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Rifleman star Johnny Crawford to visit Triad

In 1970, USC film student John Longenecker produced “The Resurrection of Broncho Billy”. It was co-written by a pre “Halloween” John Carpenter, and went on to win an Oscar for best short subject. The story is about a boy who grew up in a big city and dreamed of becoming a cowboy. Not surprisingly, Longenecker asked his old friend Johnny Crawford to star in the movie because Crawford had grown up in Los Angeles, and became one of the most popular TV cowboys of all time.

I asked Johnny if the film was autobiographical for him.

JC Yeah. I was just like you and other kids at the time. I watched B westerns on Saturday mornings. I had all of the toy guns, and the Hopalong Cassidy stuff, and cap pistols. We all played cowboys and Indians, and my bicycle was my horse.

But not all horses had two wheels.

JC There was this amusement park right off Beverly Blvd., and they had a pony ride, and my parents would try and avoid driving by that park because I wasn’t happy until I had gotten to sit on a pony. My favorite was named Goldie, and they strapped me into the saddle, and he trotted around with me.

When he wasn’t riding ponies, Johnny was singing around the house and seemed to love performing. By age five, he was acting in his first play, a production of “Mr. Belvedere”. His talent was evident, and a product of good genes.

JC My father was a film editor at Columbia, and both he and my mother performed in local theatre. We would go see those plays and I thought it was just great that they were doing that.

As fate would have it, Crawford’s Sunday school teacher was also an agent, so she sent the young thespian on a series of auditions, including one for Walt Disney who was casting Mouseketeers for his new “Mickey Mouse Club” TV show. Crawford’s imitation of singer Johnnie Ray landed him a slot in the original ensemble which also featured Annette Funicello. But the euphoria of being on national television was short lived.

JC There were so many of us that they decided to focus on a smaller group, going from twenty four Mouseketeers down to twelve, and I was let go after the first season. It was very disappointing. But having done “Mickey Mouse Club” gave me confidence.

The show also opened doors for Johnny, including a stand-out role in Lux Video Theatre’s “Little Boy Lost”, and that led to roles in other live TV dramas. Then came his shortest and most successful audition ever, for a show that would make him a household name. It was December of 1957, and Four Star founder Dick Powell and the Levy Gardner Laven company had cast Chuck Connors to star in an episode of Dick’s popular “Zane Gray Theatre”, which would also serve as the pilot for a new series titled “The Rifleman”. The story was about rancher Lucas McCain and his son Mark, trying to make a life for themselves in the Old West. In 1990, Connors told TV Guide, “The producers and I interviewed 20 or 30 kids to play Mark. Then Johnny came in the room, and before we even talked to him, I said, ‘That’s him. That’s the Rifleman’s son! ‘ “

As the title of the series suggests, the elder McCain was proficient with a rifle, and in the course of five seasons, he gunned down hundreds of bad guys. Despite the violence, though, the show remained popular with both male and female audiences. I asked Johnny why.

JC The father/son relationship WAS the show really. It gave the show a dimension that other shows didn’t have, which was a family of two people trying to make it in the Old West when it was pretty lawless. But it was always understood that killing was a last resort, and the violence wasn’t to be used frivolously.

As the show grew in popularity, so did Johnny. In those days it was typical for teen TV idols to launch a singing career. “Donna Reed” stars Shelley Fabares and Paul Peterson did it. So had Ricky Nelson.

JC A friend of ours was at a cocktail party talking to Bob Keane who was president of DelFi records and had discovered Richie Valens. Bob said he was looking for a young actor who could sing, and our friend told him about me. We had a meeting and I signed a contract. My first song was “Daydreams”.

Soon Crawford found himself having to multitask. He was acting, recording (he had five hit records), singing on American Bandstand, and making personal appearances, including one for the grand opening of the nation’s first IHOP. I wondered if he ever felt stressed, and that his time and talents were being stretched too thin.

JC Well I also had homework to do, but I loved to watch all of the TV Westerns. So when I was supposed to be learning my lines and doing my homework, I would position myself on the floor, in front of the TV, and have all those things spread out in front of me. I would manage to do my homework during commercials.

Johnny kept up his frantic pace for five years while filming “The Rifleman”, and it almost extended to another season.

JC I remember they were talking about doing a sixth season in color and expanding it to an hour. That would have been good for me financially, but I’m glad we didn’t do it because there’s something magical about a two reeler. Less is more. It’s just sweeter than something that drags on. It’s more gripping.

Following “The Rifleman”, Crawford pulled a stint in the Army, and continued to act in films, like John Wayne’s “El Dorado”, in which he had his clothes on, and in “The Naked Ape”, in which he had his clothes off.

JC I still get flack from that. There’s a little nudity in the film and it’s brief, but the whole thing is sweet and romantic. It didn’t bother me at all. It’s one shot, and it’s very tasteful.

But since Hugh Hefner produced the film, a photo of Crawford shows up in “Playboy”, giving Johnny the distinction of having been the first male to appear with full frontal nudity in the iconic magazine.

In 1992 Crawford got back to his musical roots and formed his own orchestra, which plays songs from the 1920’s and ‘30’s. The band has performed at awards shows and is available for private functions.

Johnny is also still making personal appearances, including next month’s Western Film Fair, July 9-12 in Winston- Salem.

JC I enjoy people and that’s why the Western Film Fair will be so much fun because I can sit in a chair all day and meet people who are so friendly, and warm and excited to meet me, and it’s thrilling.

For more information on the event, visit www.westernfilmfair.com. !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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