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Johnny Crawford: A Legacy (1946-2021)

Hey, hey, hey! Kim Here. Today I wanted to take a little time to spotlight and pay tribute to actor Johnny Crawford. Crawford’s name is one holds a very specific spot in the hearts of those with a memory — or knowledge of — television in the 1950s and 1960s. The actor is perhaps best known thanks to his ongoing role in the long-running western series, The Rifleman which ran on ABC from 1958 until 1963.  The show followed widowed rancher Lucas McCain played by Chuck Connors, trying to raise his son Mark (played by Crawford) after the death of his wife.

The Los Angeles Times spotlighted Crawford in an article dated February 6th 1985 entitled Goody Goody Grows into Heavy, writing

“Crawford as a 12-year-old created a character that became a part of our pop consciousness….at least for the baby boomers who grew up with that televised paragon of western righteousness… Here was a truly average kid we scrawny types could identify with”.

The Rifleman aired it’s first episode — written by the legendary Sam Peckinpah by the way– in September 1958 when Crawford was twelve years old. After five season and more than 160 episodes, Crawford had just turned seventeen years old and had spent his formative years on-screen.

Born in 1946, Crawford came from a show business family. According to the Spokesman Review out of Spokane Washington on March 22nd 2008, his father worked as a film editor and his mother a pianist. The article goes on to mention that all four of his grandparents had careers in the music industry, a passion which would continue to live on in Johnny’s later work.

In fact, The Rifleman wasn’t Johnny Crawford’s only iconic role on television during this era. The actor was also part of The Mickey Mouse Club during the first season in 1955, but was among the large culling of Mouseketeers which happened after that first year. Crawford mentioned it briefly in an August 3rd 1973 interview in the Vancouver Sun. He’s quoted as saying, “I was fired because I couldn’t learn the dance steps fast enough”.

Crawford’s filmography lists credits as far back as 1950. An article in the Pittsburgh Press dated 23 of November 1958 reports that Crawford made his acting debut at 5 years old in a stage performance of Mr. Belvedere.  However, he was  on a variety of shows throughout the decade, from The Lone Ranger — Crawford spoke at star Clayton Moore’s service when he passed in 1999, to Climax and Mr. Adams and Eve. Crawford is quoted about this period in the Vancouver Sun article saying,

“I was very lucky in the 50s…TV was new and the first hour shows were a big thing because all the prime-time shows until then were a half hour. There was more work then”.

The article mentions that during this time, in a span of a little more than two years, he did sixty TV dramas and received a fast course on acting.

And perhaps it makes sense that in all the writing on his career, even as a youngster, what is emphasized about Johnny Crawford was his professionalism. The Vancouver Sun continues, quoting him, “I always felt I was a grown-up and I expected of myself exactly what I expected of grown-ups in the business. I took pride in what I did and I was very serious about it”.

As mentioned, The Rifleman started airing in September of 1958 and the reception was warm from the get-go. The series was one in what was a line up packed with westerns. A scan of the 1958 TV line show shows more than 20 westerns airing over the course of the year. The genre really was a dime-a-dozen at the time, but reviews of the new series throughout the autumn of 50 were friendly, emphasizing the bond shared by Crawford and telvision Chuck Connors on-screen. 

The Newark Advocate quotes Crawford in an article dated the seventh of March 1985: “I was dark, skinny and pathetic looking. I was astonished that they hired me because I didn’t look at all like Chuck who’s big and blonde. I always played orphans or refugees. The producers must have liked something about me”.

The family based structure of The Rifleman set the show apart at the time with most of the other westerns on the networks, many of which spotlighted lone figures of law and order standing up to the anarchy of the wild west. In an era which was very stringent on gender roles, the show portrays this father and son in a very domestic situation. In fact, even early in the first season, Lucas references  the complexity of being a single parent raising a growing son. He speaks often about having to fill the role of both parents. 

