johnny, the end of The Rifleman really means the beginning of a brand new, exciting chapter in what's destined to be a long, happy, successful show business life. (Amen to that!)
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