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matt zoller seitz

Seitz Asks: Who Was the First TV Dad That You Idolized?

Seitz Asks: Who was the first TV dad that you idolized?
Seitz Answers: Lucas McCain on The Rifleman

The Rifleman’s hero, Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors), always knows what to do. North Fork is lucky to have him. The town’s official sheriff, Micah Torrance (Paul Fix), is an aging ex-drunk who needs help handling the bandits, killers, and gun-toting antiheroes who keep drifting through; Lucas, a wizard with a Winchester, is always game to pitch in. 

But he’s an even better dad than he is a sharpshooter. Widowed for many years, Lucas raises his young son Mark (Johnny Crawford) solo, and does a sterling job considering what he’s up against. As conceived by future Western movie director Sam Peckinpah, Lucas at first seems like a rock-jawed, fifties-style American dad fantasy, a John Wayne type who says things like, “You start bending principles, they're not principles anymore.”

But he’s not some cartoonish lawgiver. When he gives Mark moral instruction, he accounts for his own flaws and inconsistencies rather than pretending they don’t exist. There are hints that he was an Unforgiven-style killing machine decades ago, and worked hard at containing and channeling that rage for socially constructive ends. That’s why Lucas hates criminals, and distrusts bounty hunters and mercenaries: They remind him of the most shameful parts of his past. And it’s why he resists letting Mark carry a gun. He wants Mark to use his brains and his heart instead of fists or bullets, unless there’s no choice. You can tell by the way he talks to Mark that he adores his optimism, innocence, and earnestness, and wants to preserve as much of those qualities as he can without turning the boy into a sap.

As a child of divorce growing up in a freewheeling seventies atmosphere (both of my parents and many of their friends were jazz musicians), I knew Lucas’s quiet certitude was out-of-fashion, but that’s why The Rifleman was catnip to me. The rise of the “sensitive man” in the seventies was ultimately a good thing, but at the time I saw a lot of dads taking it too far, to the point where they seemed to be negotiating with their kids instead of raising them. Lucas never made that mistake. His son always knew what constituted “good” or “right” behavior because Lucas had explained it to him, and made it clear that if he took moral shortcuts he’d pay a price one way or another. I’m a fan of Little House on the Prairie’s Charles Ingalls, Andy Griffith, Heathcliff Huxtable, and Keith Mars of Veronica Mars, and if push came to shove I’d probably say I found them more useful as fictional role models once I had children of my own. But Lucas was the first fictional father I idolized — my first TV dad crush.

Who was yours?

Photo: Levy-Gardner-Laven Productions