As Mark McCain, Crawford it a typically 1950s boy. He’s rambunctious, he gets into trouble and occasionally needs his father to instill some good sense into him, but he’s always teachable. At the same time, Crawford is particularly good with the dramatic scenes– a time where some kids can struggle– and his crying rivals the greats among child actors. However, even as a young boy, he injects an awe and respect into his performance when working with Connors. 

Crawford described his co-star as larger than life in the Newark Advocate. He continues,

“It was a fascinating part of my education listening to Chuck tell his baseballs stories or he’d be reciting Casey at Bat or he’d be doing speeches from Shakespeare… If I were putting on a Shakespeare festival … I’d sign Chuck Connors to play MacBeth”.  

The Rifleman came to an end in 1963 as Crawford turned 17 years old. Newspapers of the time paint an upbeat profile of the teen star, who had his eggs in a number of baskets as the series came to an end. 

An article dated the seventh of April 1963 in The Times out of Munster Indianna quotes the young actor: 

“It was drummed into my by very smart people — people I respect– that you can be a boy wonder today and a flop tomorrow… I had to be a very well-rounded person. I don’t think I’m handsome so I can’t get by on looks. I’m no Laurence Olivier so I had to work hard, study hard, to improve my acting”.

The article continues, detailing how Crawford was not only venturing into music, but he was also writing, dipping his toe into producing and was also enjoying participating in rodeos– thanks to his childhood spent on a western set. He even served in the army towards the end of the 1960s.

In the years after The Rifleman, he continued acting. His feature film credits throughout the decade include Indian Paint — which he produced– Village of the Giants, The Restless Ones and El Dorado. He saw steady work on television in shows like Mr. Ed, Rawhide, The Big Valley and Lancer… lots of westerns. This acting career followed a similar path throughout the following decades, his acting career never equaled what he managed in the 1950s and 1960s. Viewers might recognize Crawford from an appearance in Murder, She Wrote (season 2 episode 7) entitled “A Lady in the Lake” and from appearances in shows like Hawaii Five-O and Little House on the Prairie

As I mentioned earlier, his music career started in 1961. You know those days. The presence of Ricky Nelson made it so every teenager on television had to try their hand at releasing an album. In 1962 Crawford reached number eight on the charts with “Cindy’s Birthday” and followed that up with “Rumors”, which reached number twelve.

Even as his acting career seemed to slow, Crawford seemed to loose himself into a passion for music. He formed the Johnny Crawford Dance Orchestra. I’ve only recently started diving into the music myself — according to a 2009 article on Leonard Maltin dot com, the band was a staple in Los Angles dating back to the 1980s. With the orchestra, Crawford tapped into the music of the 1920s and 1930s, recording classics like “You Were Meant for Me”, “Sweepin’ the Clouds Away” and “She Reminds Me of You”.  The website Johnny Crawford Legacy writes, 

Authenticity was extremely important to him, so he used original period arrangements. Johnny also turned the band’s appearances into performance art, donning a tuxedo with tails and a top hat. He would step into character and stay there, addressing the audience as though they actually were in the 1920s. The Johnny Crawford Dance Orchestra was ranked among the top orchestras of its kind in Los Angeles. Its client list included Paramount Pictures, Fox Television, the Art Directors Guild, UCLA, and USC.

An album entitled “Sweepin’ the Clouds Away” was released dated 2011. While the album is a bit difficult to locate, Amazon music subscribers can listen to Crawford’s station on the streaming site.

What shines through in Johnny Crawford’s career is his love and appreciation of the history of the entertainment industry. He isn’t just an entertainer, he’s a fan. He’s quoted in the Vancouver Sun, “I love Hollywood…. it’s history and nostalgia. I’ve lived with it my whole life”. The article goes on to recount, “He knows his actors and his movies backwards and forwards and if there is a silent movie buff, it’s him”. 

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Kimberly Pierce View All

Podcaster at Hollywood and Wine, historian and filmmaker studying contributions of women in Classic TV. Film critic for Geek Girl Authority. Classic film lover for Ticklish Business.

You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!

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