For TV fans of a certain age, actor Johnny Crawford, who played Chuck Connors's son on the Western series The Rifleman 30 years ago, will always be associated with two words, spoken plaintively and in rapid succession. Cattle rustlers invading the north 40? "Paw! Paw!" Fire in the barn? "Paw! Paw!" A new schoolmarm scheming to lure Connors's character, a widowed rancher, down the aisle? "Paw! Paw!" Before "Isn't that special!" before "Nanoo! Nanoo!" before "Book 'em, Dano," there was "Paw! Paw!"

Today the boy who spoke those words is a 43-year-old real estate investor, jazz musician, rodeo rider and sometime actor (on Feb. 17, he'll appear with Connors in an episode of the CBS Western Paradise). He is also the rarest of Hollywood creatures: a former child actor with no bitter memories to sell. "I had a great childhood," says Crawford. "I look back with very fond memories. My only regrets are some of my choices since then. We have so many to make in life, you're lucky if you make some good ones."

Actually, he has made many good ones. When The Rifleman went off the air, after 168 episodes, in 1963, Crawford turned to rodeoing. "I wanted to be a real cowboy," he says. "I didn't do very well, but I just loved it." He continued to mix calf roping and bit acting parts until 1978, when he made one of the decisions he regrets. Intent on impressing a woman, he borrowed heavily, gambled on stock options and lost everything. Rather than declare bankruptcy, he took a job as a stevedore and, with help from acting work, eventually paid his debts.

Crawford, who is single, has since done well investing in real estate. His passions are jazz from the '20s—he sings and plays guitar on Tuesdays at Ciro's Pomodoro, an L.A. restaurant—breaking in his new horse and working on his two 1930s Chryslers. He can, and does, sum up his life in two words, which aren't at all plaintive. Says Crawford: "I'm lucky."