“There’s a line in here that’s gotta go.” Carroll O’Connor, Archie Bunker’s 210-pound, blue-eyed, 50-year-old alter ego and Mr. Nielsen’s No. 1 TV star, was reading over his part in Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes. “It’s this one: ‘I want to keep it all in the family.’ ” The line went.
For $250 a week, union scale, O’Connor, who gets about $32,500 for each All in the Family episode, was helping actress Lee Grant open a new 499-seat playhouse in Westwood, an L.A. suburb. Grant is an old friend.
“Lee called and said we should do the play,” says O’Connor. “I said, ‘Good, we’ll make a TV special out of it.’ She said, ‘Don’t be such a big pig. We’ll just open a new theater and give something good to the people.’ ” O’Connor agreed if Burgess Meredith would play opposite him, and the deal was done.
Meredith gave O’Connor his first big part in 1958 when he was casting Ulysses in Nighttown and discovered that Carroll was a “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” to an Irish T. Meredith thinks O’Connor has played Archie Bunker so brilliantly that the name will go into future dictionaries as synonymous with blue-collar bigot. But he also says O’Connor is too diverse an actor to become permanently “trapped in his character like Arthur Treacher as a butler and Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes.”
O’Connor sheds the Bunker image the moment he walks off camera. At home with his real Edith of 24 years, the word “dingbat” is unspoken—and unthinkable. She is handsome, Montana-born Nancy Fields O’Connor, who met her New York-bred husband on a Life with Father set at the University of Montana. “Nance,” as he calls her, was a costume and set designer, and she cornered him under a campus pine tree during a blizzard because she had to have his chest measurement for a costume. “I got it,” she recalls, “but he had to open his woolly jacket and unbutton his shirt.” She followed him to Trinity College in Dublin and they married twice—first in her Episcopal Church there, again 10 years later in Los Angeles after she had converted to Catholicism. They go to Sunday mass regularly.
If anything, Nancy rules the roost at home. “I’ve always had the checkbook,” she says. “He’s never said don’t do this or you can’t do that.” Their Spanish house in Westwood, designed decades ago for an opera star, is several mortgage points above the Bunker abode in Queens, but it’s no Hollywood showplace. O’Connor saw it at first as a residential stopover on their climb to the top, but Nancy disagreed. “After we’d lived here awhile,” she says, “he kept saying, ‘You were so right and I was so wrong—it’s the right house for us.’ ”
O’Connor’s one luxury is a blue and silver Rolls with the license plate UGO PRD (for his Ugo Productions, named after the son he and Nancy adopted in Italy 13 years ago). For sentimental reasons, O’Connor wears his grandfather’s diamond ring on the middle finger of his right hand. His hobby is following baseball and football—which Archie would approve—and his politics are Bel Air Democrat—which Archie wouldn’t.
O’Connor’s New York lawyer father and retired schoolteacher mother brought Carroll up in a questioning, mildly intellectual household. As a college editorial writer in Montana he crusaded transcontinentally against corruption in Jersey City. He has hoisted his shillelagh, along with Jimmy Breslin and Helen Hayes, for the pro-Irish American Committee for Ulster Justice. He supported George McGovern (“It was a badly run campaign”), would like the chance to back Ted Kennedy and made a John Lindsay-for-President commercial in 1972. He tends to parallel Archie by feeling sorry for Nixon, and says, “I like Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller personally.”
Small towns everywhere have little theaters where a few citizens put on plays and the neighbors come to applaud. In Westwood the folks next door are Henry Fonda, Stacy Keach, Eva Marie Saint, Lee Strasberg, Goldie Hawn, Sam Jaffe, Samantha Eggar, Henry Mancini, Nancy Walker. Appearing before a crowd like that is a tough way for an actor to make a buck. O’Connor, who had just turned down $25,000 a week to do That Championship Season in Chicago, asked Lee Grant when she rang him up about Little Foxes, “What do I need it for?” “Because,” she answered, “you’re a brilliant actor and you’ve just got to stop doing things for millions of dollars.” Carroll said he’d be there in 15 minutes and turned up in five. (“It was like ringing the bell at the fire station,” said producer Leonard Blair. Carroll later became Blair’s co-producer.) On opening night, after a standing ovation from his gimlet-eyed neighbors, O’Connor insisted he had not been nervous despite his long absence from the stage. “A professional actor has a kind of tension,” he explained. “The amateur is thrown by it, but the professional needs it. I feel as if I’ve never been away. It’s like riding a bike. You can always do it.”
O’Connor returns to Family for its fifth season in September. His Ugo Productions has two series in the works in addition to Bronk, which will debut on CBS-TV this fall with Jack Palance as a special cop working for a big-city mayor. O’Connor is executive producer.
After four-and-a-half years, he has found that Archie is not enough. “I want to direct. I want to write. An actor’s stock-in-trade is what keeps him alive. Variety. Change of pace. I don’t have that any more.” O’Connor suspects, understandably, that the public has all but forgotten the 27 movie and 120 television credits he had before Family. “Bogart once said that all an actor owes the public is a good performance. I say an actor owes the public as many good performances as possible.” The trouble is that Archie O’Connor, or Carroll Bunker, has made himself a hard act to follow.