Chuck Connors was a career minor-league ballplayer who played portions of the 1949 and 1951 seasons in the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, respectively. Connors, though, gained greater fame as one of the very few ballplayers who was a successful actor in his post-baseball career (best known as Lucas McCain in the TV show The Rifleman). Connors was also one of the few men who played both major-league baseball and basketball (with the Boston Celtics in 1946-47).
"I owe baseball all that I have and much of what I hope to have," Connors said in 1953 when he retired as a ballplayer. "Baseball made my entrance to the film industry immeasurably easier than I could have made it alone. To the greatest game in the world I shall be eternally in debt." For Connors, the turning point in his life came during spring training in 1951 when the Chicago Cubs demoted him to their Los Angeles Angels farm club in the Pacific Coast League. "Greatest break I ever got," Connors said in 1954. "I'm out there right in the middle of the movie business where, if a guy has anything, he's got the chance to break in."
Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors was born on April 10, 1921, in Brooklyn, New York. He was the only son of Allan and Marcella Connors, Irish natives who came to the United States via Newfoundland. Connors had one sibling, his sister Gloria. Connors grew up in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, where his parents struggled to eke out a living during the Great Depression of the 1930s. His father was unemployed for much of the decade, as his mother supported the family by scrubbing floors in office buildings; his father eventually found work as a night watchman. Connors said that growing up poor in his pre-adolescent years motivated him to work hard to achieve success as a ballplayer and later as an actor.
While he attended public schools as a teenager, Connors played on the football, basketball, and baseball teams sponsored by a local boys club, the Bay Ridge Celtics. John Flynn, who coached the teams, helped Connors gain a sports scholarship to Adelphi Academy, a private high school in Brooklyn. At Adelphi, Connors played all three sports for two years before graduating in the spring of 1940. He received his first mention in the New York Times on February 18, 1940, when the Adelphi basketball team defeated Manual Training High School, 39-27: "Kevin Connors, with 20 points, was high scorer for the winners."
Connors, who always dreamed of playing for the hometown Brooklyn Dodgers, signed with the ball club after the 1940 baseball season at Adelphi. The Dodgers assigned Connors to their Newport, Arkansas, farm team at the bottom of the minor-league ladder, the Class D Northeast Arkansas League. Connors played just four games for Newport, batting 1-for-11, before he changed his mind about professional baseball in favor of playing sports in college.
After he voluntarily retired from baseball following his short stint in the Dodgers organization, Connors attended Seton Hall College on a baseball scholarship. He played first base on the undefeated Seton Hall baseball team in the spring of 1942, which compiled an 11-0 record under Coach Al Mamaux. A highlight for Connors that season was Seton Hall's 6-5 come-from-behind victory over Fordham on May 11, when Seton Hall scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to win. As reported in the New York Times the next day, Seton Hall tied the score in that ninth inning when "Lacika scored on Connors' Texas Leaguer." At Seton Hall, Connors acquired his nickname "Chuck," which soon usurped his given name Kevin. As the first baseman for Seton Hall, Connors says he was fond of saying to his infielders, "Chuck it to me!"
Although Connors often voiced an "aw shucks" attitude about his lack of formal training as an actor, his Seton Hall education provided the foundation for his oratory skills. After being goaded into participating in a declamatory contest, he chose to recite Vachal Lindsay's poem "The Congo," a complex verse concerning Mumbo-Jumbo the God of the Congo. When the judges declared Connors the winner, he was hooked on the performing arts.
Connors also played varsity basketball at Seton Hall during the winter of 1941-42. He was the backup center on the 16-3 team led by Bob Davies, who went on to a stellar career as a pro player and enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Seton Hall Coach John "Honey" Russell inserted Connors into several games that winter to spell starting center Ken Pine. Connors scored a career-high six points on December 30, 1941, in Seton Hall's 59-15 rout of Maryland "I wasn't a bad basketball player, but I was far from the world's greatest," Connors told biographer David Fury. "Good defense, no offense, that was me." In 1942, the lanky Connors, who stood 6-foot-6, had more promise as a baseball player than as a basketball player, especially after he hit .360 for the Burlington, Vermont, ball club in the semi-pro Northern League during the summer of 1941.
