Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker was TV's most complex antihero. Those were the days.

By Ken Tucker
Updated July 13, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Carroll O’Connor died June 21 of a heart attack in Los Angeles at the age of 76. He didn’t become a star — that is to say, he didn’t become All in the Family’s Archie Bunker, the guileless archconservative and one of the greatest characters in television history — until he was well into his 40s. O’Connor had spent his early career in bit parts on TV shows like Bonanza and The Rifleman, and he caught the eye of Family producer Norman Lear with his role in the 1966 film What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? Mickey Rooney had reportedly turned down the role of Bunker, an embattled Queens, N.Y., dock foreman, and O’Connor probably figured he had nothing to lose. Middle-aged, perennially peeved-looking fellows weren’t offered starring roles in sitcoms every day — especially on CBS, then still the Tiffany Network.

Over the years it’s become standard to call Archie a lovable bigot, but that sells O’Connor’s performance short. The actor boldly revealed the true ugliness of Archie’s bigotry, his mixed jealousy and contempt for blacks, Jews, and Hispanics, whom he referred to with epithets no one had uttered on a comedy before. O’Connor was able to suggest why a white working stiff of that generation may have held the fetid beliefs he did, shrewdly realizing that Lear had constructed the rest of the series as a critique of Archie. Everyone in Archie’s world — his son-in-law (Rob Reiner’s Meathead), his dim but noble wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton), his neighbor George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) — existed to point out Archie’s flaws, to offer the other side of any tirade, whether it concerned the women’s movement or black nationalism. On Family from 1971 to ’79, O’Connor was amazingly nuanced: He could be mean, dumb, sly, vindictive, and embarrassed all in the space of a single scene, and deserved every one of the four Emmys he won. (From ’79 to ’83, he polished shot glasses with less conviction as a bar owner in Archie Bunker’s Place.)

The post-Bunker era found O’Connor doing his most regular work as star and producer of a TV version of In the Heat of the Night (1988-94), which won him another Emmy and gave a supporting role to his adopted son, Hugh, who committed suicide in 1995 after struggling with drug addiction. It was O’Connor’s public anguish over his loss — he became a dedicated antidrug crusader — that seemed to shape his final years.

The release of his last film — 2000’s comedy Return to Me, his first feature in 23 years — coincided with the unveiling of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. One broiling March day on Hollywood Boulevard, O’Connor, his wife, Nancy, his Return costars Minnie Driver and Bonnie Hunt, and a cluster of fans gathered for the brief ceremony. The actor’s accomplishments were extolled, the star was introduced, and pictures were snapped. After O’Connor signed a few autographs with a slightly shaky hand, the crowd dispersed. Hunt walked over and gave him a hug and said, ”Were you thinking of Hugh a little?” O’Connor looked at Hunt, startled, then hugged her. ”Thank you for saying his name,” he said. ”People never want to talk about Hugh, because they think I’ll become upset or depressed, but just the opposite is true. I love to think about him; I love it when people remember him. Yes, I was thinking of my son.”

It wasn’t the sort of sentiment you’d ever hear from Archie Bunker, which only made more clear just how pure an artistic achievement O’Connor’s most famous performance had been.