Johnny Crawford's favorite episode of The Rifleman happened to be the most painful to shoot
Both Mark McCain and the actor were suffering from a severe fever.
Sometimes, a father has a good reason for being stern. At the beginning of "The Vision," a wonderful season-two episode of The Rifleman, both Lucas and Mark McCain are in sour moods. The boy dumps dirty laundry water on a patch of marigolds. Those flowers happened to be the favorite of his deceased mother.
"What's the sense in remembering somebody that's left ya?" he pouts.
Naturally, Lucas does not react so kindly to the sullying of the memory of his dead wife. Lucas reminds Mark that he had a loving mother for six years — how could he not remember her? The two bicker and snap at each other as they discuss the point of remembering Margaret McCain. Mrs. McCain passed away from smallpox. Little does Mark know, he's in danger of suffering a similar fate.
A dark cloud hangs over father and son as they embark on a trip to pick up a bull they have purchased. The two camp for the evening near a fortune teller's wagon. Her name is Hazel. The mystical woman has drawn quite an audience, not just for her premonitions but her lovely singing. Mark wanders over to the lady, who gives him a cheese sandwich and blackberry jelly.
Lucas spoils the fun and food by barking orders and yanking his boy back to their bedrolls. Before hitting the sack, Lucas warns Mark to avoid drinking the water from the barrel by the fortune teller. "Could be polluted," he notes.
Of course, Mark awakens in the middle of the night and slurps down a ladleful of contaminated water. Which gives him typhoid fever.
Like we said, dad does know best in some cases.
This is where "The Vision" enters some tender, borderline supernatural territory. A wicked fever ravages poor Mark, who ends up bedridden and sweaty. The kid starts having fever dreams, which are presented more like a Twilight Zone than a typical Western.
Watery waves pour down the camera lens in that classic "We are entering a dream" trick. Mark finds himself in a garden patch, set deep in the bottom of some kind of well. A rope leads up to his escape. The doctor leans over the ledge and calls down to him. But a veiled woman in white lures Mark's attention.
This ghostly beauty approaches Mark through a sparkling forest, around a reflective pond. A vintage vignette wraps around the screen, giving the scene even more of a fairy-tale effect. The woman is his dead mother, Margaret.
We see Mark's reaction to staring into the face of his lost mom. but the face of Margaret McCain is never fully revealed to the audience. It's a brilliant directing choice.
But it's not entirely true. Because the actress who played Hazel the fortune teller, Marian Seldes, is the one behind the veil.
It is not a spoiler to say that Mark pulls through his fever and returns to health and happiness. This is 1960 TV, after all.
"At the time I remember thinking that it was very imaginative and unusual," Crawford said. "Also, at that time, one of my favorite shows was The Twilight Zone, so that was where my tastes were."
He adored the episode despite the painful process of filming it. Mark McCain was not the only one suffering from a fever — the actor himself was running a high temperature.
"I was actually ill," Crawford recalled. "Normally, it took us three days to do an episode and we worked like crazy, but I think it was on the first day of the show, I had a fever and I was trying to keep it a secret. I knew that if the lady who taught me on the set, who was also a welfare worker — it was her responsibility to see that if I was ill, I was removed from the set until I was in proper health. I didn't want to hold up production and all that, so I tried to keep it a secret from her… but I guess it became somewhat obvious."
It became painfully obvious when it came time to film a scene in which Lucas and the doctor pack poor Mark in ice to bring down his temperature. Crawford recalls it being one of the first scenes filmed for the episode.
"I guess she thought that I was doing an extremely good job of acting," Crawford joked. He was not acting. He filmed the fever scenes with a raging fever.
The production sent Crawford home to recuperate. In the end, it took nine days to film the episode, three times the average length.
But at least he felt it was worth the effort.