A Baseball Player Turned Actor: Horrors!

Chuck Connors’ acting career was much more successful than his baseball career.

It’s that time of year again. As we approach the festive day of Halloween, I feel compelled to search for connections between our great game and the genre of horror—the genre most associated with this time of year. In the past, we’ve explored the story of Boris Karloff, dressed up in full Frankenstein regalia, playing in a charity baseball game. We’ve looked at reports of hauntings at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, a locale once investigated by the SyFy Network TV show, Ghost Hunters. And we’ve even examined the darker side of horror with a study of the infamous 1950s comic strip, “Foul Play,” about a midnight baseball game connected to murder and revenge. That controversial comic strip played a role in the establishment of a comic code, which essentially ended mainstream horror comics for the next 15 years.

So what about baseball players who have become actors and have appeared in horror films? Is there anything to find there? Notably, Hall of Famer Wade Boggs has dabbled in acting, once appearing in a hokey made-for-SyFy film from 2011 called Swamp Shark, which is literally a movie about a shark that has made its way into a swampy backwoods river. Boggs plays “Deputy Stanley,” who at one point tells another character, “I played a little ball myself.” Indeed he did.

Boggs is actually quite good in the small role, which he plays with a thick and convincing Cajun accent. But Boggs has never pursued a fulltime acting career in his post-playing days; he’s simply dipped his toes into the waters of Hollywood. No, we need someone who has become more dedicated to the craft of acting and made a more substantial niche in the world of horror.

The first ballplayer to achieve major success in film was Turkey Mike Donlin, who felt he could make more money in the movie industry than he could on the ballfield. Known for his playboy ways, Donlin enjoyed a career that spanned from the early days of the silent era until his death in 1933. But almost all of his acting involved comedies and dramas. He never appeared in any film even resembling horror.

Another famous ballplayer-turned-actor was Johnny Berardino, who played 11 seasons as a middle infielder for the St. Louis Browns, Cleveland Indians, and Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1953, Berardino injured his leg, motivating him to leave the game and fully pursue a career as an actor. Changing his last name to Beradino (the second “R” being eliminated), he eventually became a soap opera star, playing Dr. Steve Hardy on General Hospital. That came about because his friend, Michael Dante, an actor and ex-professional baseball player himself who played minor league ball in the Boston Braves and Washington Senators organizations (and who also appeared in two horror films, 1971’s Willard and 1980’s Beyond Evil), turned down the role of Dr. Hardy. “Johnny thanked me many times for making him a star,” Dante says good-naturedly.

Beradino also appeared in a number of other television and movie productions over a long career that lasted until his death in 1996. In 1972, Beradino played a different kind of doctor in a made-for-TV movie called Moon of the Wolf. Not surprisingly, it’s a horror film about a werewolf. But it’s a pretty obscure title, and appears to be the only time that Beradino took on a role in the genre of horror or sci-fi.

Other than Beradino, perhaps the most famous example of a ballplayer finding success in Hollywood is Chuck Connors. At first mention, we associate Connors with his roles in Westerns. In 1958, he received one of his biggest breaks when he appeared in The Big Country, a film featuring Heston and Gregory Peck. Not long after, Connors took on the role that defined him, the lead in the TV series, The Rifleman. For the next five years, Connors starred as Wild West rancher Lucas McCain in the hit series, cementing himself as a star of the genre.

Though Westerns are how we tend to remember Connors, a closer look at his career reveals a wider range of roles, including no fewer than eight credits in horror films and television series. That’s a fairly significant body of work. Among those films is a classic of the genre, 1974’s Soylent Green, in which Connors appeared with Charlton Heston. That appearance alone should qualify Connors as an honorable mention in any Horror Hall of Fame.

Connors’ baseball career was less successful, but still noteworthy. A left-handed hitting first baseman, he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers prior to 1940, playing one season of lower-level minor league ball before joining the New York Yankees organization. And then in 1943, Connors saw his career interrupted by World War II. From 1943 to 1945, he served as a stateside instructor for the Army, including stints at Camp Campbell in Kentucky and at West Point. During that same span, he somehow found time to play in the old American Basketball League, a rival to the more established National Basketball League (NBL).

Upon receiving his Army discharge in 1946, Connors joined the NBL, playing for the Rochester Royals. Not long after, he returned to baseball, re-signing with the Dodgers’ organization and putting up good numbers for their affiliate at Newport News of the Piedmont League. The following spring, the Dodgers bumped him all the way up to Double-A, where he showed some power, hitting 15 home runs. The Dodgers thought enough of him to promote him to Triple-A Montreal in 1948; there he emerged as a star, hitting .307 with an OPS of .887.

