A whole new crop of Disney stars came with the explosive popularity of television in the 1950s. Walt Disney had made his name in the 1920s creating animated cartoons and expanded his empire with the full-length feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, which led to more high-profile films in the '40s as well as live action shorts and documentaries. With TV gaining traction the following decade, he debuted the weekly Disneyland series in '54 (prior to the opening of the theme park it was named for), which he produced and hosted for ABC-TV. Months later he began casting a daytime series, The Mickey Mouse Club, attracting many young auditioners for a spot on the show. When it debuted in October 1955, nine-year-old Los Angeles native Johnny Crawford appeared as one of the original "Mouseketeers," an experience that became a jumping-off point for a lengthy career as an actor...and a whole lot more.

Over the next few years, Johnny experienced the ups and downs of wearing mouse ears and a slightly-heavier cowboy hat, gradually feeling the weight of teen idol stardom on his shoulders. He was as well-equipped as anyone to take on those individual challenges at such an early age, having been born into a show business family. His grandfather on his mom's side was Alfred Eugene Megerlin, a violinist and symphony conductor in New York, Minneapolis and Los Angeles during the 1920s, while his dad's dad, Robert Crawford, was successful as a music publisher. Father Robert Crawford, Jr. was hired by Columbia Pictures as a film editor. No surprise, then, that older brother Bobby Crawford caught the acting bug at a young age as did Johnny (born John Ernest Crawford in 1946), who possessed a fair share of both the musical and thespian capabilities of his forebears.

His Mouse Club duties included simple dance routines and singing with Mouseketeer Karen Pendleton. Johnny and brother Bobby had been taking fencing lessons before the series started; Bobby later joined him on a "Talent Round-Up Day" sword fight that was quite effective. Ten-year-old Paul Petersen was also an original Mouse Clubber but appeared in only three episodes; Johnny lasted a year but was dropped at the end of season one. Both, as it turned out, would soon enjoy weekly small screen stardom, at one point facing off on the music charts of '62 and '63 with their own hit singles. Any disappointment on Johnny's part was tempered by a notable role in Little Boy Lost, an installment of NBC-TV's Lux Video Theatre that aired in March '56, an uncredited part in the theatrical film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit starring Gregory Peck, and an appearance on the syndicated Chevron Hall of Stars series, all of which aired prior to his dismissal from the Disney ranks. It was the beginning of a prolific period in the young actor's life.

An episode of The Lone Ranger in October '56 (The Cross of Santo Domingo) altered his career path; his life would soon be lived on the sets of western series, and one in particular, throughout most of his adolescent years. From late 1956 through '57 he appeared in one feature film (Courage of Black Beauty) and no less than a dozen television dramas including Climax!, The O. Henry Playhouse, The Millionaire, The Loretta Young Show, The Sheriff of Cochise and Have Gun - Will Travel, alternately billed as John, John E. or John Ernest Crawford, but mostly as Johnny. A familiar face to viewers by '58, he was in 14 installments of NBC's daily drama series Matinee Theatre in addition to guest roles on Mr. Adams and Eve, Whirlybirds and more westerns: Wagon Train, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickock, The Restless Gun and Tales of Wells Fargo.

CBS-TV's Zane Grey Theatre broadcast an episode titled The Sharpshooter that starred Chuck Connors as rancher/widower Lucas McCain and Johnny as his son Mark; airing in March 1958, it served as the pilot for The Rifleman, which was picked up by ABC and added to the network's fall lineup. Something unusual became evident when that season's Emmy Awards nominees were announced in early 1959: three members of the Crawford family received nominations, the first (and only) for each. Robert Crawford was cited for Best Film Editing for an episode of The Bob Cummings Show, Robert Jr. (Bobby) was nominated for Best Single Performance by an Actor for a Playhouse 90 presentation, Child of Our Time, and the not-quite-13-year-old Johnny was recognized for his work on The Rifleman in the category Best Supporting Actor (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series (the winner was Dennis Weaver, who played viewer favorite Chester on the tube's top-rated western series, Gunsmoke). Emmy night was certainly a legendary event for the Crawfords, despite the lack of a win.

Johnny Crawford

Johnny's career took a turn in 1960, during the third season of The Rifleman, when he was signed to a recording contract by former big band musician Bob Keane of Del-Fi Records. Inspired, no doubt, by the success of Ricky Nelson of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet on the same network, it seemed like a reasonable bet that Johnny could be classed in the teen idol mold despite his limited experience as a singer. Keane arranged for vocal lessons before placing Johnny in the modest recording studio (microphones, an Ampex tape recorder and makeshift soundproofing in a space not much larger than a closet) in the back room of Del-Fi's Selma Avenue office, right in the midst of the bigger Hollywood record companies. Playing on the softness in Johnny's singing voice as a lure to the mainly pre-teen female fans he'd already acquired through the TV series, Keane produced "Daydreams," composed by local songwriter and session pianist Al Hazan. Local station KFWB (its studio just a few blocks from the Del-Fi cubicle) passed on the song, but Pasadena's KRLA gave the disc limited airplay; it spent a few weeks on the national charts in June and July.