During the summer of 1942, Connors wound up in the minor-league organization of the New York Yankees. The story goes that famed Yankees scout Paul Krichell signed Connors to a minor-league contract after he spotted his name on a list of unprotected minor-league players. Krichell may have seen Connors play for Seton Hall in nearby South Orange, New Jersey (other stories have Krichell scouting him at Adelphi and even arranging for his scholarship to Seton Hall). However, the Yankees signed Connors in late June of 1942 after he played for the Fraser Stars in Lynn, Massachusetts, a ball club in the semi-pro New England League. "Kevin Connors, College Star, Joins Fraser Club" blared a banner headline on the sports pages of the Lynn Evening Item on June 6, 1942. The story read in part: "His work in college circles has been so outstanding that a number of big league clubs are seeking his services." Connors played only three weeks in Lynn before signing with the Yankees. Why Connors did not return to his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers is unknown. The Yankees assigned Connors to their Norfolk, Virginia, farm club in the Class B Piedmont League, where he batted .264 in 72 games.
In October 1942 Connors enlisted in the Army, where he spent the next three years state-side as a tank training instructor while the United States fought World War II. After his initial assignment to Camp Campbell in Kentucky, Connors was assigned to West Point, 50 miles north of his native Brooklyn. On weekends during the warm weather, Connors played semi-pro baseball in the New York City area. During the colder months, he played pro basketball in the American Basketball League for the Brooklyn Indians (1943-44), Wilmington Bombers (1944-45), and Paterson Crescents (1945-46). Connors became more of a scorer during his wartime basketball years, averaging 6.1 points per game in 27 games for Wilmington and 8.8 points per game in 18 games for Paterson.
It was during this period of his life that Connors determined that he could make a decent living post-war as a year-round professional athlete, playing baseball from spring until fall and basketball during the winter. Connors's plan was not all that unusual for the time period, because many athletes played multiple professional sports in the 1930s and 1940s. Initially, Connors probably made more money as a pro basketball player than he did as a minor-league baseball player.
After Connors was discharged from the Army in February 1946, he immediately joined the Rochester Royals of the National Basketball League, which had greater stature than did the ABL. Connors played in 14 games for the Royals, scoring 28 points, before he left the club in early March to go to baseball spring training with the Yankees. Rochester went on to win the NBL title that spring, establishing a lengthy pattern of Connors playing on championship teams as a post-war athlete.
Connors found his way back to the Brooklyn Dodgers organization during spring training of 1946 after the Yankees asked waivers on him to move him down from their top farm club in Newark of the International League. Brooklyn picked up Connors off the waiver wire and assigned him to the Dodgers farm club in Newport News, Virginia, of the Class B Piedmont League. Connors hit 17 home runs in 1946 to lead the Piedmont League and establish himself as a prime prospect to be the first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Newport News won the Piedmont League playoffs, the first of four consecutive championship minor-league teams that Connors played on.
From a multi-sport perspective, Connors saw Ace Parker make an early departure from the Portsmouth club in the Piedmont League to play pro football that fall, even though Parker was leading the league in hitting with a .331 average. Parker played for the New York Yankees of the All-America Football Conference, a new professional league that was challenging the more established National Football League.
Similar to the AAFC, the Basketball Association of America began operations in the fall of 1946 to compete with the established National Basketball League (the two leagues merged after the 1948-49 season to form today's National Basketball Association). With his former Seton Hall coach, Honey Russell, at the helm of the Boston Celtics club in the BAA, Connors signed to play with the Celtics for the inaugural 1946-47 season. Connors averaged 4.6 points per game in 49 games for the Celtics that season. He was no major offensive threat, as he sank less than one in four field-goal attempts (94-for-380) and less than half of his free throws (39-for-84). Connors explained to author George Sullivan about his role on the Celtics that season:
I'm positive my greatest value to the Celtics was as an after-dinner speaker. It seems to me I did more public speaking for the team than playing that first season. They sent me all over New England on speaking engagements. I'd pick up $25 or $50 an appearance, whatever the traffic would bear. When I wasn't apologizing [for the few wins the team had], I was doing things like "Casey at the Bat" and "Face on the Bar Room Floor." I did "Casey" at the Boston Baseball Writers Dinner that first winter, and Ted Williams was there too after winning the 1946 American League MVP Award. Ted was very kind to me and laughed his head off at my rendition. Afterward, he said to me, "Kid, I don't know what kind of basketball player you are, but you ought to give it up and be an actor." So doing those after-dinner speeches was my raison d'etre.
It was also the beginning of an acting career for Connors.
