ICON Carroll O’Connor

Posted on 01. Sep, 2008 by in Profiles

words by Jason Dean

Carroll O’Connor enjoyed a long, fruitful career in film and television.
He made his film debut in 1962’s The Lonely and the Brave starring Kirk Douglas and was a prolific character actor throughout the ’60s, appearing on just about every action or drama series, including Gunsmoke, I Spy, Bonanza, The Fugitive, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
So why would he flush a promising career down the “ter-let” by accepting a role as a crude, offensive bigot who referred to members of his own family as “dingbat” and “meathead?” It was, in fact, a brilliant move. As the patriarch of the CBS hit All in the Family from 1971-1979, O’Connor created one of the most distinctive and ingeniously crafted characters in the history of television. He won four Emmys in a role nobody believed would ever make it to the small screen in the first place.
The truth is, almost 40 years later, a character as un-PC as Archie Bunker would never see the light of day. Too offensive. But if Archie Bunker were to reclaim his well-worn high-back chair from the Smithsonian and plop down in front of the television, it’s safe to say his cigar would drop out of his mouth and into his beer. Still, for all the tits, ass, and erectile dysfunction ads crowding the airwaves, the medium is safer than ever.
O’Connor was born August 2, 1924 in the Bronx and grew up in Queens, the same borough that would one day serve as his iconic character’s home. He studied literature and acting at National University in Ireland and appeared on the stage throughout Europe before breaking into movies.
At the time Norman Lear asked him to star in his new sitcom based on the British comedy, Till Death Us Do Part, O’Connor was living in Italy. The actor was so certain the show would fail that his contract stipulated the studio would cover his return airfare back home. Instead, a national phenomenon was created.
The show deftly used humor to tackle racism and other topics that reflected the social consciousness of the day. And O’Connor was able to say the most asinine things and somehow be likable. Viewers embraced Archie Bunker not because they agreed with him but because he did not obey the rules of “proper” behavior that up to this point, had been television’s responsibility to uphold.
O’Connor was very opinionated when it came to his character, and, ultimately, the show. He regularly clashed with creator/writer Lear, and would often seek to rewrite or improvise on the set. At the beginning of the show’s fifth season, a contract dispute caused O’Connor to miss the first couple episodes. But for all their creative jousting, the two had great respect for each other.
If there was a downside for O’Connor, it was that he was concerned that the public would not be able to see him as anyone except Archie. He still wanted to work as an actor after All in the Family – and its spinoff, Archie Bunker’s Place had run its course.
Fortunately, his career entered a new chapter when he took the role of a Southern police chief, whose top detective is African American, in the series In the Heat of the Night, based on the 1967 film of the same name. The character was a complete departure from Archie Bunker, and O’Connor served as executive producer and head writer for the show, which aired from 1988-1994.
In a personal tragedy, O’Connor gained national headlines when his son, Hugh, committed suicide and O’Connor was instrumental in getting his drug dealer sent to jail. “Nothing will give me any peace,” he once said. “I’ve lost a son. And I’ll go to my grave without any peace over that.”
Carroll O’Connor died on June 21, 2001, and is buried at Westwood Memorial Park, between two other great icons of entertainment:
Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon.

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