Carroll O'Connor (born John Carroll O'Connor; August 2, 1924 – June 21, 2001) was an American actor, producer and director whose television career spanned four decades. A life member of The Actors Studio, O'Connor first attracted attention as Major General Colt in the 1970 movie Kelly's Heroes. The following year he found fame as the bigoted working man 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 NBC/CBS television crime drama In the Heat of the Night from 1988 to 1995, where he played the role of southern Police Chief William (Bill) Gillespie. At the end of his career in the late 1990s, he played the father of Jamie Buchman (Helen Hunt) on Mad About You.
In 1996, O'Connor was ranked #38 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time.
O'Connor, an Irish American, was the eldest of three sons born in Manhattan, New York, to Edward Joseph O'Connor, a lawyer, and his wife, Elise Patricia O'Connor. Both of his brothers became doctors: Hugh, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1961, and Robert, a psychiatrist in New York City. O'Connor spent much of his youth in Elmhurst and Forest Hills, Queens, the same borough in which his character Archie Bunker would later live.
In 1941, Carroll O'Connor enrolled at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, but dropped out when the United States entered World War II. During World War II he was rejected by the United States Navy and enrolled in the United States Merchant Marine Academy for a short time. After leaving that institution, he became a merchant seaman.
O'Connor attended the University of Montana-Missoula where he met Nancy Fields, who would later become his wife. He also worked at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper as an editor. At the University of Montana, he joined Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity. At that time, however, O'Connor did not take any drama courses as an undergraduate. O'Connor later left the University of Montana to help his younger brother Hugh get into medical school in Ireland, where he completed his studies at the University College Dublin. It was there that he began his acting career.
After he graduated from the University of Montana in 1951 with degrees in drama and English, O'Connor's fiancée, Nancy, sailed to Ireland to meet Carroll, who was visiting his brother, Hugh. The couple married in Dublin on July 28, 1951. In 1956, O'Connor returned to Missoula to earn a master's degree in speech.
After acting in theatrical productions in Dublin (Ireland) and New York during the 1950s, O'Connor's breakthrough came when he was cast by director Burgess Meredith (assisted by John Astin) in a featured role in the Broadway adaptation of James Joyce's novel Ulysses. O'Connor and Meredith remained close, lifelong friends.
O'Connor made his television acting debut as a character actor on two episodes of Sunday Showcase. These two parts led to other roles on such television series as The Americans, The Eleventh Hour, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Fugitive, The Wild Wild West, Armstrong Circle Theatre, Death Valley Days, The Great Adventure, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Dr. Kildare, I Spy, That Girl, Premiere, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, among many others. O'Connor starred as an Eastern European villain in the first season of "Mission Impossible" Season 1, Episode 18 "The Trial," brilliantly played and recognizable by his intense blue eyes. Late in his career, he appeared on several episodes of Mad About You as the father of Helen Hunt's character.
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).
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, with O'Connor playing Archie Justice, a lovable 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. The show was based on the BBC's Til Death Us Do Part, with Bunker based on Alf Garnett, but somewhat less abrasive than the original. 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. (In her book Archie & Edith, Mike & Gloria : the Tumultuous History of All in the Family, Donna McCrohan noted that O'Connor requested that Lear provide him with a return airline ticket to Rome as a condition of his accepting the role, so that he could return to Italy when the show failed.) 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 All in the Family.
O'Connor's own politics were liberal. 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. Although Bunker was famous for his malapropisms of the English language, O'Connor was highly educated and cultured and was an English professor 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 and Edith's only child and Meathead's wife, Gloria Bunker-Stivic. The cast had a unique on- and off-camera chemistry, especially Reiner, who became O'Connor'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. Like its British predecessor Til Death Do Us Part, the show lent dramatic social substance to the traditional sitcom format. Archie Bunker's popularity made O'Connor a top-billing star of the 1970s. O'Connor was afraid of being typecast for playing the role, but 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 Emmy Awards 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 cast a child actress, Danielle Brisebois, in the role of Archie's and Edith's niece, Stephanie Mills.
All In The Family was renamed Archie Bunker's Place for the show's tenth season and the show ran for four more years. Longtime friend and original series star Jean Stapleton's role as Edith Bunker, was limited to about a half dozen guest appearances in season 10. In the 11th season premere, her character died of a stroke, leaving Archie to cope with the loss. The show was unceremoniously canceled in 1983. O'Connor was angered][ about the show's cancellation, maintaining that the show ended with an inappropriate finale. He vowed never to work in any type of show with CBS again,][ although he starred in In the Heat of the Night, which aired on CBS in that show's last three seasons.
All told, he played Archie Bunker for 13 years in 307 episodes.
While coping with his son's drug problem, O'Connor starred as Sparta, Mississippi, Police Chief 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 performed well. He cast his son Hugh O'Connor as Officer Lonnie Jamison. The headquarters of the Sparta Police Department was actually the library in Covington, Georgia.