Where Connors did establish his renown as a Boston Celtic on the basketball court was in a pre-game warm-up on November 5, 1946, when he became the first player in NBA history to shatter a glass backboard. Contrary to the legend that developed, Connors did not shatter the backboard while attempting to dunk the basketball. The newfangled backboard was missing a key part, a piece of rubber between the glass and the rim, which caused the glass to shatter when Connors's shot caromed off the rim. "During the warm-ups, I took a set shot, a harmless set shot, and crash, the glass backboard shattered," Connors recalled. The broken backboard caused a ruckus as Celtics owner Walter Brown scrambled to locate a replacement in order to play the game with the Chicago Stags. The Celtics game was being played at the Boston Arena, not at the Boston Garden, where Gene Autry's rodeo was playing to a large crowd. Brown dispatched publicist Howie McHugh in a truck to the Boston Garden to get a replacement backboard. "Howie tells how the Garden's backboards were stored behind the Brahma bull pens, and nobody was fool enough to challenge the bulls for them," Connors continued the story. "Howie found two drunken cowboys and slipped them a couple of bucks to go into the pen, dodge the bulls, and get a glass backboard out. If he hadn't, we might still be waiting at the Arena." Added Connors: "Russell never forgave me for breaking that backboard. He thought I'd ruined his season before it started."
Connors left the Celtics in late February to go to spring training with the Brooklyn Dodgers. His departure was not unusual. According to Phil Berger's account of the 1946-47 season in Total Basketball, Frank Baumholtz cut short his season to report to the Cincinnati Reds and "Baumholtz would be joined by at least five others--Detroit's Stan Miasek, St. Louis' Aubrey Davis, and Boston's Al Brightman, John Simmons, and Chuck Connors--who would leave the BAA for major league baseball."
Connors is considered one of an elite group of fewer than a dozen athletes that played both major-league baseball and in the NBA. Mark Hendrickson was the most recent addition to this list, when he pitched for Toronto in 2002. In addition to Baumholtz, the others are Danny Ainge, Gene Conley, Dave DeBusschere, Dick Groat, Steve Hamilton, Cotton Nash, Ron Reed, and Dick Ricketts. However, this is artificial exclusivity, by defining professional basketball as only teams in the NBA or its forerunner the BAA. This excludes many baseball players that played pro basketball with teams in the NBL or ABL. According to Ted Brock's research in Total Basketball, another dozen major-league ballplayers logged minutes with NBL teams, including Lou Boudreau, George Crowe, Irv Noren, and Del Rice. Many others, such as Hank Biasetti, played in the ABL.
For the 1947 baseball season, the Dodgers sent Connors to their farm club in Mobile, Alabama, in the Class AA Southern Association, where he hit .255 in 145 games, belted 15 home runs, and drove in 82 runs. Mobile won the Southern Association playoffs, but lost in the Dixie Series to Houston of the Texas League. Connors continued his ascent up the Dodgers' minor-league chain, where the first base situation at the parent club was in a state of flux. For the 1947 season, Jackie Robinson played first base, which was not his natural position, just to get his bat into the lineup. Eddie Stevens, a regular first baseman for the Dodgers during the 1946 season, was shipped out to Montreal, Brooklyn's top farm team. Howie Schultz, who split time with Stevens at first base in 1946 (and was another dual baseball-basketball athlete), was sold to the Philadelphia Phillies. Stevens was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 1947 season, clearing the way for Connors to at least play for Montreal in 1948 if not make the Brooklyn squad.
Connors, now a shrewd negotiator, played hard-to-get with the Boston Celtics to sign for the 1947-48 BAA season by claiming he had a deal to be player-coach of a Birmingham team in the new Southern Basketball League. Celtics owner Brown eventually caved in to Connors's contract demands, but Brown no doubt recalled the shattered backboard from the previous season that had cost him an additional expense. Connors played only four games for the Celtics before the team put him on waivers. Connors always claimed that he decided to put baseball first and abandon basketball. However, the Celtics cut him to save money, since they had acquired another center, Ed Sadowski. Connors played basketball during the winter of 1948 with both Paterson of the ABL and the Albany/Troy team of the New York State Basketball League.
