The winner of best actor Emmy Awards in both the comedy and drama-series categories — and the only performer to achieve that distinction — Carroll O’Connor says with characteristic candor, “There's no transition between the two at all. You just go and do your work. You play the character, the truth. Play him honestly, whether he’s a sad character or a funny character. The audience may laugh at him or weep at him, but that’s not really your business as an actor. Just play the guy.”
“Carroll’s a marvelous actor," says Norman Lear, the coproducer of All in the Family and Archie Bunker's Place, in which O’Connor starred for 11 1/2 years, and for which he won four Emmys as best comedy actor.
“It was always my belief that a great actor would be terribly funny as Archie,” Lear says. I saw Carroll in a small role as an Army officer in the Blake Edwards movie, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? Although it was a serious scene, there was no doubt in my mind that Carroll would be perfect for comedy and perfect as Archie because he could act the role. Archie had to have enormous humanity. It wasn’t a question of designing a likable bigot; it was a matter of designing a human being who, because he was a 360-degree human being, had qualities that would also be likable. And Carroll has that kind of humanity.”
Born in 1924 in New York City, O’Connor enrolled in the University of Montana, then transferred to the National University of Ireland in Dublin, which in 1952 awarded him a Bachelor of Arts degree; in 1956 O'Connor earned a master’s degree in English and speech from the University of Montana.
While in Dublin, O’Connor appeared in several professional stage productions, including That Lady, which was subsequently presented at Britain's prestigious Edinburgh Festival and then on British Broadcasting Corporation television. Shortly afterward, he joined Dublin’s Gate Theatre.
“I was very lucky,” O’Connor says of his experiences there. “I got wonderful instruction in everything: acting, makeup, how to wear a costume, how to walk around the stage, how to position yourself.”
Upon his return to the United States in 1954, O’Connor taught school in New York City between acting jobs. In 1958, he made his Broadway debut, and in the late 1950s and early 1960s he performed with the Los Angeles Theater Group and in a number of films, including Lonely Are the Brave, Marlowe, and Cleopatra.
In 1970, O’Connor made the first of two pilots for All in the Family, an American version of the British comedy Till Death Us Do Part.
“In the first rehearsals I discovered the key to Archie was that he was always complaining, always moaning," O’Connor says. “He has a negative approach to life. That made him funny. But I didn’t want to do just a show with jokes, just a funny show.”
Lear says, “The show and its social resonance had a special meaning for Carroll, as a citizen and as a concerned individual. … The social importance of the role was appealing to Carroll, and that made it more special for him and for us. The great, unexpected bonus of Carroll’s playing that role came one day in rehearsals. He completely slipped into the character of Archie, and suddenly we were dealing with Archie, not Carroll O’Connor. This was a kind of magic.”
“Carroll would grab lines and cuts and pieces of humanity that none of the rest of us could touch, ’’ Lear continues. “He had this special ability when he was in character to come up with incredible malapropisms and behavior. It was wall to wall and floor to ceiling.”
Jean Stapleton, who played opposite O’Connor as Bunker’s wife, Edith, says, “Norman drew us out on improvs. Carroll, knowing his character so well, was very articulate, because he's also a writer and a playwright. It was amazing how spontaneously he could improvise something. He was brilliant because he would find a better phrase or word that was in keeping with Archie’s character, that was true to where Archie came from. He has such intelligence, talent, and technique. Carroll’s definitely a team player, an ensemble player. That was one of the major keys to our success. He’s always listening and responding and contacting the other actors in many different ways from an internal source.”
For its first five years, All in the Family was rated as the nation’s most popular program, and until it was succeeded by Archie Bunker's Place in 1980, it consistently ranked in the top 20 shows. O’Connor won a George Foster Peabody Award for his performance in the debut Archie Bunker's Place episode, “Edith's Death.” And even the Smithsonian Institution has placed on permanent display the armchair from which Archie harangued his family, his neighbors, and the world.
Was O'Connor concerned that his success as Archie Bunker would lead to his being typecast?
“I don’t think I worried about it,” O’Connor says. “Nor did I even think about it for long. We had no sooner finished a couple of seasons of All in the Family, when producers were coming to me to do television specials. I did the George Gershwin musical Of Thee I Sing, which was entirely different from Archie. Then for the Hallmark Hall of Fame, I wrote and produced a reprise of the novel The Last Hurrah, in which I played the mayor of Boston.
“Along came all these other requests for me to do things that were totally different from my famous character on television. Producers here had known me for many years before I started to play Archie Bunker, and now they wanted me to play many different things again.”
Last year O’Connor assumed the role of Bill Gillespie, the chief of police in a small Mississippi town, in the Fred Silverman-produced NBC series In the Heat of the Night, which last September earned him the Emmy for best dramatic actor.
“Gillespie could become a beloved character if we do the same things in the one-hour drama that we did in comedy,” O’Connor says, “in having the same reflection of American life. I don’t want him to be a two-dimensional, cardboard character. I'm concerned that this not be routine cop stuff.”
In March 1989, O’Connor underwent sextuple open-heart surgery and within weeks assumed the responsibilities of coexecutive producer for In the Heat of the Night.
“It’s another channel for creativity besides the acting channel,” O’Connor says. “It adds greatly to the enjoyment. Being executive producer puts less strain on me. It’s better to be boss.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Carroll O'Connor's induction in 1989.