10 things you never knew about Johnny Crawford
He was equally adept at using a camera and a rope.
Image: The Everett Collection
In 1962, Johnny Crawford arrived Grand Prairie, Texas, to scout locations for a Western film, Indian Paint. The population of the town at the time was a little more than 30,000 people. When Crawford's plane touched down, hundreds, if not nearly 1,000, locals swarmed the airport for a look at the young Rifleman star.
"The biggest crowd we've seen around here," an airport employee marveled to the newspaper, The Daily News-Texan.
The kid — well, teenager — was a huge star, truly one of the major idols of the early '60s. His role as Mark McCain was a major part of that, of course, but at the time, Crawford had a hit single, "Cindy's Birthday," that was topped charts everywhere from Upstate New York to Southern California. The spotlight had been on him for seven years.
You know and love him as the son of the Rifleman, and perhaps fondly recall his time as a crooner and Mouseketeer. But here are some things you might not know about the onetime idol.
1. He made his stage debut at age 5.
It was in a Los Angeles production of Mr. Belvedere. Yes, that Mr. Belvedere. Long before he was the main character in an '80s sitcom, Belvedere was a popular pop culture figure thanks to the 1947 novel Belvedere. A film based on the best-seller, Sitting Pretty, came out the following year.
2. His fencing skills impressed Disney.
A Honolulu newspaper profile in 1962 had several juicy tidbit about the teen idol. "He won the part because of his fencing ability." He also knew his way with a rope. "He handles a lariat with remarkable finesse, and rope-twirling is part of his act."
3. He also had serious rodeo skills, too.
When, 16-year-old Crawford visited Clearwater, Florida, the local paper profiled the teen star and noted, "He now enters junior rodeo competitions whenever he gets the chance and has several medals in bulldogging and roping."
4. He was fired from The Mickey Mouse Club.
He took it a blessing, at least. "I got fired because I couldn't learn the dance steps fast enough," he told The Vancouver Sun in 1973, "and that was my first major break because being fired freed me to work."
5. He was an amateur filmmaker.
"He screens silent movies on his 8-mm and 16-mm sets, and produces his own 8-mm movies for private showings to friends," a profile wrote of him in 1962. A decade later, he was working on a 16-mm documentary about "his favorite folksinger," Ramblin' Jack Elliot. "I love the art of making films," he said. "I get a kick out of seeing a film take shape.
6. They dyed his hair for The Rifleman.
"His sandy brown hair is dyed dishwater blonde for the series," papers liked to point out in 1962.
7. He was making serious money at 12.
An Associated Press blurb from 1958 reported, "The 57-inch, 70-pound child actor went to court and obtained approval of a television contract that could pay him $115,000 by 1962." That's a little over a million dollars in today's money. To put that into perspective, the Rifleman himself, Chuck Connors, was earning around $150,000 when the series kicked off.
8. He guest-hosted American Bandstand.
When Dick Clark took a (likely much deserved) vacation in 1962, American Bandstand tapped Crawford as a substitute host. Chubby Checker and Jimmy Dean were the other fill-ins for the musical program that July.
9. He worked on training films when in the Army.
Following The Rifleman, Crawford enlisted in the Army, where he "acted, wrote, and was assistant director on training films."
10. He later admitted to "hating" his promotional tours for the Rifleman.
When he was 27, Crawford was understandably trying to show his mature side, which proved challenging, as The Rifleman was still premiering in new territories like Germany. In a 1973 profile for The Vancouver Sun, the actor "recalled how much he personal appearance tours for The Rifleman, being patted on the head, his cheeks pinched — by women, especially — telling him 'how cute you are' and asking him to say 'pa'."