Saturday, March 30, 2013

Chuck Connors: From the Diamond to the Silver Screen

Connors was tall and wiry at 6-foot-5, 190 pounds. His 1992 New York Times obituary stated that "his square-jawed masculinity made him a natural for rugged acting roles." Before aspiring to a career in celluloid, he spent nearly a decade as a professional athlete.

Connors was a multi-sport star in high school. He signed with the Dodgers in 1940, but went 1-for-11 at the plate in 4 games before sustaining an injury. He temporarily retired to attend college at Seton Hall in New Jersey. He played first base for the university squad and was a center for the basketball team. He also took an interest in the performing arts.

Connors was signed by the Yankees in June of '42. In October of that year, he enlisted in the Army. He later decided to become a year-round professional athlete, playing baseball from spring until fall and basketball in the winter. In 1946, the Yankees waived him during spring training and he was picked up by the Dodgers again. That same year, he became the first player in NBA history to shatter a glass backboard on a dunk while playing for the Boston Celtics. He commented of his days with the Celtics: "My greatest value to the team was as an after-dinner speaker. I did more public speaking than playing."

Connors excelled in the Dodger farm system, hitting 17 homers in the Piedmont League during the '46 slate and establishing himself as a top prospect. He played on four straight minor league championship squads. In '49, he got a cup of coffee in the majors, but was sent back down after just one appearance. He continued to hit well, posting averages of .307, .319 and .290 with Montreal of the International League from '48-'50. With no room for him on the Brooklyn roster, the Dodgers finally traded him to the Cubs in October of 1950.

Connors' longest stint in the majors was with Chicago in '51, when he hit .239 in 66 games as a first baseman. The Cubs were terrible that year, finishing 30 games below .500. Near the end of the season, Connors got his first big break. A casting director offered him a bit-part in the Spencer Tracy/ Katherine Hepburn film, Pat & Mike. His life dramatically changed direction after that. In a 1966 interview, he recalled: "I said right then and there, this is my racket."

Demoted to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League in '52, he retired from baseball before getting another big league call-up. He is best known for his role as Lucas McCain in the television series, The Rifleman, which ran from 1958 to 1963--the golden era of TV Westerns. Connors' character took care of villains with his trusty Winchester. He would appear in more than 40 films during his career along with numerous TV shows and specials. He received an Emmy nomination for his role in the TV mini-series Roots and won a Golden Globe Award in 1959. Among his most notable movie credits were the '57 Disney Classic Old Yeller, the 1973 science fiction epic Soylent Green and the star-studded Zucker Brothers comedy, Airplane II, released in 1982.

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