By Elizabeth Raggi, Contributor
October / November 2001
He called his wife “Dingbat.” He called his daughter a “weepy Nellie atheist.” Puerto Ricans “spics”; Jews “yids.”
He was terrified of African Americans, homosexuals, feminists and evolutionists. But most of all Archie Bunker was afraid of change.
He sat in his mangy armchair amidst peeling wallpaper and dingy windows and preached his sermon to whoever stopped by. And everyone pulled up a chair.
On June 21, 2001, Carroll O’Connor, the man whose portrayal of Archie Bunker made All in the Family the most watched television program from 1971 – 1976, complained of chest pains to his wife, Nancy, at their home in Westwood, California. He was rushed to the hospital but died two hours later.
And we lost one of our least admired and most cherished characters, the man everyone loved to hate.
Carroll O’Connor brought Archie Bunker to such shocking real life for so many years that it was and is difficult to separate the actor from the part.
But O’Connor was not the bigoted, close-minded Archie, he was an active advocate of civil rights. Born in 1925, the eldest son of a lawyer and teacher in Manhattan, not the Corona section of Queens where Archie made a living as a warehouse worker. O’Connor’s maternal grandfather was the founder of The Irish Advocate newspaper, which published for many years in New York.
As a teenager O’Connor joined the Merchant Marine and sailed on 14 ships as a purser. After WWII he followed a girlfriend to Montana, where she dumped him. It would be the best let-down of his life. He enrolled in the University of Montana and, while acting in a school production, fell in love with the outfitter, Nancy Field, his future wife.
The title of the production, foreshadowing what he’d be famous for, was Life with Father.
From there O’Connor joined his brother to study in Ireland, earning his BA from the National University. It was in Dublin that O’Connor began his professional acting career at the Gate Theater.
Back in New York he was a substitute teacher while auditioning for plays and movies and landed more than two dozen film roles in the 60s, including Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor. But it was his role in What Did You Do in the War Daddy? that caught the eye of veteran producer Norman Lear, who sent O’Connor a pilot script for Those Were the Days (you can still hear Edith screeching out the theme song). O’Connor signed on; ABC did not. Finally on January 21, 1971, CBS aired the pilot, renamed All in the Family, with a disclaimer for the views Archie expressed. In four months it was number one, and would earn O’Connor four Emmys. O’Connor later won another Emmy for his role as Police Chief Bill Gillespie on In the Heat of the Night, where he acted alongside his adopted son, Hugh. Hugh’s battle with drugs and alcohol led him to commit suicide in 1995 and launched O’Connor on an anti-drug crusade. He helped to convict his son’s dealer in 1996 and spoke of the ordeal in his memoirs, I Think I’m Outta Here, published in 1998.
At his funeral on June 26th a solo violin played “Danny Boy” while 800 friends and family and 200 fans who had gathered outside, said farewell.
In the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. there is an empty armchair, but our memories are full of laughs. Carroll O’Connor is survived by his wife and one grandchild. ♦