Carroll O’Connor, Archie Bunker and “All in the Family”

I’ve wanted to do a post on this topic for ages. All in the Family (1971-1979) was a central, formative TV experience for me. My family watched it religiously, at least during the first four seasons, when it aired on Saturdays at 8pm, prime TV time, on CBS. Not only did it hold the country in its thrall during these crucial years, it made our house rock with immoderate laughter.

Today is the birthday of its star Carroll O’Connor (1924-2001), so first a few words about him. Though O’Connor was from New York City, he was most emphatically NOT Archie Bunker, nor was anyone in his family. His father was a lawyer, his two younger brothers were doctors, and O’Connor himself possessed a graduate degree in speech. He served in the Merchant Marine in World War Two (attending the Merchant Marine Academy beforehand). He became an actor while finishing up his bachelors degree at the University of Dublin. So, thus while O’Connor is Irish-American, he actually became an actor in Ireland itself. (Interestingly, while O’Connor PLAYS Archie Bunker as though he were an IRISH-American Queens bigot — that’s a thing, btw, and listen closely to his accent, that’s totally what O’Connor is doing — the character is actually a nativist working class WASP New Yorker, which hasn’t actually been a thing since the time of the No Nothing Party and Daniel Day-Lewis’s character in Gangs of New York. It seems to take place in a parallel universe in that regard).

O’Connor became a working actor in the early ’50s, and he worked constantly in scores of films and television programs. I’ve seen many of these performances and I’m here to tell ya, in most of them he is so nondescript as to scarcely register on the screen. He utters his lines, but is completely unmemorable. It’s only in retrospect that you watch these older performances and you go, “That’s Carroll O’Connor!” If he’d never played Archie Bunker, the man’s legacy would have sunk without a ripple after his passing. He wasn’t a bad actor, in that his line readings didn’t seem false. He simply left no outline, he made no impression.

Something about Archie Bunker clicked for him. Just one of those times when an actor knew just what to do for a role. Others had been considered for the part, including Jackie Gleason, Jack Warden, and Tom Bosley. I can see either of the first two doing a good job in the part. Bosley was too nice, I think. Although interestingly, he played the neighbor of an Archie Bunker type character played by Jack Burns on the animated series Wait ’til Your Father Gets Home (1972-74). Anyway, O’Connor was encouraged to take the role BIG by co-creators Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, who based the show on the BBC sitcom ‘Til Death Do Us Part. And that bigness, that volume, is among the show’s most memorable aspects.

O’Connor’s Archie Bunker was a working class bigot living in the NYC borough of Queens. Jean Stapleton, playing it equally big, was his big-hearted but idiotic and shrill wife Edith. Sally Struthers was their modern-thinking, sexually liberated daughter Gloria.

Rob Reiner (Carl Reiner’s son) was Gloria’s husband, a liberal, argumentative college student, who causes a great deal of tension by moving in with the family.

In 1971, the position of Gloria’s butt in this photo telegraphed that she was sexually liberated

I find the comedy ensemble work amongst this quartet some of the most glorious in television history. To this day, I’ll watch these early episodes and soak it up like a sponge. I feel like the veterans O’Connor and Stapleton must have been some serious hardcore acting mentors to Struthers (who had almost no experience at the time) and Reiner, whom you can watch closing the gap between himself and the older actors in hilarity as he gains confidence over the life of the series. Among the show’s innovations was a return to three camera “live” set-up pioneered by I Love Lucy in TV’s early days (as opposed to the one camera, “movie” like shooting technique that had been the industry standard since the 1960s.)

And, honest to God, it remains some of the best TV comedy directing and in-camera editing to this day. The actors are earning their laughs from the live studio audience without a doubt (also a rarity in that age of canned laughter). But the crew in the booth made additional comedy, GREAT comedy, in how they shot and cut it.  There was a rhythm to it, and a great instinct for cutting to a reaction shot in close-up. All four of these actors had wonderful “faces”, and huge eyes, and they would play these attributes like musical instruments, even though it was a dialogue driven show. Sometimes a laugh would come ON a line, as the audience reacted to what a character said. But sometimes, the laugh would come from the reaction of one of the other characters. Edith would say something stupid: cut to Archie’s face. Archie would say something stupid, cut to Mike’s face. On and on and on.

