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Johnny Crawford, who became a child star as the son of The Rifleman, dies at 75
Johnny Crawford, who reigned as one of televisions most popular young actors while starring as Chuck Connorss sensitive son on “The Rifleman,” then parlayed his screen success into a string of Top 40 hits as a teenage crooner in the early 1960s, died April 29 at an assisted-living home in the Sun Valley section of Los Angeles. He was 75.
He had Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, Charlotte McKenna-Crawford, and was in declining health after being hospitalized last year for covid-19 and pneumonia.
Crawford was 9 when he began performing on national television, appearing on “The Mickey Mouse Club” in 1955 as one of two dozen original Mouseketeers. Wearing mouse ears and matching white shirts, he and his castmates charmed an audience of adolescent baby boomers while singing and dancing between serials and educational segments. Episodes began with a roll call and ended with a farewell song: “Now it’s time to say goodbye / to all our company.”
After the first season ended, Crawford was cut from the show. He suspected it was because he kept getting distracted while learning his dance steps, focusing instead on fellow Mouseketeer Annette Funicello. “That really broke my heart. . . . I was a has-been at nine,” he told an interviewer in 1982. “I told my agent that I would have worked at Disney’s for nothing. That’s when she told me that I was working for them for nothing.”
Yet he soon began appearing on episodes of “The Lone Ranger” and other shows, paving the way for his work on “The Rifleman.” Running from 1958 to 1963 on ABC and then for decades in syndication, the western starred Connors as Lucas McCain, a sharpshooting Civil War veteran and widower looking after his son, Mark, who shouts for “Pa” whenever trouble appears at their New Mexico ranch.
The two actors maintained a close relationship off-screen, with Connors sharing stories from his short career as a pro baseball player and teaching Crawford how to hold a bat and run the bases. “He tried to be a good influence for me, even off-camera,” Crawford recalled. “And he treated me like an adult when we were working. He made it much easier than it might have been.”
Crawford was 13 when he earned an Emmy nomination in 1959, losing in the best supporting actor (drama) category to Dennis Weaver of “Gunsmoke.” That same year, two of his family members received nominations as well: his older brother, fellow child actor Robert Crawford Jr., for an episode of “Playhouse 90”; and his father, Robert Crawford, for editing “The Bob Cummings Show.”
Crawford had grown up in a musical family, with one grandfather who worked as a music publisher and another, from Belgium, who played the violin and rose to become concertmaster of the New York and Los Angeles philharmonics. Nursing musical ambitions of his own, he signed with Del-Fi Records in 1961 and recorded Top 40 hits such as “Rumors,” “Proud” and the Pinocchio-inspired “Your Nose Is Gonna Grow,” about asking a girl why she was “holding another boy tight.”
In 1962, his song “Cindy’s Birthday” reached No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Crawford promoted his music career by occasionally singing on “The Rifleman,” even as he started learning rodeo techniques from cast and crew members. “Some of those extras were really good ropers,” his wife said in a phone interview. For about a decade, he competed in rodeo events such as calf roping, steer wrestling and bull and bronc riding, while appearing in film, television and stage roles.
He later traded his Stetson and blue jeans for a top hat and tuxedo, reinventing himself as the leader of the Johnny Crawford Dance Orchestra, which performed music from the 1920s and ’30s in period style. Formed in 1992, the group played at weddings, parties and charity balls across Southern California, including for a group of Hollywood A-listers at the Cicada swing-dance club in 2000.
“There were only about 50 people there, and they were all enjoying the band, and almost all were dancing,” Crawford later told the Wall Street Journal. “One fellow was standing off to the side watching for the longest time; it was Dustin Hoffman. He loved it. He said it reminded him of when he was a little boy and his parents took him to see Ted Lewis. Martin Short was a riot. He said, ‘I wanna sing with Johnny Crawford!’ “
John Ernest Crawford was born in Los Angeles on March 26, 1946. Both parents were occasional actors, and his mother was also a concert pianist. The family’s home was filled with old records, and by the time Crawford auditioned for “The Mickey Mouse Club” he had learned 1920s songs such as “Charley, My Boy” and “Mean to Me.”
Rather than sing a popular standard, he auditioned by performing a tap-dance routine and fencing with his brother. He said he secured a spot as a Mouseketeer by imitating singer Johnnie Ray, performing the song “Cry.”
Crawford later played a Native American in the adventure film “Indian Paint” (1965), appeared with Kim Darby in “The Restless Ones” (1965) and was shot by John Wayne in the western “El Dorado” (1966). He served two years in the Army and starred in the Oscar-winning short film “The Resurrection of Broncho Billy” (1970).
He also appeared on shows including “Hawaii Five-O,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “Murder, She Wrote” and starred opposite Victoria Principal in “The Naked Ape” (1973), a comedy from executive producer Hugh Hefner. The two men became close friends – Crawford “was a regular at the Playboy Mansion for 30 years,” his wife said – and bonded over their shared love of music.
Crawford said he had been trying to write folk music when Hefner played him an album of Bing Crosby songs from the ’20s. “That was it,” he recalled in a 2000 interview with the Journal. “I decided to start singing folk songs from Tin Pan Alley instead of from Oklahoma.”
In 1995, he married Charlotte McKenna, his high school sweetheart. In addition to his wife, of Los Angeles, survivors include two stepdaughters, Brenda Westenhaver of Denison, Texas, and Jamie Pierce of Rapid City, S.D.; a brother; and a sister.
Crawford sang with Vince Giordano’s dance orchestra in New York before starting his own group in Los Angeles, and sometimes drew on his rodeo experience to perform rope tricks onstage. Leading the orchestra was his “favorite role,” he said. “These songs have wonderful dialogue. It’s like getting to do Shakespeare. It’s the best acting assignment I’ve ever had.”
And, he added, “I pay myself better than any other producer I’ve ever worked for.”
Published : May 01, 2021
By : The Washington Post · Harrison Smith