Question: What was the name of the character who was the son of the Rifleman, Lucas McCain? — Phil, Shrewsbury, Mass.

Televisionary: Young Mark McCain was the son of homesteading hotshot Lucas (Chuck Connors) on the ABC series, which debuted in September 1958. He was played by Johnny Crawford, who went on to sing a series of pop hits in the '60s ("Cindy's Birthday" and "Patti Ann," among others) and currently leads a swing band in Southern California).

That fact that you care enough to ask lends some credence to the late Connors's theory on why his show was a hit early in its run: Despite its title, people liked the warmth of it. "I hear the same thing everywhere I go. Everybody says, 'We like your show because it's a family show,'" he told TV Guide in 1960. "It's because of the emphasis we try to put on moral values. There are killings, yes, in about half our shows. You got to have them, I guess, or it wouldn't be a Western. But if you'll notice, the story always turns on the reasons for the violence, usually in the big scene toward the end between Lucas and his son Mark."

Not that all the feel-good sweetness didn't wear on the big guy — he was just shy of six feet, six inches — who admitted the sentimentality did make the show "a little corny." But he knew (or thought he knew) what sold the series. "In one script, the boy says to me 'You don't like me,' or something like that," he said. "Well, instead of beating around the bush or using psychology or anything like that, I just look right at him and say: 'Look, son, I love you!' I love you! Brother, that's corn. That's as pure as they grow it, but that's what people want."

Well, it seemed that way early on, anyway. But two years later, when the actor was weathering a separation from his real-life wife and the show's ratings had declined, a subdued Connors admitted that maybe The Rifleman's emphasis on father-son bonding had pulled it a little too far from its titular firearm. "We got away from the gun last season and viewers complained," he said in 1962. "Kids especially like to see that Winchester work.

It's a little surprising that the star and his producers forgot about the gun's importance to the show, given the title and a key test they used to determine their star's fitness for the part. Connors, who previously made his living as on a baseball diamond, got into entertainment after playing a stint for the Chicago Cubs' minor-league team in Los Angeles. In between innings, he hosted a TV interview show, was spotted by a talent scout, and landed a minor role in Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy's Pat and Mike. "They paid me $500 for my first day's work in that movie," he recalled in 1959. "I figured they'd made some mistake on the adding machine, but I stuck the check in my pocket and shut up. Sure enough, the next day they gave me another $500. 'Baseball,' I told myself, 'just lost a first baseman.'"

So it was that when Connors walked in to talk to the powers that be, they had a little surprise in store for him. "They must have been looking at maybe 40, 50 guys that day," he said. "When I came in, this fellow, the producer, picked up a rifle and heaved it at me across the room. I grabbed it and started to heave it back at him. 'What the heck!' I said. What are you monkeys trying to pull?'"

What they were trying to pull was a test of how well he handled the gun. "Nothing to it," Connors told them. "Feels like a Louisville Slugger."

Well, a Louisville Slugger with a few modifications for showbiz purposes. The gun boasted an enlarged lever so he could cock it as he drew and a special screw that allowed him to fire simply by recocking. With that kind of help, the actor could fire off his first shot from a resting position in just 3/10ths of a second and get off another in 4/10ths of a second with a full twirl.

The producers believed the viewers were fooled into thinking that speed was all due to Connors's skill. Until, that is, Mad magazine ran a spoof, entitled "The Idiot with the Rifle, Man," that included several illustrations offensive to a 16-year-old fan in Connor's hometown of Brooklyn. The incensed kid tore the pictures out and sent them to Connors, accompanied by a letter registering his outrage. He circled every illustration of the gun and drew a line from each to a note in the margin: "Look, they even left the screw out."

The lesson there? When you name your show The Rifleman, expect people to keep their eye on the rifle.