Carroll O’Connor set the tone of how we were to work on All in the Family. He was very inclusive—he allowed everybody to participate and say what they wanted to say. You know, we all had fights at times. But it was always a great creative process. He saw wherever the strengths were—if somebody had a good idea, [he’d say], ”Let’s go with it.” The actors contributed a tremendous amount, and that was in large part due to him setting a tone in rehearsal. So that was a pleasure on a day-to-day basis.
After we’d do our shows, we’d go out to dinner every week. And I’d always look forward to that, because aside from being a great actor, he was a really smart guy, and he had great thoughts about the world and politics and whatever social issues we were dealing with. He was curmudgeonly, and he was ranting and railing at the world, but so was I. And those discussions were not only fun to have as his friend, they also informed the work. He was a really thoughtful and intelligent person who cared passionately about injustice. Whatever we all felt—whether it was the Vietnam War or race issues or women’s issues—those things got into the show, and he was part of creating that freedom.
One of the things I learned from him as an actor—and this was really important—was that he used to say, ”Don’t make faces. Just listen and react.” The idea was that if you had a story that was well told and the dialogue and the writing were good, you didn’t have to add anything, you didn’t have to help it out. And that’s a great lesson because, with anything you do in a film—if you have to add some spin or do anything to a scene that would tart it up—it means the scene isn’t well written and the story’s no good. As an actor, you don’t have to do handsprings or gymnastics. You can make it work just by delivering what’s there.
Any time I did scenes with him was a great joy. It’s like hitting with a good tennis player—the ball always comes back to you good. I remember the last show, where my character and Sally’s character were leaving to go away. It was the last show of the last season we did, and that was a very emotional show for me—I had spent eight years with him, and I spent more time with him than I did with my own family. When I said goodbye to him, and basically started crying, that’s one of those things where I really didn’t have to act.
(O’Connor died of a heart attack in Los Angeles.)