Throughout the history of professional sports in the United States, there have been athletes that have tried acting once their athletic careers concluded. O.J. Simpson, prior to his legal troubles, was a staple in all three of the Naked Gun movies. Shaquille O’Neal has been in numerous movies since his retirement from the NBA, including Grown Ups 2, Blended, and The Lego Movie. After a six-year stint in the NFL, Terry Crews made it big in successful movies like Idiocracy and White Chicks, as well as television with recurring roles in Everybody Hates Chris and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Even arguably the biggest actor in Hollywood today, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, traded in his University of Miami football uniform and WWE wrestling tights to star in his blockbuster films.
In order for acting to have been a viable career path for all retired professional athletes looking for what to do next, there needed to be a successful trailblazer. That person was Chuck Connors.
Kevin Joseph Aloysius “Chuck” Connors was born on April 10, 1921, in Brooklyn, New York. Growing up, Connors was constantly on the baseball diamond for the Bay Ridge Boys’ Club in Brooklyn. During his time with the Bay Ridge Boys’ Club, Connors developed a love for both baseball and basketball. He hoped to, one day, play for his favorite MLB team, the hometown Brooklyn Dodgers.
After a short stint at a Manual Training high school, Connors earned an athletic scholarship to the private Adelphi Academy for baseball, basketball, football, and track. He chose to attend Seton Hall after high school. He also followed his dream of playing professional baseball, as he signed a deal with the Dodgers’ minor league team while he attended college.
Connors played four games with the Newport Dodgers during the 1940 season, going 1-for-11 in that span before being released. He sat out the rest of that season and all of the 1941 season. He eventually signed another minor league deal. This time, it was with the New York Yankees. In 1942 for the Norfolk Tars, Connors played in 72 games, batting .264 with 5 home runs. Before the season ended, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, with whom he stayed until 1946.
Upon his departure from the military in 1946, Connors was asked to join the Boston Celtics of the newly founded National Basketball Association. He agreed, and became a two-sport athlete, playing baseball in the summer and basketball in the winter.
In 49 games during the inaugural 1946-47 season, Connors played 49 games and averaged 4.6 points per game. He only played four games during the 1947-48 season before leaving the Celtics to focus on baseball.
Connors played for three different minor league teams in the Dodgers’ system between the 1946 and 1949 seasons before his dream became a reality and was called up for one game. On May 1, Connors had a pinch-hit appearance against the Philadelphia Phillies. In his only plate appearance, he grounded into a double play. After that game, Connors was sent back to Brooklyn’s Triple-A team in Montreal for the rest of the season.
He would spend two more seasons with Montreal before signing with the Chicago Cubs. Connors received another opportunity in the major leagues during the 1951 season, where he played in 66 games, hitting .239 with 2 home runs and 18 RBIs. He spent the second half of the 1951 season and all of the 1952 season with the Triple-A Los Angeles Angels before retiring from professional sports.
Upon his retirement, Connors decided he wanted to pursue acting. Right away, he made a splash, starring in movies alongside Hollywood mainstays like Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, John Wayne, and Burt Lancaster, albeit in small roles. After a series of minor roles, Connors had his acting breakthrough when he was cast in the lead role for the television series The Rifleman. He played Lucas McCain, a widowed rancher in the 1880’s that looked after his son and welded a personalized Winchester rifle. The Rifleman lasted for five seasons on ABC between 1958 and 1963.
The Rifleman was one of the most popular shows on television during its first two seasons, finishing fourth and 13th in the Nielsen ratings, respectively. Although its popularity waned as the seasons progressed, The Rifleman never fell below a Nielsen rating of 22.1, making Connors one of the most recognizable actors at the time.
After The Rifleman, Connors continued his acting career until his death from lung cancer in 1992 at the age of 71. In all, he had 136 acting credits to his name.
Prior to Connors, rarely did professional athletes delve into the world of acting. Jim Thorpe was the only other to really do so prior to Connors, and it wasn’t nearly as impressive. In 70 acting credits, Thorpe was only credited in 15 of them.
Chuck Connors took a risk. He went from being both a professional baseball player and basketball player to being an actor. If he had done so and failed, the inclusion of pro athletes within the world of television and cinema may have been delayed by years or even decades. But, Connors succeeded and thrived in this new world. He made Hollywood feel comfortable with casting athletes in roles. He was able to pave the road for all other athletes that looked towards both the big-and-small screens in their lives after sports.
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