And this is just the formal side of things. We haven’t even gotten to the innovations of content, which was what all the hoopla was about at the time. The show was crafted and pitched as a reaction to all the change swirling around in the 1960s. Lear and Yorkin had started developing this show prior to 1968. By the time the series launched for real in 1971, the entire country had been locked in a non-stop shouting match for years, about Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, women’s rights, gay rights, Freedom of Speech etc etc etc, not to mention rapid social change on the micro level brought about by the advent of mass media. Kids talked to their parents differently. They talked BACK. They pointed out hypocrisies and prejudices. And, then as now, certain people double down on their hypocrisies and prejudices. Archie Bunker was one of these people, and saying these things out loud on television (unprecedented), and shining a spotlight at it, revealed this widespread behavior on the part of what was then called “the Moral Majority” but which turned out to be (as the popular bumper sticker put it) “neither”. The name “Archie Bunker” rapidly became shorthand for “bigot”, and remains so to this day.

Mike Evans played Archie’s African American next-door-neighbor Lionel Jefferson. Archie liked Lionel — as long as he stayed in his place. As we saw on the spin-off show “The Jeffersons” however, that “place” turned out to be a “dee-luxe apartment in the sky”

Archie used EPITHETS. He called his own Polish-American son-in-law a “Polack”, and, playing upon stereotypes about Polish-Americans, also called him a “Meathead”. He used even worse words about black people, Latinos, Italian-Americans, Jews, gays, and others. He was cruel and abusive toward his wife, who was essentially his slave, and whom he called a “dingbat.” This was tough medicine. I think one of the reasons the comedy was played and directed so broadly in the early seasons was to keep everything from getting too ugly. You do want people to watch the show, after all.

It sounds like straightforward satire, and there was clearly a strong component of that. Yet the producers (and their networks and their sponsors) were in a business to make money. They had to do this somehow without alienating the very demographic the show made fun of. And it worked. When Archie said appalling things, EVERYBODY guffawed. It’s just that some people were laughing AT Archie; others were laughing WITH him. This was, as Dave Chapelle put it so well when he announced the cancellation of his own comedy show in 2006, “the wrong kind of laughter”. And at the time the show debuted, Lear insisted that it wasn’t a total takedown, that Archie was a “lovable bigot” based on his own father, and that Mike was based on himself.

But, what, pray tell, is a “lovable bigot”? I know that I for one don’t want to reach over and hug Archie Bunker. His face is so filled with hatred and disrespect for the rest of the world. It is more cathartic to laugh at his stupid ideas and malapropisms. Ridicule of him and his antediluvian ideas has to be the whole point. But as a working class white person, I can tell you, the example of Archie’s idiocy didn’t change many people. They just laughed when he used slurs. Each episode would have a didactic lesson, but often it seemed like nobody learned the damned lesson.

Yet, where the show went next made things worse. One reads in old articles about lots of arguments on the set, especially between Lear and O’Connor. Based on where the show went in its later years and in the successor show Archie Bunker’s Place (1979-1983) when O’Connor gained some power and influence you can glean the nature of the dispute, I think. Lear clearly wanted it played big, with Archie being as heinous as possible. O’Connor, as we wrote in this earlier post, wanted to soften the edges, and make Archie a human being. That was when the show ceased to be funny, and where I lost interest: when it became about a family and not about division in America. I really have no interest in the fictional infant “Li’l Joey”. The day they came out with a children’s doll of Li’l Joey, that’s the day they should have flushed the series down, as Archie would say in his Queens accent, “the terlet”. But it went on for years. Me, I stopped watching at some point early during the Carter administration, and then continued to cherish the better, earlier seasons in re-runs.

At any rate, All in the Family was a lightning rod in its day, it made people sit up and pay attention, and it even inspired families to have serious discussions. I recall many in my house that were sparked by the show, with my brother and sister-in-law in contention with my parents. It served a good social purpose I think, even if some people missed the point. I was hoping the rebooted Rosanne would serve a similar function, but unlike Carol O’Connor, Rosanne turned out to actually BE Archie Bunker.

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