John Carroll O'Connor
– June 21
) was an American actor
whose television career spanned four decades. Known at first for playing the role of Maj. Gen. Colt in the 1970s cult movie, Kelly's Heroes
, he later found fame as the bigoted workingman Archie Bunker
, the main character in the 1970s CBS
television sitcoms All in the Family
(1971 to 1979) and Archie Bunker's Place
(1979 to 1983). O'Connor later starred in the 1980s NBC
television crime drama In the Heat of the Night
, where he played the role of Police Chief
Bill Gillespie from 1988 to 1994. At the end of his career in the late 1990s, he played the father of Jamie Stemple Buchman
) on Mad About You
O'Connor, an Irish American
, was one of three children born in the Bronx, New York
, the son of Elise Patricia and Edward Joseph O'Connor, who was a New York City
lawyer. O'Connor's mother educated the future actor about language and life in The Bronx
, New York
. O'Connor spent much of his youth in Elmhurst
and Forest Hills
, in the same borough in which his character Archie Bunker would later live.
O'Connor's many film roles include Lonely Are the Brave (1962)
, Cleopatra (1963)
, In Harm's Way (1965)
, Hawaii (1966)
, The Devil's Brigade (1968)
, Kelly's Heroes (1970)
, and Return to Me (2000)
Prolific character actor
O'Connor made his acting debut as a character actor
on 2 episodes of Sunday Showcase
. These two parts led to other roles such as: Gunsmoke
, I Spy
, The Fugitive
, The Wild Wild West
, Armstrong Circle Theatre
, The Americans
, Death Valley Days
, Alcoa Premiere
, The Eleventh Hour
, The Great Adventure
, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
, Slattery's People
, Dr. Kildare
, That Girl
, among many others. During his later career, he guest-starred on Mad About You
, alongside veteran television personality Carol Burnett
He was also among the actors considered for the roles of The Skipper on Gilligan's Island
and Dr. Smith in the TV show Lost In Space
, as well as being the visual template in the creation of Batman
foe Rupert Thorne
, a character who debuted at the height of All in the Family
's success in Detective Comics
#469 (published May 1976 by DC Comics
All in the Family
O'Connor was living in Italy
in 1968 when producer Norman Lear
first asked him to come to New York to star in a pilot he was creating for ABC called "Justice For All", inspired by the popular BBC series Til Death Us Do Part
, playing Archie Justice, a loveable yet controversial bigot. After three pilots done between 1968 to 1970, a network change to CBS, and the last name of the character changed to Bunker the new sitcom was renamed All in the Family
. It has been stated that O'Connor's Queens background and New York accent influenced Lear to set the show in Queens.
Wanting a well-known actor to tackle the controversial material, Lear had approached Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney to play Archie; both declined. O'Connor accepted, not expecting the show to be a success and believing he would be able to move back to Europe. Instead, the show became the highest-rated television program on American television for five consecutive seasons until the 1976-1977 season (the sixth season). The Cosby Show has since met the record set by the series.
O'Connor's own politics were liberal, but he understood the Bunker character and played him not only with bombast and humor but with touches of vulnerability. The writing on the show was consistently left of center, but O'Connor often deftly skewered the liberal pieties of the day. The result is widely considered to be an absorbing, entertaining television show. All in the Family was based on the BBC show Til Death Us Do Part, with Bunker based on Alf Garnett, but somewhat less abrasive.
Although Bunker was famous for his malapropisms of the English language, O'Connor was highly educated and cultured and was an English teacher before he turned to acting.
The show also starred a Broadway actress, also from New York City, Jean Stapleton, in the role of Archie Bunker's long-suffering wife, Edith Bunker after Lear saw her in the play Damn Yankees. The producer sent the show over to ABC twice, but it didn't get picked up. They then approached CBS with more success, and accordingly, All in the Family was retooled and debuted early in 1971. The show also starred unknown character actors, such as Rob Reiner as Archie's liberal son-in-law, Michael "Meathead" Stivic and Sally Struthers as Archie's only daughter and Meathead's wife, Gloria Bunker-Stivic. The cast had a unique on- and off-camera chemistry, especially Reiner, who became Carroll's best friend and favorite actor.