By now, Connors was a legitimate prospect, but one who was a bit old at age 27. He also faced one remaining and rather large obstacle above him in Brooklyn. The Dodgers already had a young, power-hitting first baseman in Gil Hodges. So Connors returned to Montreal in 1949, and outside of a single game appearance for Brooklyn in May, spent the entire summer north of the border. He continued to hit for power and average, but the continuing presence of Hodges kept Connors stuck at Montreal for all of 1950.

With Hodges entrenched at first base, and Connors having proven himself again and again at Triple-A, the Dodgers did the only sensible thing and traded their power-hitting first baseman. After the 1950 season, the Dodgers dealt Connors and another first baseman, Dee Fondy, to the Chicago Cubs for veteran outfielder and pinch-hitter Hank Edwards.

Connors seemed like a good fit for the Cubs, who needed power and someone to play first base, but he failed to make the Opening Day roster and headed back to the minor leagues, this time to Chicago’s Triple-A affiliate, the Los Angeles Angels. After a dominating first half of the Pacific Coast League season, the Cubs called Connors up in July. Finally given a chance, he appeared in 66 games, but batted only .239 with a pair of home runs.

Then came a life-changing moment that September, after the Triple-A season ended. Connors received a call from a casting director for MGM Studios. He wanted Connors to test for a part in an upcoming movie called Pat and Mike. Connors tested well and received a part in the film, which starred two of Hollywood’s giants, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

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With his mind now wandering to a new career in film, it was back to Triple-A ball in 1952. Now 31, Connors struggled at the plate that summer, but decided to have fun in other ways, entertaining fans with various acts of showboating. After hitting a home run one day, Connors slid into second base, did a cartwheel before reaching third, and then crawled his way toward home plate. Such antics brought him publicity, which is exactly what Connors wanted given his new interest in Hollywood. At season’s end, Connors retired from baseball—and made a fulltime commitment to his new acting career.

Connors took his new profession very seriously. He sought advice from veteran actors, became committed to perform his own stunts, and learned how to shoot a gun, the latter skill being important for certain movie parts, particularly cowboy roles. Connors found success in The Rifleman, at a time when Westerns dominated prime time TV. Throughout the ‘60s, he enjoyed a nice run in a string of so-called spaghetti westerns, which were created under the eyes of Italian directors.

Connors’ film persona began to change in the 1970s, as he aged into his 50s. Directors began to view him as an ideal villain, in part because of his 6-foot-5 frame and his sharp facial features. With villains now becoming his focus, it was only natural for Connors to gravitate toward horror. The first opportunity came in a 1972 made-for-TV movie called Night Terror. Connors plays a hired killer who stalks a character played by a young Donna Mills. To add to the cruelty of Connors’ murderous character, the witness played by Mills is a paraplegic. While hardly a classic, the film was regarded as decent made-for-TV fare, at a time when such films were gaining in popularity.

Later in 1972, Connors made an appearance on a television show that specialized in supernatural horror. It was Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, a poor man’s version of The Twilight Zone. Connors appeared in an episode called “The Ring With the Red Velvet Ropes.” An actor named Gary Lockwood (best known for 2001: A Space Odyssey) plays a boxing champion who mysteriously wakes up in a strange hotel and realizes that he now has to fight an old boxer with an undefeated record, played by Connors. In somewhat of a daze, Lockwood doesn’t really understand where he is and why he is there. Is this heaven, or is it hell, or somewhere in between? As for Connors, it was a highly physical role in playing an antagonistic figure, but the episode is generally regarded as one of the weaker ones in the Night Gallery franchise.

In 1973, Connors made another horror appearance on television, this time in a made-for-TV movie known as The Horror at 37,000 Feet. Connors took on a more positive role, as the captain of a jet airliner that appears to be carrying a demon aboard its latest flight. This was somewhat of an iconic TV movie, one that children talked about in school the day after CBS aired it on February 13. Frightening for kids of that time period, the movie also featured the usual hokiness that we associate with made-for-TV movies.

In contrast to a number of made-for-TV dandies in the 1970s, The Horror at 37,000 Feet featured a good cast with a number of notable actors. In addition to Connors, who was top-billed, the likes of Buddy Ebsen (Connors’ co-pilot), William Shatner, Paul Winfield, and Russell Johnson (the professor from Gilligan’s Island) all made significant appearances in the entertaining, if somewhat cheesy film. The film also deserves credit for its creative take on the airplane disaster genre by introducing a supernatural element to the proceedings.

Connors delivers his usual solid performance as the lead, but is somewhat upstaged by Shatner, who plays a drunken priest with a high level of believability. All in all, it’s a solid credit for Connors, but not a film by which he is most remembered. That would happen later in 1973.

