We celebrate the life today of the late actor Carroll O’Connor, whose portrayal of bigoted yet not mean-spirited Archie Bunker on the groundbreaking CBS sitcom All in the Family made him and the program an absolute American institution of television, taking otherwise taboo subjects like impotence, rape, unemployment, menopause, sex, and of course, politics and societal attitudes and changes, and brought them right into 1970’s living rooms, in an America that was radically going through many makeup changes during that turbulent decade. O’Connor, who died on June 21, 2001, would have been 90 years old today.
For O’Connor, an actor who had been in varied productions such as the big budget overblown spectacle Cleopatra to working with James Garner’s gumshoe detective in Marlowe, to the hilariously irascible General Colt in the Clint Eastwood led war comedy, Kelly’s Heroes, getting the role of Archie Bunker was the actor’s coup of a lifetime. Although he had been in the aforementioned films and various television productions to boot, O’Connor was not even near the household name he would become in the lieu of his breakthrough performance on the breakthrough sitcom.
Debuting in January 1971, and based on an English sitcom that also sported an opinionated lout named Alf Garnett called Till Death Do Us Part, All in the Family was developed by Norman Lear, who had previous comedy experience writing for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis back when they were still a team and when they were a sensation on the 1950’s program The Colgate Comedy Hour. Lear developed the program, which shot two pilots first, and was rejected twice by ABC, before CBS, who had wanted a break of the logjam of rural sitcoms that had flooded their network by the time All in the Family was in the end of its development, (shows like Green Acres, Hee Haw, and the like) brought a program to television that completely broke new ground.
What All in the Family did most was to get people rattled, to expose to them their own fears, warts, wants, feelings about their government and fellow man, past and present. To have a huge blowhard in Archie Bunker, and as wonderfully three dimensionally portrayed by O’Connor, stand on his big metaphoric pulpit, his chair, or rather, sit on it, and spew either venom or truth, depending on the viewers political bent and overall general and personal taste, Bunker wasn’t like a breath of fresh air in the face to the television world and its legions of viewers, he was more like a much needed spit in the face. Lear and company didn’t present a meek figure peering behind the corner out the shadows, done in a careful, intimidating, walk on egg shells tippy toe, a sort of Wally Cox (an actor who gained fame on a program in the 1950s called Mr. Peepers in which he played a milquetoast character to the nth degree) if you will, orating about this or that regarding America and global society, it was more the extreme contrary. In Archie Bunker, there was a giant Sherman tank in terms of approach, sentiment, attitude, and a fearless streak. Even though when he hit down to earth, be it by any of his members of his family — his wife Edith, who at face value parlayed a kind of ignorantly charming character but when the chips came down, she was the strongest one of all of them; his daughter Gloria, who can be stubborn and take on the physical traits of her father sometimes, but never his beliefs, ideals, and attitudes; and her husband Mike, who was Archie’s polar opposite, and yet somehow, as the years of the show went on and the characters kept getting more and more developed, had a sort of understanding — anyone of them could sometimes make Archie fall back to Earth, hard. And when this happened, and it’s a telling of the life that Carroll O’Connor injected into him, there was still an empathetic pride about him, and ultimately, he was the favorite of most of the viewers, even the ones who didn’t necessarily believe in him and all he stood for and denounced.
O’Connor’s portrayal of Bunker, with his sometimes wild salt and pepper hair, cherubic figure, decked out usually in his work clothes of white shirt and work pants, was unlike anything seen on television. There were influences that shaped Bunker, especially and in full gratitude by O’Connor the genius work of Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden Honeymooners character. That character too, like Archie Bunker, had a quick temper, coupled with expert timing of one liners and jokes, gliding across the sound stage with effortless ease and wonderment, and the same goes with watching O’Connor at work as Archie Bunker. As time went on, and the show became a national staple, the episodes, stories, and the writers made Archie Bunker even more complex. A quick list found him at various points out of work, hooked on pills, cheating on his wife, “accidentally” almost inducted into the Ku Klux Klan, having to deal with an attempted rape on his wife Edith, and many more situations that were packed with equal strife. For an American sitcom on commercial television during a world where more envelope-pushing cable television was still light years away and especially in presenting no holds barred original programming, All in the Family was continuing to push new boundaries and envelopes each week, inside of all the comedy that the show was also jam packed with. The fact that the show continued to win Emmy awards and high ratings (at one stretch, it was the number one program for five seasons in a row) was a direct result of the hard work and energy put in by Carroll O’Connor and Norman Lear and all the rest. O’Connor won four Emmy awards for his work on the program and even stayed with it for a few years when it was retooled in 1979 as Archie Bunker’s Place, which showed a decidedly more toned down Bunker, although the death of Edith in an early episode certainly was a main catalyst in creating that dynamic shift in the character. Finally in 1983, with the cancellation of Archie Bunker’s Place, and after 12 years of portraying him, Carroll O’Connor’s stint as one of the greatest television characters of all time ended.
The actor followed up with another long-running series, this time with the portrayal of Southern Fried policeman Bill Gillespie when the Mississippi pot boiler novel from 1965 In the Heat of the Night came to television in 1988 (it had also been a memorable film in 1967 with Rod Steiger who won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Gillespie). The following year, for his take on the character, O’Connor won his 5th Emmy Award. By that time, O’Connor had become a revered figure in the annals of television, a living legend moniker affixed to him.
Unfortunately, the later years of his life would be filled with anguish when his adopted son, Hugh (who had a supporting role on In the Heat of the Night), committed suicide in 1995, which was a by-product of a crippling drug addiction. It was a cruel and utterly sad form of fate indeed for O’Connor, considering all the joy he gave to the world. In the ensuing years after his son’s death, O’Connor became a staunch supporter and promoter for the war against drugs and drug abuse. Some of his final filmed appearances were PSA’s that he did for the cause.
Since his death 13 years ago, his star or mega watt legend in television has not diminished one iota. The richness, complexity, full bodied, fill up the empty valve portrayal of Archie Bunker will always remain constant and right in everyone’s television radar and subconscious. All in the Family still smacks of shake up, it still smacks of reminding us as viewers just what’s about to tap us on the shoulder, and what’s right in front of us, when it comes to our world, our views, and ourselves. Even though the references to the times may be dated, the arguments for and against them are not, and it’s maddening and even saddening how one can swap the Vietnam War for our current military crisis, gas prices then to gas prices now, just take out some of the politicians and insert some of today’s, still speak of terrorism, unfortunately, it’s all still in everyone’s horizons today, just like it always was, in that devious form of comfort that we all live with, as if things are supposed to be this way. All in the Family seems to remind us that they aren’t, and the true genius was making us laugh while thinking about it. It’s like applying a blowtorch to the skin and then cool, organic liniment right after. The bitter with the sweet, the good with the bad, it was Archie Bunker, and it was the number one tenet of All in the Family.
Clips of Carroll O’Connor at work as Archie Bunker are readily available on YouTube, or can be viewed in season and complete sets of All in the Family. In the Heat of the Night is fun to revisit, too. Both of those television programs, and the aforementioned films, showcase a man who was a titan at his craft, a dramatic actor who could make you laugh with ease and comfort, get jolted by electricity when it reached boiling point, and then exposed to tender mercies in one fell swoop. That was the essence of O’Connor’s art. And again, referencing Archie Bunker, who he will always ultimately be remembered for, he was a like a family member to most, someone you could either laugh with or laugh at. Boy the way O’Connor, Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner, and Sally Struthers played, those were the days. A raise of the glass to the infinitely stellar talents of the late, great Carroll O’Connor.