For the 1948 baseball season, the Dodgers assigned Connors to their top farm club in Montreal, where he hit a solid .307 with 17 home runs and 88 RBIs. Montreal won the International League playoffs and also the Little World Series, defeating St. Paul of the American Association. Back in Brooklyn, first base was still a merry-go-round until manager Leo Durocher made Gil Hodges the regular first baseman midway through the 1948 season. Connors had a distinct shot at getting the first base job with Brooklyn in 1949, since Hodges hit just .249 in 1948. Connors did two things following the 1948 season to increase the odds of his promotion to Brooklyn. First, the 27-year-old bachelor settled down by marrying Elizabeth Riddell. Second, he finally abandoned his winter job as pro basketball player and played winter-league baseball with the Almendares ball club of the Cuban League.
Connors had a commanding presence, at 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds, with steely blue eyes and a loud voice. Yet he had a playful nature inside, although he wasn't a clown as many portrayed him. He had an inquisitive mind and a drive to succeed, a desire for achievement, whether in sports, performing acts, or charitable causes. Unfortunately, by 1949, Connors had acquired a bigger reputation as a comedian than as a ballplayer. He was the hit of the Dodgers Follies at the Vero Beach, Florida, training camp in March 1949. He even got his picture in The Sporting News reciting "Casey at the Bat." One writer remarked that "Kevin (Chuck) Connors, latest entry in Brooklyn's first base derby, is a ballplayer by occupation, a dramatic actor by instinct and a screwball by popular demand." Connors even handed out calling cards that advertised his availability for "Recitations, After-Dinner Speaker, Home Recordings for any Occasion, Free Lance Writing." In his book Tales from the Dodger Dugout, Carl Erskine tells a great story about how Connors entertained his Dodger teammates:
Chuck Connors used to do card tricks in the big lobby. One trick he did required the help of an accomplice. Chuck would send Toby Atwell down the road to a phone booth. Toby would sit in the booth with a flashlight and read a paperback Western and wait. In the lobby, Connors would entice a few bets that he could have someone draw a card from the deck and then call the Swami, who would identify the card. The ten of hearts is drawn; everybody in the room sees it. Connors then dials the number of the phone booth. Toby answers on the first ring and immediately begins to name the suits, "spades, hearts ..." Connors interrupts when he hears "hearts" by saying "Hello, Swami." Toby then rapidly names the cards, "king, queen, jack, ten ..." Connors again interrupts on the "ten" and hands the phone to one of the bettors. In a monotone, Toby says, "This is the Swami. Your card is the ten of hearts," and hangs up. Connors picks up the money.
After making a good impression with his bat rather than his mouth with the Dodgers' B squad during spring training in 1949, Connors got a shot at the Brooklyn first base job when he was elevated to the A squad for the April 7 exhibition game in Macon, Georgia. Connors went 1-for-5 in that game, and manager Burt Shotton penciled him into the lineup for the April 8 game in Atlanta. However, in a pre-game fielding drill, Connors was hit in the mouth by a ball thrown by Bruce Edwards and was taken to a local hospital. He needed five stitches to close the wound, which swelled his upper lip to twice its size. That bad break cost Connors his major-league opportunity. He missed two exhibition games, and when he returned for the April 10 game, he went 0-for-3. "I have only five days to win the job," Connors lamented at the time. "So I can't take time out for injuries." However, his bad breaks continued when the next three games all were rained out. In the April 14 game in Washington, D.C., Connors went 0-for-4. Worse, he had the crowd in stitches. "The fans laughed themselves silly over the performance of this bush league first baseman who seemed to be doing a takeoff on the old college try," one writer wrote. "Later Chuck said he hadn't tried to be funny, that he'd been hustling for keeps hoping to make an impression on Shotton."
Shotton wasn't amused. For the three-game city series with the Yankees, he inserted Gil Hodges back into the lineup at first base. On Opening Day at Ebbets Field on April 19, the Dodgers announced that they had acquired Connors from their Montreal farm club. Although Connors had made the Brooklyn team, Shotton kept him on the bench. It wasn't until May 1 that Connors got an opportunity to play. With the Dodgers losing 4-2 to the Phillies in the bottom of the ninth inning, Shotton had Connors pinch-hit for Carl Furillo with one out and a runner on first base. Russ Meyer was pitching for the Phillies. Connors, the potential tying run, recounted the situation for biographer Fury:
I knew I was going to get a hit and win the game. I mean I was squeezing the bat so hard that sawdust started running down the handle. On the next pitch Meyer threw me, a belt-high fastball on the outside corner, I creamed it! I hit a one hop back to the mound and he turned it into a double play. I still see that pitch in my dreams. It's as big as a zeppelin. If I had waited on it a little longer, I might still be playing.
