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Actor Carroll O’Connor dead at 76

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley and Ray O’Hanlon

Carroll O’Connor, a lifelong liberal whose enduring fame came as a result of his having played the role of prototypical working-class bigot, Archie Bunker, in one of TV’s most successful situation comedies, "All in the Family," died on Thursday, June 21, in Malibu, Calif. He was 76.

Playing Archie throughout the 1970s made O’Connor wealthy, not to mention turning him into a commodity recognized wherever he went, and won him four of the five Emmy Awards he won in an acting career that spanned five decades and embraced stage and film work as well as TV.

Even if, as the son of a liberally inclined lawyer and his equally liberal teacher wife, O’Connor was a world apart from his TV image, there were certain similarities.

Born in Manhattan on Aug. 2, 1924, O’Connor lived in the Bronx, and then in Elmhurst, Queens, where his comfortably fixed family had a large apartment and, finally, a single-family dwelling in Forest Hills. O’Connor always maintained that he derived Archie’s distinctive accent and speech patterns from a judge he once knew who lived in Canarsie.

Classically trained, and hoping for a serious stage career, Connor could be found in the 1950s working in the out-of-the-way spaces which were soon to become known as the off-Broadway Theater.

One of those early jobs had him playing Buck Mulligan in a stage adaptation of James Joyce’s "Ulysses," entitled "Ulysses in Nighttown," and directed by actor Burgess Meredith.

The venue was the long-ago-razed Rooftop Theatre, above the intersection of Second Avenue and Houston Street. The show was a critical and popular success, and the cast was filled with actors who went on to make long and illustrious careers. Among O’Connor’s Rooftop colleagues were Zero Mostel, Anne Meara, and Pauline Flanagan, who remembers the actor as being "a really wonderful Buck Mulligan."

"Ulysses in Nighttown" moved from Second Avenue to successful engagements in London, Paris, Amsterdam, and the Hague. Actress Flanagan, who appeared again with O’Connor "in 1959 or maybe 1960" in a less successful play, "A Priest in the Family," remained friends with O’Connor and his wife, the former Nancy Fields, whom he had met and married in 1951. They had met as students at Montana State University.

In 1950, O’Connor went to Dublin with his brother, Hugh, and enrolled at University College Dublin, studying Irish history and English literature.

For a time, using the name George Roberts, he tried acting, and actually did get work, appearing in several productions at the Gate Theatre, which had been founded and was still run by Michael MacLiammoir and his partner, Hilton Edwards.

O’Connor tried his hand at playwriting for a while, and, with his wife, did some substitute teaching to keep themselves solvent at a time when off-Broadway salaries were even more miniscule than they are today.

When Anne Meara left the cast of "Ulysses in Nighttown," she was replaced by Frances Sternhagen in one of her first assignments. Sternhagen remembers that O’Connor and his wife were "extraordinarily generous, ready and able to help out if you had a problem, with your car breaking down or with anything else."

In 1985, O’Connor and Sternhagen were teamed in a Broadway play, "Homefront," by James Duff, a play which the actress had done in London the previous year under the title "The War at Home."

During the rehearsal period for "Homefront," O’Connor confided to Sternhagen that "I want to do everything I can not to be Archie Bunker in this play." The actress recalls that "even though we were supposed to be a Texas family, Carroll eventually made peace with the fact that there was indeed a good bit of Archie in the character as written."

O’Connor had a long role in the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton-Rex Harrison "Cleopatra," a part of sufficient duration that it required O’Connor and his wife to make their home in Rome.

During this period, the O’Connors adopted a son, whom they named in honor of the actor’s brother, Hugh. The O’Connors’ son became deeply involved with drugs and committed suicide in 1995.

Following the death of his only son, O’Connor became somewhat withdrawn, avoided active participation in show business, although he devoted considerable time to the fight against drugs, particularly cocaine, which had been the drug his son had been unable to quit.

One of the mysteries of O’Connor’s performance as Archie Bunker was the precise manner in which he was able to deliver material rooted in extreme prejudice without totally alienating his audience. It has been said that the only time when O’Connor wasn’t really convincing in his diatribes was on those occasions when he was called upon to attack the Irish.

O’Connor’s own Irish roots were concentrated primarily in counties Galway, Kerry and Tipperary and the O’Connor family straddled the Ireland and America connection for almost century by publishing a newspaper, the Irish Advocate, between 1893 and 1989.

Dorothy Hayden Cudahy, who became the first woman grand marshal of the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade the year that the Advocate ceased publishing, recalls a time when O’Connor worked as a reporter for the paper.

"He reported for the Advocate when he came back from Ireland. You would go to an affair and there would be Carroll with his pen and notebook," said Hayden Cudahy, who added that O’Connor was often seen surrounded by family members.

"The O’Connor’s were very family oriented. Carroll would often bring his mother and other family members along to events."

At the height of the Archie Bunker phenomenon, O’Connor was to find that some people found it difficult to distinguish between the screen persona and the real man.

Radio broadcaster Adrian Flannelly, who interviewed O’Connor numerous times on his show over the years, recalled a time when Archie was having a tough time securing a bunker with a roof and bed.

"He was trying to get an apartment on the Upper West side in Manhattan, in the Dakota Building," Flannelly said.

The board of the Dakota, where Beatle John Lennon had lived and died, was apparently rather liberal minded, but also a bit literal in its thinkin,g too, and had serious reservations about making an apartment available to the one and only Archie Bunker.

"So, said Flannelly, "Carroll was told he would have to get references. This despite his fame."

O’Connor approached Paul O’Dwyer, whose liberal credentials were beyond doubt and secured a glowing reference. The recommendation worked.

Flannelly knew O’Connor is several guises, not just that of the liberal activist.

"He was also very religious and a big Mass-goer, particularly at Our Lady of Malibu church in Malibu, Calif., where he lived. He also enjoyed a glass of whiskey and a good sing-song. He sang the "The Wild Colonial Boy" on the show. He had a good enough voice."

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