Five-time Emmy award-winning actor Carroll O'Connor (1924-2001) was best known for playing Archie Bunker, the big-hearted bigot on the ground-breaking 1970s television comedy All in the Family.
Carroll O'Connor was born in the Bronx, New York, on August 2, 1924. He was the eldest of three sons of a lawyer and schoolteacher raised in an Irish Catholic household. The O'Connors weathered the years of the Great Depression in comfort, living in their single-family home in Forest Hills, Queens, at the time a wealthy neighborhood. His father was a successful attorney and his two brothers became doctors.
O'Connor was a poor student who later attributed his lackluster academic performance to being pushed ahead a year in school. In his memoirs, he described how he skipped kindergarten and entered first grade at the age of five: "Thereafter I became impossible to teach and nobody was comfortable with me." In 1941 O'Connor enrolled at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, but dropped out when the United States entered World War II. He volunteered for the Naval Air Corps but was rejected because of his low grades and bad teeth. Instead, he entered the less-selective United States Merchant Marine Academy and became a midshipman. He eventually joined the National Maritime Union and sailed the North Atlantic, Caribbean, and Mediterranean as a merchant seaman during the late stages of the war.
After the war, O'Connor spent a few years uncertain what he wanted to do with his life. In 1946, he left the merchant marines, returned to his mother's house in Queens, and worked for an Irish newspaper run by his family. At the time, his father was serving a prison sentence for a fraud conviction in the Sing-Sing penitentiary in up-state New York. O'Connor considered a career in journalism and in 1948 returned to Wake Forest. He also took courses at Montana State University, where he met his future wife Nancy Fields. He married her in 1951. In 1950 he went to Dublin, Ireland, with his brother, Hugh, and enrolled at University College, Dublin, where he studied Irish history and English literature. O'Connor finished his undergraduate studies at the National University of Ireland, earning a bachelor's degree in 1952.
In the 1950s, O'Connor performed in various plays throughout Europe. Using the stage name George Roberts, O'Connor appeared in productions at Dublin's Gate Theater and in productions of Shakespeare's plays at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland and in Cork, Limerick, and Galway in Ireland.
In 1954, O'Connor returned to New York and struggled to find acting work. For several years, he worked as a substitute teacher in the New York public school system while he earned his master's degree in education. His break came in the late 1950s when his wife noticed a casting call for a stage production of James Joyce's Ulysses. That audition eventually landed him another role, as a Hollywood boss in the off-Broadway production of the Clifford Odets play Big Knife.
In 1960 O'Connor landed the role of a prosecutor in The Sacco-Vanzetti Story for the Armstrong Circle Theater. He earned a reputation as a reliable character actor and started getting movie roles. Over his career, O'Connor appeared in more than 30 films, including A Fever in the Blood (1961), Lad: A Dog (1961), Lonely are the Brave (1962), and Cleopatra (1963).
Debuted as Archie Bunker
All in the Family, an American sitcom that ran from 1971 to 1979, was adapted from the British show Till Death Do Us Part, a serial on BBC. Producer Norman Lear loosely based the character of Archie Bunker on his own father. Bunker's family included his scatterbrained wife Edith, played by Jean Stapleton; their daughter Gloria, played by Sally Struthers; and her liberal and outspoken husband Mike "Meathead" Stivic, played by Rob Reiner.
O'Connor was living in Rome when he received an offer to play Archie Bunker. He was so convinced it would fail that he demanded a round-trip ticket from the producers so he could return to Italy. O'Connor disliked the pilot script, but agreed to play Archie after it was rewritten. The show had some difficulty getting on the air because of its subject matter. ABC rejected it, but CBS broadcast All in the Family for the first time on January 12, 1971.
All in the Family marked a departure from earlier American television shows. Before, the "television landscape … had been largely filled with innocuous characters and … generally steered clear of sensitive topics," noted Brian Lowry in the Los Angeles Times. Americans never saw couples sleeping in the same bed or heard a toilet flush on television before All in the Family. The show talked about topics hitherto taboo on American TV: gender, race, religion, and sex. Though critics initially panned All in the Family, it eventually became one of television's most popular sitcoms, ranking number one for five years and spinning off three successful shows—Archie Bunker's Place, Maude, and The Jeffersons.