Connors’ true breakthrough into classic horror would take place May of ’73, when Soylent Green premiered in theaters. It’s a futuristic film, set in New York City in the year 2022, when overpopulation and greenhouse effects have created an apocalyptic world in which there is simply not enough food for everyone. In order to combat starvation, the government supplies the poor with a processed food product called “Soylent Green;” they are green, patty-like morsels of food made out of materials that remain mysterious until the climactic and surprise ending.

While Heston is top-billed as a police officer trying to maintain order in a hellhole world, Connors is third-billed as Tab Fielding, the menacing bodyguard to an influential billionaire; the billionaire is eventually murdered. The murder motivates Heston to investigate; he initially suspects Connors’ character to be involved, but the investigation will lead to more significant discoveries about the government and Soylent Green. Connors and Heston share several scenes together, and play very well against each other, including a memorable physical confrontation between the two imposing actors. Soylent Green is an excellent film, one in which Connors handles his role very well, establishing him as fully capable of playing the bad guy in a horror/sci-fi film.

As much of a following as Soylent Green developed, Connors steered away from horror and sci-fi for the next several years, not returning to the genre until 1979, when he took part in Tourist Trap. Cast in the lead, this time as a clear-cut symbol of evil, Connors plays Mr. Slausen, a psychopath who runs a secluded roadside museum. When a group of young adults show up at the museum, Slausen begins to stalk them by using his telekinetic powers to animate the wax dummies in his collection.

As preposterous as the premise sounds, Tourist Trap is a better-than-average horror film that earned some favorable reviews, in part because of Connors’ professional presence. Connors carries the movie, which featured a number of young and inexperienced actors. Connors himself said he took on the role because of his desire to “become the Boris Karloff of the 1980s.”

Unfortunately that development never occurred, even though Connors possessed the kind of imposing visage and physicality that once helped Karloff become a horror legend. Connors did take several more turns at horror in the 1980s, but without the impact of Karloff. In 1987, he starred in Summer Camp Nightmare, playing a stern camp director who oversees the proceedings with an iron-fisted approach. Connors’ character is so much of a taskmaster that it leads the campers to revolt against him. It’s a role well-suited to Connors’ talents, but a film that fails to match the quality of Terror Trap or Soylent Green.

Later in 1987, Connors tried his hand at a TV series specializing in horror. Known simply as Werewolf, the show centered on a young man who is bitten by a werewolf and subjected to the ensuing curse. Connors plays the werewolf character responsible for the boy’s transformation, while also doubling as an evil one-eyed sea captain named Janos Skorzeny (the same name of the vampire in the popular TV movie, The Night Stalker). Despite developing a cult following and receiving good reviews, Werewolf lasted for only one season and 28 episodes before being cancelled due to low ratings.

Connors completed a horror triumvirate in 1987 by appearing in the bluntly titled Maniac Killer. It’s a weird film about a cult that kidnaps and tortures French prostitutes as a way of “cleansing” them. Maniac Killer is an example of a European horror film, one that remains obscure and difficult to find.

In 1989, Connors made his final appearance in horror, taking on a supporting role in a made-for-TV movie called High Desert Kill. It’s a strange movie about a group of friends who go on a hunting expedition in the New Mexico desert, only to be exposed to alien forces. It’s generally regarded as a very poor film, one that was quickly panned by the critics, marking an undistinguished end to his career in horror.

Only three years later, Connors would die from lung cancer at the age of 71. Connors was mourned throughout Hollywood, not just for his acting, but for his reputation as one of Hollywood’s nice guys, a direct contrast to his often intimidating on-screen persona.

While his last few films proved forgettable, his career in acting was more than noteworthy, arguably the best of any ex-professional athlete. “Chuck Connors was an inspiration for a lot of athletes that had additional talents in the arts, to pursue them with a greater intensity because they would have to eliminate the stigma of being an athlete who is trying to be an actor,” says actor (and ex-ballplayer) Michael Dante. “[Chuck] would be introduced as, ‘You know, Chuck Connors, the ballplayer. But, can he act?’ The previous stardom or recognition as an athlete was an onus in the Hollywood arena of casting. In Chuck’s case, thanks to his success on The Rifleman, he proved he had the talent and ability to overcome that stigma and be respected as a professional working actor.”

An actor who could handle many genres: Westerns, drama, and yes, even the world of horror.


Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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Paul G.
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Paul G.

Very cool.

In his acting career, did Connors ever play a baseball or basketball player?

keefer
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keefer

Fun stuff. I hadn’t known that “The Rifleman” had played pro ball. Sounds like he was quite the talented athlete. However, if you’re talking about pro baseball players turned actor, how could you not mention Kurt Russell? Granted, he was acting before he played pro ball, but only because he started at age 9. And he may not have had quite as successful a baseball career as Connors, since he never made it to The Show, though he did get to AA before a shoulder injury ended his ball-playing days. Most impressive, he’s an infinitely more talented actor than Connors.… Read more »