It was a bittersweet victory for Carroll O’Connor and his wife, Nancy: On fan. 11, 40-year-old Harry Thomas Perzigian—whom O’Connor has publicly implicated in the suicide last March 28 of his drug-addicted son Hugh—was convicted in a Santa Monica court of possessing and furnishing cocaine. After two days of testimony, the judge in the nonjury trial, Richard Neidorf took just minutes to find Perzigian guilty of the crimes, which together carry a maximum penalty of one year in prison. “Hugh was an addict, probably without hope,” O’Connor said of his son after the trial. He was an actor best known as Lt. Lonnie Jamison on O’Connor’s TV series In the Heat of the Night. “Harry kept feeding him this stuff. We feel this guy indirectly was the cause of our loss.”
For the O’Connors this has been a year of extraordinary pain, anger—and togetherness. Hugh, 32 when he died, was their only child. He was adopted in Rome in 1962, when the elder O’Connor was there filming Cleopatra This fall, after Carroll fingered Perzigian and helped police in their prosecution of him, the O’Connors returned to Rome with Hugh’s widow, Angela, 26, a wardrobe assistant, and son Sean, now 2. There the family interred his ashes in a private crypt.
With the trial now over and Perzigian’s sentencing set for next month, the O’Connors are getting on with their lives. In December, Carroll went back to work, playing a wayward grandfather reunited with his family on Fox’s Party of Five; his first show will air Jan. 31. Hugh, though, still dominates his parents’ thoughts. During an emotional interview with national correspondent Lois Armstrong at their Moroccan-style beach house near Los Angeles, they discussed their son, his drug problems and a struggle that did not end until Hugh sat down on a living room couch in his L.A. house, put a .45-caliber semiautomatic to his head and pulled the trigger.
Carroll: I think of Hugh every day, but I don’t think of him sadly every day. Most of my thoughts of him are very joyful. But then there are the times—thank God, not too many—when something makes me very sad. Nancy will look at me and say, “You look bad. Well, I was having a bad time an hour ago too.” And we put our arms around each other and say, “It’ll be all right soon.”
I don’t think I was the best of fathers. I don’t know how I could have been better, but something tells me I should have been, and if I had been better, this wouldn’t have happened. I failed in ways I don’t even realize myself.
Nancy: It’s every parent’s nightmare. I think it began when he was 16 and was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and he had surgery to remove a malignant lump in his neck. Later his spleen was removed to prevent the spread of cancer, which didn’t return. After his recovery, I found out he’d been smoking marijuana, which he probably got from friends, to relieve his nausea from radiation. On reflection, I felt Hugh had every right to use pot during his illness because he was sick to his stomach.
Carroll: But Hugh continued to use marijuana and was drinking too. By his late teens he was busted on a couple of occasions, including once for possession of Quaaludes. I bailed him out for $500.
It certainly is in my mind now that there are things I could have done. I could have broken up friendships or moved away or changed his school. Maybe it wouldn’t have done any good, but there were things I could have tried that I didn’t.
Nancy: We punished him to the degree that we knew about it. We told him about the long-term consequences of drug use. I’m an absolute innocent about things like that, but we had a retired former narcotics officer working for us at the time as a kind of man Friday, and he gave me some advice about signs of drug use and what to watch out for.
Carroll: I curtailed the money I was giving him because of my strong suspicion that he was using it to buy drugs. But I wasn’t paying enough attention. Nancy would tell me something was wrong with his behavior. But I just left it to her. I wouldn’t give it the time, and the excuse was, I was too busy with All in the Family and then Archie Bunker’s Place.
By Hugh’s early 20s we realized he was using coke, amphetamines and various prescription drugs. I used to drink myself, before my heart bypass and gall bladder surgery in 1989. Still, Nancy and I didn’t know what to do. We called some of Hugh’s doctors to get them to stop prescribing pills, like Demerol and Percodan. All I got was, “Well, I-I-I-.” It was damn frustrating.
But by then I wasn’t hiding my head in the sand. I fought with Hugh over and over about it. He always told me he wasn’t using. But I never let up. I always said, “I don’t believe you.” But where do you go?
Nancy: Sometimes Hugh would quit-for a while. When he was sober and dry, he could be hilarious. And totally direct. That’s when I thought he would be okay. Every counselor we went to, I thought that was it.
Carroll: Hugh felt bad a lot of the time though. He worried that most of his acting jobs came from me. He would say to me, “Aren’t people going to say you’re pushing me because I’m your son?” And I’d say, “Yes, they are, and they’re right. That’s what we’re supposed to do for our children, push them ahead. I believe in nepotism.”
Nancy: He tried to get clean. I’d say he made several major attempts. He stayed at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in the late ’80s; the Springbrook Northwest residential facility in Newberg, Ore., a few years later. He was treated as an outpatient in Atlanta while working on In the Heat of the Night. And a year before his death, he went to the Brotman Medical Center in Culver City. But he was never able to stay off drugs or drink for long.
Carroll: He was always trying. For all his problems Hugh was, believe it or not, a great homebody. Hugh married Angela, who also worked on In the Heat of the Night, in 1992, and Sean was born in 1993. He loved Angela, and she adored Hugh, and Hugh adored his son, but he was out of it much of the time. The only real trouble we had with Hugh was the addiction. But that was enough. I was pretty close to despair toward the end. That last month he was far away. He was in a fantasy room, living with a kind of kaleidoscope going all around him. He began staying up nights, roaming his house, doing drugs and hallucinating. That’s when I knew he was irretrievable.
Nancy: Therapists had advised all of us to try tough love. Two weeks before his death, Angela told Hugh that she and Sean were leaving until he could change his behavior. She and Sean moved in with us.
Carroll: I admire her. He was sore at her for leaving, but she did what she thought was right. It was a real divider, to try tough love.
Nancy: On March 28, his and Angela’s third wedding anniversary, Hugh called me at 6:30 in the morning. He said, “This is a very black day.” I told him what a wonderful actor he was, that he could be proud. He seemed to be listening to me.
Carroll: He called again two more times. In the mid-afternoon he called and told me he had a gun and was going to “cap” himself. “Don’t talk foolishness,” I told him. “You’re just saying crazy things. I wish you would call the doctor and put yourself under his care.” Hugh just said, “So long, I love you.” There was no dramatic goodbye, just the end of the conversation.
Nancy: Carroll immediately called the police, but the SWAT team arrived at Hugh’s house just in time to hear him shoot himself. A little later a florist tried to deliver the bouquet Angela sent Hugh for their anniversary, but couldn’t get through because the police had cordoned off the street.
Carroll: I never knew he was suicidally addicted. He never mentioned suicide to me until the day he did it. And I didn’t think he was that kind of guy. He had so much going for him.
I look out on the beach now and see young people with their wives and girlfriends and babies, and I think, “He should be out there.” But you can’t think about that sort of thing too much. Or you start to cry.