A Biography of Television Icon Caroll O' Connor

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Carroll O’Connor’s acting style as Archie Bunker was central to the show, seen by millions of Americans and others around the world. Archie Bunker was a unique character that advanced discussions of race in the United States.

Before our class I had no knowledge of Carroll O’Connor, and only knew vague television references to the television series All in the Family. I was intrigued by the clips we saw in class. I thought about what kind of person it would take to portray such a bigoted character with a straight face in front of a cameras and a laughing audience. I could see even in the brief clips we watched that Carroll O’Connor’s acting style as Archie Bunker was central to the show, seen by millions of Americans and others around the world. Archie Bunker was a unique character that advanced discussions of race in the United States.

After the initial response of giving his name as Archie Bunker using his voice in character, the interview continues in a serious manner. This Archive of American television interview took place in 1999, when Carroll was at the age of 75 years old. The first roll of the interview addresses Carroll’s adolescence and upbringing. It was a surprise to me, though it shouldn’t have been, that O’Connor was an Irish name. I guess the perception of Archie Bunker, my only acquaintance with O’Connor was such an American figure. Carroll was an Irish Catholic who was lucky to grow up during the Great Depression in a family that was still considered wealthy. Both of his parents earned large salaries and were able to take care of Carroll and give him opportunities that many of his contemporaries did not have. It seemed that he had a normal childhood, playing stickball in the streets with a caring family at home.

O’Connor joined the Marines in his late teen years and served during World War II. Though his ship was nearly sunk on more than one occasion, he never feared death during his service. He then talks about perceptions that Americans at that time didn’t think Hitler was going to be so bad. The things he mentions were correct historically. Before his anti-Semitism made him a threat to the world, which he certainly was, the leader had rallied the country and provided universal employment trying to restore the greatness of the country. O’Connor notes that he did need to go, and he was a bad person, but it didn’t need to be that way. This segway gives Carroll the opportunity to mention that he had always been an avid historian. He then launched into his discussion of college. He attended several Universities and graduated with a B.A. in History from a University he attended during land leave from the Marine’s, paid for by his service. He speaks of his time in the Marine’s pleasantly, and with an outlook that was not jaded by the evils undergone during the Second World War.

The fourth role transitions from his pre-American career to his life’s masterpiece. While working on broadway in England O’Connor received a life changing phone call from Norman Lear. He was asked to come read for Archie Bunker and nailed the part that would seal his professional future. This single line says it all, “In spite of my griping…it was the best part I’ve ever played”.

While I think of most actors as playing a part written for them, O’Connor says he went into the situation expecting to do a large part of the work off-screen. There was quite a bit of griping. Lear and O’Connor were constantly butting heads over show dialogue, direction, and content. O’Connor was familiar with the British version of the show. He had an idea of what the bigot should be portrayed as. He also had ideas of what the show should not become. His decision to join the show was hitched on O’Connor re-writing the pilot episode and submitting it to Lear, “If he doesn’t like it, he can get someone else”. This took a lot of time to do, because at this point there was no typist, O’Connor recorded his script vocally using a tape recorder, acting out each speaking role himself. When Norman Lear received the tape, he had the work transcribed, and that was the script for the pilot.

O’Connor says in the interview that long after the show was over, Lear and O’Connor were being interviewed. Lear responded to a question by saying, “The best writer the show ever had was right here”, pointing to Carroll. This was one of the few times he was given credit for his writing for All in the Family. After the pilot, O’Connor continued to re-write the scripts every week. "I was nasty to him on occasion”, said O’Connor, "I said outrageous things, he got pretty sore, and I got sore at him". O’Connor was still upset to the point of the interview that he didn’t get credited as a writer, nor did he see any portion of monetary benefits from any of the show’s spin-offs.

I think Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker changed the idea of what a television character could be. Archie Bunker defined the potential of influence that a television persona could achieve. The content of All in the Family had to be approached very carefully. Discussions of racism in a comic manner were a hot button issue at the time. Much of the show’s dialogue is still controversial today. When asked about how the show evoked prejudice, he said that he had to be very careful about getting things into the script that he wanted to address. O’Connor said that he had a much better prospective on how the show should be approached, compared to the Jewish writers on staff. He credited jean Stapleton as being the perfect counterpoise to Archie Bunker. "I think Jean made All in the Family," said O’Connor, "Working with Jean was one of the great pleasures of my life." On the show she embodied the proper, sensible reaction to all of his nonsense.