Part of the show's success was due to its timing. "Coming out of the 1960s civil rights movement and with Vietnam continuing to jar the country," wrote Allan Johnson in the Chicago Tribune, "it got Americans thinking and talking about race, sexism and social status in the country." The character of Archie Bunker personified the emotions that millions of Americans were experiencing: "the character wasn't just a narrow-minded bigot, he was a confused, sometimes scared middle-aged man who was coming to grips with his place in a world that was changing too fast," explained Johnson.
Archie was a political conservative who thought the Democratic Party was a front for Communism and admired Republican President Richard Nixon. Frustrated by his dead-end job and unfulfilling life, Archie reacted with fear toward his bosses and with antagonism toward women and blacks. His distrust extended to anyone who was not a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. He insulted Jews, Roman Catholics, blacks, Hispanics, and other ethnic groups. But while using racial slurs broke down a barrier in television broadcasting, it also drew criticism. Whitney Young, Jr., head of the Urban League, found nothing funny about Archie's racial epithets, calling them "gratuitous insults." "In the role of Archie, O'Connor tapped into angst, anger and unthinking prejudice that buffeted the U.S. in the Vietnam-war ear," a CNN obituary noted. "He admitted his character was both loved and hated, but said he just played Archie as truthfully as he knew how."
At its height, the show drew 50 million weekly television viewers. The show became a national icon and Archie Bunker a household name. O'Connor won four Emmy Awards for his performances. The furniture from the show's living room set was installed in the Smithsonian museum in Washington, DC. Eventually the other actors decided to leave the show, and All in the Family morphed into Archie Bunker's Place, with O'Connor playing a co-owner of a bar. That show, which ran from 1979 to 1983, never garnered the same popularity or critical acclaim as its predecessor.
Broke Color Barriers
After the Archie Bunker role had run its course, O'Connor wrote or acted in several unsuccessful productions. His first Broadway flop was Brothers (1983), which he directed and in which he played a father with four sons. He then wrote and produced a television movie called Brass and played the lead character, a chief of detectives for the New York police.
In 1984 he was in Home Front, a play about a father, mother, and daughter terrorized by a son who is a Vietnam vet. It closed after 13 performances. In 1995 O'Connor's play, A Certain Labor Day, opened in San Francisco with O'Connor in a starring role. The San Francisco Chronicle called it a "heartfelt bungle of a new play" and nothing more than a "transformation of O'Connor's most enduring creation, television's Archie Bunker." The review embittered O'Connor and reinforced his dislike of the press.
In 1988, O'Connor finally landed a role on another hit television series. He played Sheriff Bill Gillespie in the drama series In the Heat of the Night. The show, which ran for six seasons, was based on the 1967 Oscar-winning film. O'Connor also served as executive producer and head writer for the series. He directed several episodes and his adopted son, Hugh, played a police officer.
The show was remarkable for its controversial subject matter. In the Heat of the Night featured a romantic relationship between a white man and a black woman. Gillespie had an affair with a black city councilwoman, and the two married in the final episode of the series. This was ground-breaking material for television, and O'Connor won awards from the NAACP for his role on the drama. He also earned his fifth Emmy Award.
Shattered by Son's Suicide
In 1995, O'Connor's son, Hugh, committed suicide after a long battle with cocaine addiction. The event inspired O'Connor to start a crusade against the man who sold the drugs to Hugh. He called Harry Perzigian "a partner in murder" and a "sleazeball." Perzigian filed a defamation lawsuit against the actor. In 1997, a California jury threw out the case. In an interview on CNN's Larry King Live soon after the verdict, O'Connor said he would never be able to put his son's death behind him. "I can't forget it. There isn't a day that I don't think of him and want him back and miss him, and I'll feel that way until I'm not here anymore," he said. O'Connor became an advocate against drug abuse and appeared in several television anti-drug commercials.
O'Connor suffered from poor health in his final years. He lost a toe to complications from diabetes and underwent gall bladder surgery. He also had a coronary artery bypass operation in 1989. His last project was the role of Minnie Driver's grandfather in the movie Return to Me in 2000.
Despite his well-rounded repertoire, O'Connor will be remembered for his indelible role as Archie Bunker. O'Connor said in a 1994 interview that the character of Archie "wasn't even close" to who he was as a person. Still, the actor conceded, "I'll never play a better part than Archie. He was the best character, the most fulfilling character, and I never thought it was going to develop that way. There's no role that can top that."
Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television, Volume 27, Gale Group, 2000.
O'Connor, Carroll, I Think I'm Outta Here, Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Chicago Tribune, June 22, 2001.
Los Angeles Times, June 22, 2001.
New York Times, June 22, 2001.
Washington Post, June 22, 2001. □