That was the extent of Connors's career with the Brooklyn Dodgers: one pitch, one swing, 0-for-1 in the box score.
Connors actually got one more opportunity in a Brooklyn uniform. On May 2, in an exhibition game at West Point against the Army varsity baseball team, Connors played first base and went 2-for-5 at the plate. However, his performance in the exhibition game didn't matter. He was destined to return to Montreal for the remainder of the 1949 season, where he batted a hefty .319 with 20 home runs and 108 RBIs. Back in Brooklyn, Hodges had a 19-game hitting streak in May to solidify his hold on first base and helped lead the Dodgers to the 1949 National League pennant. It was small consolation for Connors that Montreal won the International League pennant.
He played one more year at Montreal in 1950, a solid but unspectacular season in which he compiled a .290 batting average but with just six homers and 68 RBIs. Connors knew he was going nowhere in the Brooklyn organization with Hodges now a fixture at first base, so he lobbied Brooklyn owner Branch Rickey to trade him. On October 10, 1950, Brooklyn announced that Connors had been traded to the Chicago Cubs along with Dee Fondy, another first baseman who played with Fort Worth of the Texas League in 1950. When Chicago manager Frank Frisch installed Fondy as his first baseman during spring training in 1951, Connors was assigned to the Cubs top farm club, the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. Not making the Chicago Cubs turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Connors. "Now who goes to the games in LA? Producers, directors, writers, casting directors," Connors recalled to author Cynthia Wilbur. "So because of the good year, I became a kind of favorite of the show business people, unbeknownst to myself."
In Los Angeles, Connors thrived playing for the Angels. During the first half of the 1951 season, he compiled a .321 batting average in 98 games, with 22 home runs and 77 RBIs. By early July, Connors got the call to join the Chicago Cubs, switching places with Fondy, who was farmed out to the Angels (they also switched uniforms, as Connors wore the same number 40). Connors was unspectacular in his half-season with the Cubs, though, hitting a weak .239 in 66 games with just two homers and 18 RBIs. He played fairly well for Frisch. But when Frisch was fired and replaced by Phil Cavarretta, a player-manager who was also a first baseman, Connors's stock plummeted with the Cubs. Chicago finished in last place for the 1951 season and returned Connors to the Los Angeles Angels right after the season ended. Fondy was the Cubs' regular first baseman for the next five years.
In September 1951, Connors received a phone call that changed his life. Bill Grady, the casting director for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was a passionate fan of the Los Angeles Angles and asked Connors to test for a small role in the movie Pat and Mike, a film starring Spencer Tracy and Kathryn Hepburn. Connors got the part as the police captain and was paid $500 for just a few hours of work. Connors had found his post-baseball career. "I said right then, this is my racket," Connors remembered in a 1966 interview. "Playing with Tracy and Hepburn, I was in the big leagues much faster than I arrived there in baseball." Connors made $12,000 as a movie actor before 1952 spring training began, more than double his $5,500 salary in baseball.
Connors felt so strongly about his potential as an actor that in November 1951 he filed for an exemption to the major league draft. "I'm more than satisfied to stay put in Los Angeles," Connors said at the time. "The Coast League is one of the best leagues in baseball and the living and playing conditions are superior." While this was a legitimate move for Connors to make to secure his future, it all but sealed his fate as a minor-league baseball player who would never return to the major leagues.
He played the 1952 season with the Los Angles Angels, where he is best remembered for his showboating than his playing ability. For example, after hitting one home run, he slid into second base, cart wheeled to third base, then crawled to home plate. These antics added to his "screwball" reputation, where at various times in his minor-league career he threw raw hamburger to rowdy fans at a road game and taunted umpires with Shakespearean quotes.
In February 1953, Connors retired from baseball to focus on acting. After Pat and Mike was released in 1952, Connors had roles in several more movies, including Code Two and South Sea Woman. He also regularly made guest appearances on television shows such as Gunsmoke and Superman. His big break came when he was cast in the role of Burn Sanderson, owner of the dog in the title role of the 1957 film Old Yeller.
While he had a reputation as a "zany" ballplayer, Connors was no buffoon in acting. He asked questions, picked people's brains to learn the business. He took horseback riding lessons and learned to shoot a gun, to do his own stunts without need for a stuntman. He became renowned as a sharp businessman in the entertainment industry. "The day I left baseball, I became smart," Connors said in a 1963 interview. "When I was in baseball, I played for the love of the game. I'd sign any contract they gave me. But then I stopped playing and began doing interviews with the players at the ball park. I began to see the light." Of course, Connors had observed one of the masters of baseball negotiation, Branch Rickey. As Connors is famous for remarking, "It was easy to figure out Mr. Rickey's thinking about contracts. He had players and money -- and just didn't like to see the two of them mix."