CBS was unsure whether the controversial subject matter of All in the Family would fit well into a sitcom. Racial issues, ethnicities, religions, and other timely topics were addressed. Thought-provoking, well-written, and well-cast, the show transformed the formerly inane sitcom format into something with dramatic social substance, becoming an enormous hit along the way. Archie Bunker's popularity made O'Connor a top-billing star of the 1970s. O'Connor was afraid of being typecast for playing such a popular and distinctive character. At the same time, he was protective of not just his character, but of the entire show.
A contract dispute between O'Connor and Lear marred the beginning of the show's fifth season. Eventually, O'Connor got a raise and appeared in the series until it ended. For his work as Archie Bunker, he was nominated for eight Emmys as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series; he won the award four times (1972, 1977, 1978, and 1979).
At the end of the eighth season in 1978, Reiner and Struthers left the series to pursue other projects, but O'Connor and Stapleton still had one year left on their contracts. At the start of the final year, the show casted a child actress, Danielle Brisebois, in the role of Archie's and Edith's niece, Stephanie Mills. The series was finally cancelled in 1979 after nine seasons and 210 episodes.
Archie Bunker's Place
O'Connor reprised his role as Archie Bunker
in the spin-off
show Archie Bunker's Place
. Longtime friend and original series star Jean Stapleton
reprised her role as Edith Bunker
, but her screen time was limited. Her character died of a stroke, leaving Archie to cope with the loss. Danielle Brisebois played Stephanie Mills, Archie's niece in the series. The show was a hit, but not as big as its parent show. The show was unexpectedly cancelled in 1983, after 97 episodes, and O'Connor was not very happy that the show didn't have an appropriate series finale
. All told, he played Archie Bunker
for 13 years in a total of exactly 300 episodes.
In the Heat of the Night
While coping with his son's drug problem, O'Connor starred as Chief Officer Bill Gillespie, a tough veteran Mississippi
cop on In the Heat of the Night
. Based on the 1967 movie of the same name
, the series debuted on NBC
early in 1988, and it was a ratings powerhouse every Tuesday evening. O'Connor's son, Hugh O'Connor
, was cast in the role of Det. Lonnie Jamison.
Much like O'Connor himself, his character was racially progressive and politically liberal. In 1989, while working on the set, O'Connor was hospitalized and had to undergo open heart surgery, after years of heavy smoking. This caused him to miss four episodes of the show at the end of the second season. The series was cancelled in 1994, a couple of years after being transferred from NBC to CBS in 1992. After cancellation, the following year, O'Connor reprised his role for a In the Heat of the Night to critical acclaim.
O'Connor married his wife Nancy in Dublin, Ireland
(and she later converted to Roman Catholicism for him) in 1951, and their only child, adopted son Hugh O'Connor
, committed suicide
in 1995 after a long battle with drug addiction
. Hugh left a widow and small child behind. O'Connor appeared in public service announcements
for Partnership for a Drug Free America and spent the rest of his life working to raise awareness about drug addiction. After Hugh's death, O'Connor successfully lobbied to get the State of California to pass legislation that allows family members of an addicted person or anyone injured by a drug dealer's actions, including employers, to sue for reimbursement for medical treatment and rehabilitation costs. The law, known as the Drug Dealer Civil Liability Act in California, went into effect in 1997.
Eleven other states followed with similar legislation, which has been referred to as The Hugh O'Connor Memorial Law.
In the late 1990s, O'Connor taught screenwriting
at the University of Montana-Missoula
, where he attended college in his earlier years. In March 2000, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
and was given a St. Patrick's Day
tribute by MGM
In July 1991, O'Connor, Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers were reunited to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of All in the Family, which made its debut on CBS. Thanks to reruns which aired in syndication, TV Land and on CBS, the show continued to be popular. Those reruns led producer Norman Lear to create a new sitcom, Sunday Dinner, which was soon cancelled. The following year, Lear created The Powers That Be, which was also unsuccessful.
