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Commentary: O'Connor left lasting mark on pop culture as Archie

Saturday, June 23, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

We all have an Archie Bunker in the family. He was perhaps the most realistic character in the history of television, thanks in no small part to the talents of Carroll O'Connor, the actor who brought him to life.

O'Connor died Thursday, but reruns of "All in the Family" continue to air on Nick at Nite (and a TV Land memorial marathon this weekend), 30 years after the show's tumultuous premiere on CBS. In an era of witless shows about country bumpkins, characters with magical powers and clueless parents with squeaky-clean kids, "All in the Family" rudely shoved TV comedy into the real world.

Archie, who lived in Queens and worked on a loading dock, railed about "spics" and "spades" and "hebes" and anyone else who was not like himself. "Guys like us, we had it made/Those were the days," he sang smugly in the title song.

He referred to his sweet but naive wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton), as "dingbat." His daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), a budding feminist, married a long-haired liberal college student of Polish descent, Mike (Rob Reiner), whom Archie invariably called "meathead." He had a black neighbor, George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley), who was every bit as abrasive and thickheaded as Archie. His house was his castle and his throne was his living-room chair in front of the TV, where no one else dared sit.

Mike and Gloria lived with the Bunkers, leading to endless arguments about politics, race, Vietnam and virtually every other issue that real American families battled over in the 1970s.

Producer Norman Lear's liberal bent and his determination to use humor as a means of discussing controversial topics on television made the show revolutionary. O'Connor, Stapleton, Struthers and Reiner made it memorable by turning the Bunkers into people we all recognized.

O'Connor had the toughest assignment. If he made Archie too vile, no one would watch. If he made him too likable, the show could be accused of condoning his bigotry.

But this veteran of stage and film, who was 46 when "All in the Family" premiered, found the right tack. He gave Archie enough rope to hang himself, making him look and sound every bit as stupid as his cockamamie racial and ethnic stereotypes. But he made Archie aggressive enough that you couldn't just dismiss him as a harmless crank. Yet he left no doubt that, underneath his bellicose exterior, Archie sincerely loved his wife and daughter, even if he barely tolerated his son-in-law.

He reminded me of an uncle of mine who drove a milk truck, gave you his unsolicited opinion on everything, always claimed he could buy something cheaper than you had and disliked various minorities, even though he was himself Jewish. Archie Bunkers come in all colors and denominations.

That's one reason why, although topical humor usually fades as times change, "All in the Family" holds up amazingly well even now.

So do the performances of O'Connor and Stapleton, who conducted an acting clinic in every episode. Archie's facial expressions -- squinting and rolling his eyes, pursing his mouth, building to an explosion or erupting spontaneously -- are priceless.

O'Connor gave him the body language of a pugnacious bulldog who had gone soft in the belly, and he spoke with a Queens accent and a collection of endlessly varied groans, sighs and grunts, usually culminating in the expression "aw jeez" when someone pushed his buttons too hard.

Stapleton was his perfect foil, using a silly high-pitched voice that matched her blank look. But someone was home inside her head, as we found out when the truth would dawn on her and you could see the light bulb go on. On the rare occasions when she stood up to Archie, even he had to back down to her righteous indignation. Edith loved everyone, and you just had to love her.

I never thought that O'Connor could survive playing Archie Bunker in the sense that, after 13 years in the role (on "All in the Family" and the show it evolved into, "Archie Bunker's Place"), would audiences ever be able to see him as someone else?

Maybe the passage of time helped, but it is also a measure of his talent that five years after "Archie Bunker's Place" ended in 1983, O'Connor went on to star in a second successful (although more conventional) series, "In the Heat of the Night."

It was based on the 1967 movie starring Rod Steiger as a Southern police chief who grudgingly works on a murder investigation with a proud black detective from the North, portrayed by Sidney Poitier.

O'Connor played Chief Bill Gillespie in the series opposite Howard Rollins Jr. as Virgil Tibbs. The town mayor, trying to garner black support, forces Gillespie to hire Tibbs. But the two men manage to get along despite the racial tensions in the town. Gillespie eventually has an affair with a black councilwoman played by Denise Nicholas.

Archie Bunker would have been aghast. O'Connor proved there was more to him than the role for which he will be forever remembered.

Ron Weiskind was the Post-Gazette TV critic from 1984 to 1992.

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