His work in Old Yeller led to his landing the role of Lucas McCain in the television series The Rifleman. The TV series ran for five years, from 1958 to 1963, and was very lucrative for Connors, who negotiated a 10% share of the profits. McCain was a single father who lived on a ranch in North Fork, New Mexico, in the late 1870s. He raised his son Mark (played by Johnny Crawford) with moral lessons, not brute force, while protecting the area from the dangers of the Wild West with his Winchester rifle.
"I can never get rid of The Rifleman," Connors said during the twilight of his acting career, "and I don't want to. It's a good image. Basically, [the show] was the simplicity of the love between the father and the son. That was the foundation. The rifle was for show, but the relationship was for real. There was some violence, but at the end, I would explain to the boy that the violence was not something we wanted to do, but had to do."
Westerns were hot in television in the late 1950s. In March 1959, eight of the top ten TV shows were westerns, including The Rifleman ranked at number six. Connors was associated with a group of elite star actors such as James Arness (Gunsmoke), Hugh O'Brian (Wyatt Earp), James Garner (Maverick), and Richard Boone (Have Gun, Will Travel). Baseball came in handy to get the part. According to a Time magazine article, "Chuck spent six years in minor-league baseball ... When he walked in to try out for Rifleman, the director suddenly pitched a rifle at him. Chuck fielded it neatly, got the job."
Ironically, as Connors became a star actor in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, the Dodgers relocated from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Connors was often seen as a spectator at Dodger Stadium during the 1960s, talking to the likes of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.
During the 1950s, Connors and his wife Elizabeth raised their four sons Michael, Jeffrey, Stephen, and Kevin in a house in Woodland Hills, California. He later moved to a ranch in Tehachapi, California, about two and a half hours north of Los Angeles. In 1961 Connors divorced Elizabeth. He married Kamala Devi in April 1963, whom he met on the set of the movie Geronimo. They divorced in 1972. His third marriage, to Faith Quabius in 1977, lasted just two years and ended in divorce in 1979. When asked about the possibility of marrying a fourth time, Connors often evoked an age-old baseball quip, "No, three strikes and you're out."
After playing Lucas McCain for five years in The Rifleman, Connors starred in two other TV shows, Arrest and Trial and Branded. He continued to play roles in movies, including Flipper in 1963. Connors reached the pinnacle of his acting career in 1977 when he played the slave owner Tom Moore in Roots, the first television mini-series. He received an Emmy nomination for that performance. In July 1984, he received a star on Hollywood Boulevard's celebrated Walk of Fame.
Connors was active in Republican politics in the 1960s and 1970s. He was a strong supporter of fellow Californian Richard Nixon, who was elected President in 1968, and fellow-actor Ronald Reagan, who was elected governor of California in 1966 and later was elected President in 1980. Connors had a celebrated meeting with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1973, after meeting him at a party at Nixon's Western White House in San Clemente, California. "Spotting Mr. Connors in a denim shirt at the helicopter pad, Mr. Brezhnev rushed over and threw his arms around the tall rugged star, who hugged back and lifted the laughing Communist party leader off his feet," the New York Times reported the greeting. The Connors/Brezhnev bear hug was captured by photographers and ran in many newspapers across the nation.
In addition to his political activities, Connors also raised millions of dollars for charity by sponsoring golf tournaments, especially for the Angel View Crippled Children's Foundation.
On November 10, 1992, Connors died at age 71 of lung cancer in Los Angeles, California. He is buried in San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills, California.
Despite his fame as an actor, Connors remembered his humble Brooklyn upbringing and remained grounded as a person. "I couldn't have all this as a ball player," he mused in a 1966 interview as he gazed at the view of the San Fernando Valley from his home. "But maybe baseball is a purer, healthier way for a guy to make a living." He also maintained his sense of humor. While he always contended that he'd rather have been Gil Hodges than The Rifleman, Connors kept his feelings light-hearted. In the late 1950s when he was asked, "But for Gil Hodges, you might be playing for the Dodgers," Connors interrupted by saying, "Shhhh! He'd be the Rifleman!"
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