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Mark McCain is son of the rancher Lucas McCain in the ABC Western television series The Rifleman that ran from 1958 to 1963. The part was portrayed by singer/actor and former Mousketeer Johnny Crawford, who was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1959 as Best Supporting Actor (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series. He lost the designation to Dennis Weaver, then portraying Chester Goode on CBS's Gunsmoke.
Mark McCain was more than just a supporting player in The Rifleman, for his bond with his father was the core of the show. In many ways, he was the co-lead of the series, appearing in almost every episode and a majority of scenes.
The McCains had previously lived in Enid, long before Oklahoma statehood in 1907. There Lucas' wife, Margaret, had died in a smallpox outbreak (Season 5, "The Guest"). Mark meets the spirit of his dead mother in The Vision (Season 2, Episode 26, first broadcast on March 22, 1960) when suffering from typhoid and in a heavy fever.
Despite the legendary Lucas McCain's use of his lightning rifle to settle disputes, the program is family-oriented. Lucas struggles to instill proper values in his young son, and most episodes end on an uplifting note.
In the episode "The Sister", Mark asked Lucas if he would remarry. Lucas replied that it was "only natural" for him to consider a second marriage. Mark asked when Lucas might marry again. He reassured Mark: "When I find the right woman." Mark asked what the qualifications would entail. Lucas told Mark that he would know the right woman "when I meet her son." With a big grin on his face, Mark asked, "What will she be like?" Lucas replied, "Well, she'll have to cook and sew and scrub. Her hands gotta be soft, she's gotta have hair like the crimson as the setting sun. Eyes as brown as chestnuts. She's gotta wear a flower because that's womanly. Ride a horse like a man." Mark suggested such a woman would be "kinda hard to find." Lucas agreed: "Very hard to find, son." As it turns out, Lucas did not remarry during the run of the program. However, in the last season, he was for a time smitten by a beautiful hotel owner named "Lou Mallory".
Western film and TV scholar Holly George-Warren said, "With its father-son dynamic, The Rifleman bridged the early, innocent Westerns like Hopalong Cassidy and The Gene Autry Show with the more violent, adult Westerns such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza. It was a wonderful family show but had its dramatic elements, too."
Sam Peckinpah, the author of the first episode of The Rifleman, "The Sharpshooter," is generally acknowledged as one of the creators of the series. He wrote five episodes (three of which he also directed) in the first season and wrote and directed an episode in the second season.
According to Christopher Sharrett in his 2005 book The Rifleman, “Peckinpah apparently wanted the series to focus on Mark, so that the series would be kind of bildungsroman, showing, in Peckinpah’s words, Mark’s 'discovery of what it’s all about.' Peckinpah’s vision, which would later show up in his films, was an “... essentialist, reductionist view of a violent world, one beset by the vile appetites of a new technocracy that was opposed by the hopelessly compromised yet relatively moral few. Such a vision … was not acceptable in any form to 1950s commercial television.”
To have realized Peckinpah's vision would have necessitated … ”Mark’s growth, maturation, possible disillusionment. The Rifleman indeed dealt with Mark’s growing up ... but rather than show a consistent series of bitter trials from Mark’s point of view, the show’s stories often were constructed as lessons in growing up."
According to Arnold Laven, “… Peckinpah’s departure from the show was based less on philosophical differences than on Peckinpah’s insistence on a level of violence that the producers felt distasteful and unsuited to their concept.”
In a Playboy Magazine interview with Peckinpah published in August 1972, William Murray, in his introduction, said that Peckinpah "... resigned when The Rifleman became a 'children's program'...."
The Rifleman was unique for its time in making its protagonist a widower with a small son, and thus burdening him with family responsibilities. This theme became more emphasized as the show developed in its five seasons, not only as a counterpoint to the violence of the show (the F.C.C. began pressuring networks to tone down violence in 1961 ), but to elucidate the theme of the introduction of civilization to the West, as Lucas brings Mark up with a respect for the rule of the law and fair play as part of the process of instilling moral values in his son.
The emphasis on the father-son relationship also was a result of the popularity of Johnny Crawford's portrayal of Mark and his chemistry with Chuck Connors, who played his father. Holly George-Warren recalled, "I remember me and all my girlfriends having crushes on Johnny."