Carroll O’Connor received an Emmy in 1972 for Best Actor. The show was doing well and getting great ratings. In 1974 O’Connor walked off the set and filed a lawsuit. He wanted credit for being a script writer on the show, along with $25,000 per episode. He got the money, but not the credit. “There were several battles over money”, O’Connor explained. When asked how Norman Lear leaving the show in 1979 affected the show, O’Connor replied, “Well, not at all”. Clearly Carroll had no issues of self-confidence or self-appreciation.

In the fifth roll of film questions about specific issues and episodes are brought up. The show not only took on racism, but menopause, miscarriages, homosexuality, and many other issues. Through it all O’Connor believes that ultimately Archie Bunker was a man with a lot of heart. Through difficult issues and challenges he really did have compassion for humanity. I think becoming Archie Bunker, and still being likeable on screen is something that very few actors could pull off. The transformation that Carroll O’Connor underwent exemplifies what it mean to be a professional actor.

The importance of Archie Bunker has been the subject of many articles, studies, and book publications. In 2003, writer Josh Ozersky published Archie Bunker’s America: TV in an Era of Change. He represents both the pro and con perspectives on Archie Bunker’s character. “On one side, Archie was a comic, likable figure who made bigotry more attractive” (p. 69). He goes on to portray Archie as a negative figure for allowing stereotypes and racist behavior to be perceived as funny an entertaining. The book also presents a counter argument that dialogue on All in the Family helped discussions progress and caused people to think about real stereotypes and presumptions they observe in their own lives. Ozersky presents other viewpoints, including one advocating Archie Bunker saw an innocent, lovable figure, citing that “Archie's favorite expressions-"Meathead," "Dingbat ," "stifle yourself," and so on entered the popular lexicon” (p.72). The book also addresses the conflicts of liberalism of the time in juxtaposition to people like Archie Bunker. “Archie Bunker and Mike Stivic represented opposites sides of a yawning gulf, sides that had literally come to blows under the polarized society of that time” (p. 76).

Carroll O’Connor’s contribution to television was incomparable. Archie Bunker is a familiar figure to an entire generation of television viewers. Not strictly held to onscreen, O’Connor’s writing contribution to the show was unheard of since televisions early days of live television. He is credited by Norman Lear as being an integral part of the writing team. In roll five of the interview, O’Connor says that Norman Lear played a very small part in writing for Archie Bunker. O’Connor takes credit for re-writing every episode, and thus is deserved a large portion of the credit for the program’s success.

Watching O’Connor’s facial expressions as he reaches into the depths of his memory inclines me to believe he is reciting his version of truth. His vocal tones speak wisdom and experience in a way that makes me believe what he says. He speaks optimistically about life even with his encounters in war. He lived a fascinating life. His stories and outlook on life are a valuable piece of Americana and an insight into one man’s journey through life. As the television academy interviewer continues with question after question, more memories and ideas of this complex figure in television history are drawn out to provide further insight into O’Connor’s life. From broad way to television, Carroll O’Connor took his intelligence and social skill and had a very successful life. He had a solid work ethic that drove him from gig to gig, and ultimately onto television sets around the world. All in the Family and Archie Bunker’s Place still gets ratings in syndication more than thirty years after their initial run.

According to the archive interview, "I wasn't Archie Bunker, I came from a well-educated man." I think this line defines Carroll’s life as well as any other in the interview. As I would imagine, the creation of such a controversial and comedic figure was not something that could be done carelessly. It seemed to have been a very difficult line to walk, requiring a special kind of actor. Carroll O'Connor's roll in television history can never be repeated or matched in significance. The chair that he sat on during the show now sits in the Smithsonian. To have the gall and bravery to portray such an ignorant figure with optimistic hope was a tremendous undertaking.

1 comment

Ileen Zovluck
Posted on Jan 16, 2011