His caricature figures prominently in Sardi's restaurant, in New York City's Theater District.
In 1989, O'Connor underwent heart bypass surgery.
In 1998, he underwent a second surgery to clear the blockage in a heart artery to reduce his risk of a stroke.
Friendship with other actors
O'Connor met Broadway
and character actress Jean Stapleton
in a 1962 episode of The Defenders
. Nine years later, she auditioned for the role of Archie's wife Edith in All in the Family
. She and O'Connor shared a remarkable husband and wife chemistry for the next decade. She made limited guest appearances on its later spin-off
show, Archie Bunker's Place
, before leaving in the show's second season. During Stapleton's run as Edith Bunker
, she and O'Connor became close friends. She was distressed in 1995, as she bestowed her condolences on the passing of Carroll's son, Hugh, who committed suicide. She remained close and supportive while O'Connor was in court to testify his son's death. Then on the first day of Summer in 2001, while performing on stage, she received word that her friend had passed away. Though she was unable to attend the service, she delivered her condolences to Nancy.
O'Connor had a long-running friendship with versatile actor Larry Hagman, beginning in 1959, when Carroll was working as an assistant stage manager for the Broadway play God and Kate Murphy, in which Hagman starred. Later as the two struggled as young actors, they rented apartments near each other in New York. Over the years they had a lot in common; just as O'Connor concluded contract negotiations for his salary on All in the Family, in 1974, missing 2 episodes, Hagman eventually found himself re-negotiating his salary on Dallas, with similar results. Hagman's daughter, Heidi, whom O'Connor had known since her childhood, joined the cast for one season of Archie Bunker's Place. Hagman directed several episodes of O'Connor's later series, In the Heat of the Night. They both endured serious health issues, with O'Connor's heart bypass surgery, and Hagman's liver transplant. Hagman remained close after O'Connor's loss of his son Hugh, and through the rest of O'Connor's life, delivering a eulogy at the funeral.
"Nothing will give me any peace. I've lost a son. And I'll go to my grave without any peace over that.
"It was a lack of system that made the 30's Depression as inevitable as all others previously suffered.".
"Get between your kid and drugs, any way you can, if you want to save the kid's life".
Carroll at one point, All in the Family, was getting canceled: "I thought that the public would kick us off the air, because of this egregious guy. No. They loved ... they knew him.
On his son who was supposed to put him under house arrest: "I should have spied on him. I should've taken away all his civil rights, spied on him, opened his mail, listened to telephone calls, everything.
"I never heard Archie's kind of talk in my own family. My father was a lawyer and was in partnership with two Jews, who with their families were close to us. There were black families in our circle of friends. My father disliked talk like Archie's -- he called it lowbrow.
"The biggest part of my life was the acquiring and the loss of a son. I mean, nothing else was as important as that.
"Conventional show-biz savvy held that Americans hated to be the objects of satire.
O'Connor died on June 21
from a heart attack
brought on by complications from diabetes
in Culver City, California
. His funeral was celebrated at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Los Angeles (Westwood) and was attended by All in the Family
cast members Rob Reiner
, Sally Struthers
and Danielle Brisebois
, and Producer Norman Lear
. Actress Jean Stapleton
, who had been a close friend of O'Connor's since the early 1960s, did not attend the service due to a commitment on stage. In honor of his career, TV Land
moved an entire weekend of programming to the next week and showed a continuous marathon of All in the Family
. During the commercial breaks they also showed some interview footage of O'Connor and various All in the Family
actors, producers with whom he had worked, and other associates. Best friend Larry Hagman
and his family were also there, alongside the surviving cast of In the Heat of the Night
, especially Alan Autry
and Denise Nicholas
, who also attended the memorial. O'Connor was buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery
with his son Hugh's cenotaph placed on his grave stone.
