May 04, 1989 12:00 PM

Several actors were mentioned to play the great centerpiece of All in the Family, but they are all inconceivable now. Tom Bosley? Too coy. Jack Warden? Too coarse. Jackie Gleason? Too flamboyant. Only one man seems right, the one producer Norman Lear spotted, high above America, the night he watched an in-flight movie called What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? One of its featured players had just the “combination of bombast and sweetness” Lear was after—and when Carroll O’Connor was chosen to play Archie Bunker, an original was born.

He was not an original the country craved, at first. He groused about “spades,” “spies” and “that tribe.” He spoke in malaprops (“a house of ill refute”) and bombinated about the rewards of ketchup and the dangers of daytime sex. He bullied his “dingbat” wife, played with canine devotion by Jean Stapleton, then lowered his head and charged at the younger generation, particularly his “weepin’ Nellie atheist” daughter (Sally Struthers) and her “Polack pinko” husband (Rob Reiner). And every week the victims found a way to pull the rogue out from under his arguments, revealing him as hidebound, hilariously wrong, yet—this was confusing—without native meanness. For four months the satiric new show suffered from low ratings and was in peril of cancellation. Many accused the program of legitimizing hate. Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint judged the bigotry “dangerous because it’s disarming,” and Laura Z. Hobson, who had excoriated anti-Semitism in Gentlemen’s Agreement, proclaimed that “you cannot be a bigot and be lovable.”

How wrong Archie proved her. His wife, Edith, the dim bulb with no bias and barely a hint of lib, loved him. His daughter, Gloria, a sweet liberal whose brain had been unbecomingly frizzed, loved him. His son-in-law, “Meathead,” a loud liberal whose views seemed as convenient as his slouch, loved him. And, in time, we loved him. There he always was, spouting obnoxious, dank platitudes like a man defending a bastion that was already lost, or largely lost. In his misguided outspokenness, he made lots of white Americans aware that, here and there, they felt the same but were too enlightened or frightened to say so. In doing that, he made them ashamed. His bigotry proved sincere but fallible. Faced with the “jungle bunny” next door, Lionel Jefferson, Archie’s racism was betrayed when his own decency made a fool of him. He didn’t have a heart of gold, but he had a heart that would not go away. Impossible to love a man who is a bigot? Aw, jeez, stifle youse, will youse?

O’Connor alone did not make the show. There has never been a grander TV ensemble than the All in the Family cast. Negotiating a thin line, with ugliness or fake goodwill always lurking in wait, they never lost their footing. But they took their cues from O’Connor. His canny, unswerving portrait is the finest sustained acting ever done on U.S. television, and by the time he exited in 1983, Archie had joined George Babbitt and Willy Loman as one of the rare fictional characters to become an American archetype.

All in the Family may also have had a stronger impact than any other. For 12 years millions ritually Bunkered down with it and its successor, Archie Bunker’s Place. For five years it ranked No. 1, something no other show has achieved. In a final irony, the show charged with popularizing bigotry begat two major spinoffs: the liberal Maude and The Jeffersons, TV’s longest-running network series about black Americans.

The man who proved that celebrity and riches could arrive via the back door of a row house has little in common with his character. O’Connor, 64, was one of three sons of a schoolteacher and a lawyer in New York City. He spent World War II on 14 different Merchant Marine ships, then meandered out West to study English and acting at the University of Montana, where he met a Junoesque designer named Nancy Fields,-in 1951 they were married, and they still are. While breaking into acting, O’Connor proved he was not a man to trifle with. During one off-Broadway production, the paymaster told him he would just have to wait for his minuscule wages. “You may not talk to me that way,” O’Connor declared, properly. “Or I’ll smear the floor with you.” The money appeared. Filming a TV show, he learned that one is brothers had been killed in a motorcycle accident. O’Connor worked the next morning, but in control, and when he finished his scenes, allowed himself to weep. In the next few years he rose with scarcely a trace: He can be glimpsed in old films, including Cleopatra. And I came the epochal role that changed his life put his earnings into seven figures.

O’Connor keeps it all in perspective. All in the Family’s influence on the country? “Probably nothing. No television show can change a stubbornly status quo society like America, or at most only temporarily.” Any regrets? “We might have paid more attention to the character of Edith,” he says. “I regretted Edith’s passing [in 1980] because we should have been swinging the emphasis to her. She was becoming a little more assertive every year. She was every bit as popular as Archie, and just then more important.” Now recovering from coronary bypass surgery, O’Connor plans to resume his role as the redneck sheriff of In the Heat of the Night, but he can face this typecasting with equanimity. “One of these days I’m gonna play King Lear,” he once predicted, “and someone will say he sees Archie Bunker in it. And I won’t mind a damn bit.” Mind? It’d be a damn honorarium.

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