Follow-up single "Your Love is Growing Cold" had few takers; meanwhile, Johnny could often be seen playing guitar and singing 19th-century-style songs on the TV series. Just before Christmas he was featured on an episode of The Donna Reed Show titled A Very Bright Boy, reuniting on this one occasion with Mouseketeer pal Petersen. Then as 1962 got under way, the third Del-Fi disc broke in many radio markets, rising to the middle range of the charts; "Patti Ann" (penned by Fred Smith and Cliff Goldsmith, L.A. songwriters who'd supplied R&B group The Olympics with some of their best-known singles) could have represented anyone in his growing female fan base. Another local songwriting team, Hal Winn and Joseph Hooven (who'd been making the rounds a couple of years without yet scoring a major hit), came up with "Cindy's Birthday," its lyrics touching on their own musical livelihood: 'Gotta write a symphony...and a book of poetry...tie them with a ribbon made of gold and give them to Cindy.' The romanticism (coupled with the line 'No time to do the twist,' a timely reference to the hottest dance of the era) connected as soon as it hit the airwaves and landed Johnny in the top ten in June '62, becoming the song most closely associated with him, for better or worse, throughout his life.

So by age 16 he'd found success as an award-nominated actor and hitmaking singer at the same time Donna Reed Show peers Petersen and Shelley Fabares landed their own singles high on the charts. Another Hooven-Winn tune, "Your Nose is Gonna Grow," recycled the notion of what might happen '...if you lie,' prevalent in the popular 1883 children's novel The Adventures of Pinocchio by Italian author Carlo Collodi and further entrenched in popular culture 57 years later through the Disney film Pinocchio. "Your Nose..." landed in the top 20 in September. Bob Keane reached out to Aldon Music publishers (operating out of the Brill Building in New York) for songs "by the pros" that could keep Johnny's run on the charts going as long as possible. Howard Greenfield and Hal Miller answered the challenge with the Gerry Goffin-produced late-'62 top 20 hit "Rumors," its lyrics suggesting 'everyone in town...' spreads lies because they're '...jealous of a boy and girl in love.' The track was recorded at RCA's Studio B in Nashville as was "Proud," penned by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, which added to his string of top 40 singles in early '63. These hits benefited the video side as well: The Rifleman achieved its highest ratings during this time.

Del-Fi released a recording of Johnny and brother Bobby singing "Good Buddies," a Goffin-Carole King song credited to The Crawford Brothers; the gimmicky experiment met with indifference. The Rifleman had run its course by the end of its fifth season with the 168th and final episode airing in first-run during April 1963. While many radio stations continued playing his singles, the peak of his music career had passed and that was fine by Johnny, whose interest had shifted to bronco riding and roping brought on by his time on the set of the western series. Keane milked the "girl-title" gimmick for the next couple of years with "What Happened to Janie," "Debbie," "Sandy," "Judy Loves Me," sad sequel "Cindy's Gonna Cry" and the non-specific tale of faraway longing, "(Once Upon a Time) The Girl Next Door," written by David Gates, who'd previously contributed a strong B side, "No One Really Loves a Clown."

Crawford's contract with Del-Fi ran out of steam in 1965. Chuck Connors had gone straight from The Rifleman to a co-starring role (with Ben Gazzara) in the single-season series Arrest and Trial, followed by his second weekly western, Branded. Johnny (who'd formed a close friendship with Chuck) did a guest shot in a March 1965 episode, Coward Step Aside. There were other one-shot appearances in the series Mr. Novak, Mister Ed and Rawhide and work in the films The Restless Ones and the western El Dorado, as well as the infamously "bad" '65 film Village of the Giants, a sci-fi schlockfest about 30-foot-tall teenagers based very loosely on H.G Wells' novel from 1904, The Food of the Gods. Three other young co-stars, Tommy Kirk, Ronnie Howard and Beau Bridges, shared his embarrassment. Johnny served in the U.S. Army from '65 to '67 and jumped right back into the music business, if only briefly, as soon as his tour was over. Two singles were released on Mike Curb's Sidewalk label including the Mann-Weil song "Angelica." Johnny composed "Good Guys Finish Last," the flip side of what was to be his final pop 45.

There were more TV roles including a 1968 episode of Hawaii Five-O that cast him as a serviceman. His starring role in the 1973 film The Naked Ape (which required him to do a nude scene), loosely based on the 1967 nonfiction best seller by Desmond Morris, was a misfire; co-star Victoria Principal said the film was "worse than terrible." After appearing in one or two films or TV series per year over the next two decades while continuing to spend much of his time riding, roping and rodeoing, Johnny transitioned backwards to a different kind of singing career in the late 1980s: after working as a vocalist for Vince Giordano's Nighthawks Orchestra in New York City, he started his own band, The Johnny Crawford Dance Orchestra, specializing in vintage tunes.

- Michael Jack Kirby



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