How Carroll O'Connor Built a Better Bigot

Perfectly portraying prejudice is no easy feat!

"There's no question about it," said Carroll O'Connor in 1971. "Archie is a bigot."

At the time of his interview with The Vancouver Sun, O'Connor was filming the second season of All in the Family. By then, Archie Bunker was a known commodity. While he wasn't quite the cultural colossus he would grow to be, Archie and the rest of the cast were steadily climbing up the ratings ladder, building a word-of-mouth campaign on their way to being TV behemoths. Part of that ratings blitz was folks' interest in what Archie was going to say next. You just had to tune in to hear his latest epithet. 

Now, it's not easy staying on the cutting edge of bigotry, especially if you're an actor who holds no prejudice. For Carroll O'Connor, interviews about Archie were a chance to distance himself from the character and his beliefs. By all counts, O'Connor was a kind, even-keeled man with absolutely no hate in his heart. So how, then, did he so convincingly portray prejudice?

"I know a lot of Archies," O'Connor said. "He's a composite of a half-dozen men I know.

"The producers are liberal with me as far as the script goes. I can throw in my own inflections and ideas."

It takes research to step into a character's shoes so believably. No matter how outlandish a character is, they're only as compelling as they are grounded. So, O'Connor rooted Archie Bunker in the reality he saw growing up.

"I was brought up in New York so I know the breed of bigots pretty well. New York is the most poisonous community in this country as far as bigotry is concerned.

"It has hostile little neighborhoods of Jewish, Irish, Italian, German, Greek, Black, and Puerto Rican. Each little group feared and hated the other until after the Second World War." 

That's also what makes Archie so watchable. He's awful, but he also contains within him so much humanity. He's our relative, or maybe our neighbor, and although we might disagree with him, ultimately, we're rooting for him to turn it all around.

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5 Comments

Andybandit 2 months ago
CO played a great role as AB. I love the debates and arguments between Mike and Archie.
Pacificsun 2 months ago
Not sure how bigotry is laughable in any form.
Those who looked down on the character saw him as uninformed and pathetic. And those who tried to hide their own prejudice could claim support in a weird way.

All in all, viewers bought into the novelty and flowed with the aggravation. Easy laughs at the expense of (fictional) characters, who were (fictionally) disenfranchised. Or in step with a ground breaking premise (except for it having been transplanted from Britain) to capture viewers. And overwhelming revenue. Wonder about the original reaction of Focus Groups, before it became, trendy.

By contrast, MASH authentically intended to demonstrate the effect of conflict. A much more stable opportunity for learning (if they so desired).
DocForbin 2 months ago
Even O'Connor knew that the whole point of All in the Family was to laugh AT Archie Bunker and his bigoted antics, not WITH him and them! I just don't get it why these millennials and Gen-Zers can't grasp this when my little mind back in the day (I was a kid when AITF first ran) immediately grasped that concept.
WilliamJorns DocForbin 2 months ago
Perhaps those millennials and Gen-Zers are taking Archie too seriously. He was supposed to be outrageous in his behavior in order to convey racism's stupidity to the audience. That was the whole point of the series. Those kids mistakenly think AITF was condoning bigotry when it was actually satirizing and ridiculing it? They need to take another look, and really think about it!
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