Films/made for TV movies
- Return to Me (2000) as Marty O'Reilly
- Gideon (TV) (1999) as Leo Barnes
- 36 Hours to Die (TV) (1999) Jack 'Balls' O'Malley
- The Father Clements Story (1987) (TV) .... Cardinal Cody
- Convicted (1986) (TV) .... Lewis May
- The GLO Friends Save Christmas (1986) .... Santa
- Brass aka Police Brass (TV) (1985) as Frank Nolan
- A Different Approach (1978)
- The Last Hurrah (TV) (1977) as Frank Skeffington
- Law and Disorder (1974) as Willie
- Of Thee I Sing (TV) (1972) President Wintergreen
- Doctors' Wives (1971) Dr. Joe Gray
- Kelly's Heroes (1970) as Maj. Gen. Colt
- Marlowe (1969) as Lt. Christy French
- Death of a Gunfighter (1969) as Lester Locke
- Ride a Northbound Horse (TV)(1969)
- Fear No Evil (TV) (1969) as Myles Donovan
- For Love of Ivy (1968) as Frank Austin
- The Devil's Brigade (1968) as Maj. Gen. Hunter
- Waterhole #3 (1967) as Sheriff John H. Copperud
- Point Blank (1967) as Brewster
- Warning Shot (1967) as Paul Jerez
- The Last Patrol episode of The Time Tunnel (1966) as British General Southall and Colonel Southall, his 1815 ancestor
- Not with My Wife, You Don't! (1966) as Gen. Maynard C. Parker
- Hawaii (1966) as Charles Bromley
- What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966) as Gen. Bolt
- In Harm's Way (1965) (uncredited) .... *Cmdr./Capt. Burke (USS Swayback)
- Nightmare in Chicago aka Once Upon a Savage Night (TV) (1964)
- The Silver Burro (TV) (1963)
- Cleopatra (1963) as Casca
- Lad: A Dog (1962) as Hamilcar Q. Glure
- Belle Sommers (TV) (1962)
- Lonely Are the Brave (1962) Hinton the Truck Driver
- By Love Possessed (1961) .... Bernie Breck
- Parrish (1961) .... Firechief
- A Fever in the Blood (1961) .... Matt Keenan
- The Sacco-Vanzetti Story (TV mini-series) (1960) as Frederick Katzman
- White Christmas (1954) .... The Sheriff
- In the Heat of the Night (1988-1995) Numerous episodes (credited as Matt Harris)
- Brass aka Police Brass (TV) (1985) (credited as Matt Harris)
- Archie Bunker's Place (1979) TV series (writer)
- The Last Hurrah (TV) (1977)
- Bronk (TV) (1975) Series creator
- In the Heat of the Night (TV) (1988-1995) (executive producer)
- The Last Hurrah (TV) (1977) (executive producer)
- Bronk (TV) (1975) Series (executive producer)
- In the Heat of the Night (TV) (1988) Series
- Archie Bunker's Place (TV) (1979) Series
- In the Heat of the Night (TV) (1988) Series (executive story editor credited as Matt Harris)
- Archie Bunker's Place (TV) (1979) Series "Remembering You" (together with Roger Kellaway)
- All in the Family (TV) (1971) Series "Remembering You" (together with Roger Kellaway)
- All in the Family (TV) (1971) singing title song
- I Think I'm Outta Here (ISBN 0-671-01760-8) (1999) Autobiography
- A&E Biography: Carroll O'Connor - All in a Lifetime (2001) Himself
- All in the Family: The E! True Hollywood Story (2000) Himself
- Intimate Portrait: Minnie Driver (2000) Narrator
- All in the Family: 20th Anniversary Special (1991) Himself
- The 30th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards (1978) Himself Winner
- CBS: On the Air (1978) mini-series part VII co-host
- An All-Star Tribute to Elizabeth Taylor (1977) Himself
Archive footage featuring Carroll O'Connor
- The 74th Annual Academy Awards (2002) Memorial tribute
- Inside TV Land: African Americans in Television (2002)
- The 53rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards (2001) Memorial tribute
- Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey (2000) (V)