I’ve been around longer than I care to admit.
As such, I’ve seen countless child/adolescent actors come down the pike, be it on television or on the big screen. My frame of reference, thanks to such entertainment outlets like TCM, can reach all the way back to the 1930s. And I’ve stayed reasonably on top of things, right up until the present day.
While I haven’t seen it all, there’s no denying that I’ve seen plenty.
And after having recently watched some early morning “The Rifleman” reruns on AMC, which was a welcomed and nostalgic trip back to my youth, a notion I’ve held for a lifetime was reinforced and cemented. Though he may have had some equals, while there may have been others who rivaled his acting chops, no one was ever more believable or convincing in an adolescent role as was Johnny Crawford as Mark McCain.
The ease with which he made that character come to life was nothing short of brilliant. Crawford brought a naturalness and likeability quotient to his craft that few, even adult actors, have ever demonstrated.
Crawford riveted you with a presence beyond his years, and he was so appealing, you couldn’t help but connect with him. He established with his audience a true bond and kinship that transcended the black box that brought him into your home.
As the sensitive and thoughtful son of rancher Lucas McCain, Mark made you wish you had a brother or trusted friend just like him. He had a way of touching your heart, and speaking to the better angels of your nature. His goodness as a person, his kindness as a human being leapt right out of the set. He couldn’t have been more real or alive had he and his pa “Luke” taken up residence in the den.
And you talk about range, well, Crawford could stretch as far as was needed and then some. Put Johnny in any situation, place him in any predicament, and he’d bring to bear the exact emotion, intensity, or feeling necessary to make any scene come to life.
It didn’t matter what he was experiencing, be it joy, anquish, fear, anger, love, confusion, resolve, defiance, empathy, sorrow, doubt, remorse, or concern. Whatever was required, Crawford flat out nailed it. As an actor, Johnny hammered everything that was thrown his way, curves and all. For someone of his limited age, he was 12 when the series began in 1958 and 17 when it ended, Crawford imbued his acting with incredible dimension and nuance.
Crawford’s power to convey and affect was aided greatly by a pleasant and welcoming face, which was almost angelic at times. He was, by any measure, a good-looking kid. So much so that he became somewhat of a heartthrob to heaven knows how many female viewers.
But his female fans aside, his was a face that related to almost everyone. There was a rare honesty and earnestness to it, devoid of deception, deceit, or guile. It was a face that you came to rely on. And when it emoted, when it mirrored what was going on inside, it could move you in ways that brought tears to your eyes, a lump to your throat, or a warm smile to your lips.
Often Crawford had the countenance of a choir boy. And it preached in a way that got you to completely buy into him. It convinced you to be on his side no matter what, pulling for him to make out as if he were an adored family member.
It would be a major oversight not to mention Crawford’s TV dad, Chuck Connors, in relation to Crawford’s acting prowess. Their on-camera chemistry has rarely been duplicated, either before or since. They truly clicked as a duo.
Each was made more formidable and admirable by the other. It’s hard to think of a more authentic and touching father-son relationship anywhere on film. They shared a bond that was built on the cornerstones of communication, trust, and love. And the true and deep affection they felt for one another was so perceptible, you could feel it. Lucas and Mark McCain were an illustrative example of what a father and son should be. Their powerful sense of family was a beautiful thing to behold.
Yes, there have been more celebrated and acclaimed young actors, the world singing their praises and rhapsodizing about their gifts. But anyone that takes an honest and extended look into Crawford’s work, will be forced to conclude that he could’ve hung with any of them.
He could run through the gambit of emotions with no sweat. He conveyed an honesty and vulnerability that was unique to him alone. And he did so with such an ease and comfort level that it was almost scary, as if Mark McCain and Johnny Crawford were one in the same.
Crawford gave performances that were noteworthy for their consistency, and at their zenith, were small masterpieces. His acting, thanks to reruns, remains as impactful today as it was some 50-plus years ago.
When people discuss or talk about the elite adolescent actors of all-time, Johnny Crawford is probably never mentioned. That’s a real injustice because he should be. His was a talent that was as pure and inspiring as anyone’s.
Source: therifleman.net/The Rifleman Cast-Chuck Connors-Johnny Crawford/Program History.