Much like O'Connor himself, Gillespie was racially progressive and politically liberal. But the character of Bill Gillespie was also a smart and tough police officer who was not afraid to use his gun when the occasion called for it.
In 1989, while working on the set, O'Connor was hospitalized and had to undergo open heart surgery, which caused him to miss four episodes at the end of the second season (actor Joe Don Baker took his place in those episodes as an acting police chief.) The series was transferred from NBC to CBS in 1992 and cancelled two years later, after its seventh season. O'Connor reprised his role the following year for four two-hour In the Heat of the Night television films to critical acclaim][.
While on the series, O'Connor recorded "Bring A Torch, Jeanette Isabella," for the 1991 "In the Heat of the Night" Christmas CD "Christmas Time's A Comin'." He was joined by Grand Ole Opry star mandolinist Jesse McReynolds, Nashville accordionist Abe Manuel, Jr., and Nashville fiddlers Buddy Spicher and Randall Franks. CD Producer and series co-star Randall Franks created the arrangement which was co-produced by series co-star Alan Autry. He joined other members of the cast for a recording of "Jingle Bells" with vocals by Country Music Hall of Fame members Little Jimmy Dickens, Kitty Wells, Pee Wee King, and The Marksmen Quartet, Bobby Wright, Johnnie Wright and Ken Holloway.
In 1973, his fraternity conferred its highest honor, Sigma Phi Epsilon Citation, on him.
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, Antenna TV, 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.
In March 2000, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was given a St. Patrick's Day tribute by MGM.
His caricature figures prominently in Sardi's restaurant, in New York City's Theater District.
In 1962, while he was in Rome, filming Cleopatra, O'Connor and his wife adopted a six-day-old boy, naming him Hugh after O'Connor's brother who had died a year earlier. 17-year-old Hugh later worked as a courier on the set of Archie Bunker's Place. O'Connor would eventually create the role of Officer Lonnie Jamison on In the Heat of the Night for his son.
In 1989, O'Connor's long time cigar smoking finally caught up with him.][ He was admitted to the hospital for heart bypass surgery.
In 1995, O'Connor's son Hugh committed suicide after a long battle with drug addiction. Following his son's death, 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. O'Connor also successfully lobbied to get the State of California to pass legislation allowing 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.
His son's suicide inspired O'Connor to start a crusade against the man who sold the drugs to Hugh. He called Harry Perzigian "a partner in murder" and a "sleazeball." Perzigian filed a defamation lawsuit against the actor. In 1997, a California jury threw out the case. In an interview on CNN's Larry King Live soon after the verdict, O'Connor said he would never be able to put his son's death behind him. "I can't forget it. There isn't a day that I don't think of him and want him back and miss him, and I'll feel that way until I'm not here anymore," he said.
During the late 1990s, O'Connor established a small automotive restoration shop in Newbury Park, California. Called "Carroll O'Connor Classics" the shop contained many of O'Connor's personal vehicles and the cars once owned by his late son. Among the cars O'Connor owned were a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow sold to him by William Harrah, a Maserati 3500 GT, and a Dodge Challenger equipped with the 440-cubic inch V-8 that was the car he drove during production of All In The Family.
In 1997, the O'Connors donated $1 million to their alma mater to help match a challenge grant to the University of Montana from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The university named a regional studies and public policy institute the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West. Afterward, O'Connor taught screenwriting at the university.
In 1998 O'Connor underwent a second surgery to clear the blockage in a cardiac artery, to reduce his risk of stroke.
O'Connor died on June 21, 2001 in Culver City, California from a heart attack brought on by complications from diabetes. His funeral Mass was celebrated at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Westwood, Los Angeles, California and was attended by All in the Family cast members Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers and Danielle Brisebois, as well as producer Norman Lear. Actress Jean Stapleton, who played O'Connor's onscreen wife and who had been a close friend of O'Connor's since the early 1960s, did not attend the service due to a stage production performance commitment.
In honor of O'Connor's 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 TV Land also showed interview footage of O'Connor and various All in the Family actors, producers with whom he had worked, and other associates. O'Connor's best friend Larry Hagman and his family were also there, alongside the surviving cast of In the Heat of the Night, including Alan Autry and Denise Nicholas, who also attended the memorial. Actor Martin Sheen, then starring on The West Wing, delivered the eulogy. O'Connor is buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery with his son Hugh's cenotaph placed on his grave stone.
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 when she heard of the passing of Carroll's son, Hugh, who had committed suicide. She remained close and supportive while O'Connor was in court to testify concerning his son's death. On the first day of summer in 2001, while performing on stage, she received word that O'Connor had died. Though she was unable to attend the service, she delivered her condolences to his wife Nancy.
O'Connor had a long-running friendship with 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 two 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 '30s 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".
"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: "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."
(He would never be able to put his son's death behind him, he said) "I can't forget it. There isn't a day that I don't think of him and want him back and miss him, and I'll feel that way until I'm not here anymore," (In an interview on CNN's Larry King Live)