Did you grow up watching the notorious Archie Bunker in the hit sitcom All in the Family? He was easily one of the most memorable and well-written characters in the history of the American sitcom.
All in the Family was also a groundbreaking sitcom for its time. It managed to skillfully blend comedy with drama. It dealt with many serious subjects including the Vietnam War, women’s rights, racism, abortion, homosexuality, rape, antisemitism, religion, and much more.
No one was better at blending drama and comedy than the show’s protagonist, played by the inimitable Carroll O’Connor.
But did you know that Carroll O’Connor wasn’t the first choice to play Archie bunker? Let’s learn about the actor who ALMOST played Archive Bunker on All in the Family!
Carroll O’Connor began his career acting in student plays at the University College Dublin in Ireland. The Manhattan-born O’Connor followed his brother Hugh to Ireland to pursue higher education following a stint at the University of Montana.
While he had studied Irish History and English Literature, it clear that he’d been bitten by the acting bug. Caroll returned to New York and began acting on the stage. He would later play bit parts in popular TV shows such as Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and I Spy. He also acted in major films such as Cleopatra, The Devil’s Brigade, and Death of A Gunfighter.
But his life would change when he cast as Archie Bunker in a new sitcom called All in the Family.
When producer Norman Lear met Carroll O’Connor, he knew that the actor made for the role of Archie Bunker. The character of Archie Bunker himself was based on Lear’s father – so he had to choose an actor that would do the role justice.
Carroll O’Conner was that actor. He was now well into his forties and was getting his big break. His performance as Archie Bunker would go on to become on the greatest acting performances in American sitcom history.
And yet…he almost didn’t get the role and he wasn’t the first choice to play the role. In fact, there was a more prominent Hollywood star who almost got the role that catapulted Carroll O’Connor to stardom.
Before we tell you more about the initial casting of Archie Bunker, please like this video and subscribe to our channel for more current news and interesting stories. Now, back to the video…
Before meeting Carroll O’Connor, producer Norman Lear wanted to cast someone more famous. He knew the risk of producing a sitcom. This was his first foray into producing sitcoms and the success of All in the Family gave him opportunities to create some of America’s most beloved sitcoms.
But had All in the Family failed, he’d never be able to continue a career as a sitcom producer. To play it safe, he wanted Archie Bunker to be played by someone whom American audiences were familiar with – and loved.
The actor on Norman Lear’s mind was none other than Mickey Rooney. Mickey Rooney a living legend and his presence on screen would always be welcomed. Yet, the actor shocked when he learned more about the character Archie Bunker.
Over a phone call, Norman Lear told Mickey Rooney that Archie Bunker wouldn’t be the typical sitcom protagonist. The character was bigoted and used foul language. Mickey Rooney refused the role and warned the ambitious producer, “Norm, they’re going to kill you, shoot you dead in the streets.”
And who could blame Mickey Rooney for thinking this way? Americans hadn’t ever seen a sitcom character like Archie Bunker. Sitcoms were sweet and gentle and tried their best to avoid any vulgarity. Blending comedy with drama and discussing controversial topics were considered off-limits for the sitcom.
Carroll O’Connor had been a working actor, but he had not become a famous actor. Taking this role could have ended his career and tarnished his reputation. It was a huge risk for him to take on the role of Archie Bunker.
But if you’ve ever watched All in the Family, you’ll be glad that Carroll O’Connor took that risk.
All in the Family became a huge hit and Archie Bunker remains one of the most loved characters in the history of the American sitcom.
But how did Carroll O’Connor feel about Archie Bunker? After all, this was the character that made his career. But did he have any reservations about Archie?
The great news is that Carroll O’Connor loved playing Archie Bunker. He didn’t wish to distance himself from the character as so many other actors do with their roles.
In an interview with Bob Costas, the actor stated, “The press thought that I was trying to get away from that image and nothing could be further from the truth. It’s an image that I treasure. People say, ‘Hello, Archie’ to me on the street. That’s wonderful. That never bothered me.”
Yet people also wondered if the actor was anything like the character he played. He stated that he wasn’t even close to Archie Bunker. But he loved playing the role and felt it was the most fulfilling role he ever played.
This is because Carroll O’Connor could see the entire picture of Archie Bunker, which is what made him a successful character. Beneath the rough exterior was a loving husband and father. Archie Bunker was a working-class American who loved his country, and this struck a chord with millions of Americans.
Even today, Archie Bunker remains an American hero. With his bigotry and off-color remarks, one might think he represents the worst of the country. But his relatability and decency represent the best of the country.
In fact, today we seldom see characters in either television or film that represent the everyday American as Archie Bunker did.
Think about it for a moment. How often do we see characters as complex as Archie Bunker today? Do writers create characters that are outspoken and aren’t afraid to be politically incorrect? How often are these characters written in a sympathetic manner as Archie Bunker was?
And how many actors are brave enough to play wonderful characters such as Archie Bunker? We can all be grateful to Carroll O’Connor for taking on this role. It changed his career for the better and it also changed the American sitcom for the better.
So, what did Carroll O’Connor do after All in the Family? What was his life and career like?
Let’s take a moment to go back to his childhood. He was born as the eldest of three brothers in 1924. His father Edward was a lawyer, and his mother Elise was a homemaker. His two younger brothers would go on to become doctors.
As such, one would never imagine that Carroll would grow up to become an actor. He spent much of his life living in Queens, New York. Years later, he would return to Queens where his character Archie Bunker lived.
During World War II, Carroll O’Connor worked as a merchant seaman after being rejected by the United States Navy. After the war, he attended the University of Montana. His claim to fame on campus is when he worked as the editor at the university’s newspaper.
He eventually left this role after the campus administration seized and destroyed an issue of the newspaper that contained a cartoon of rats gnawing at a bag filled with the university’s funds. These “rats” were intended to represent the Montana Board of Education.
Writing and history seemed to be his passion as that was his focus when he later attended University College Dublin. However, after falling in love with acting from student plays, he decided to pursue it as a career.
He acted on stage in Ireland for a few years before returning to New York to continue acting on stage. Eventually he became known as a well-known character actor in the country’s most popular sitcoms.
After playing Archie Bunker for 9 seasons in All in the Family, he returned to play the character in Archie Bunker’s Place for 4 seasons – though this sitcom wasn’t as popular as its predecessor.
He later played police chief Bill Gillespie in the drama series In The Heat of the Night, based on the popular novel. He was praised for his role as the veteran cop in small-town Mississippi. This show also gave him an opportunity to work with his son Hugh, who played Office Lonnie Jamison.
Carroll O’Connor did get a chance to show off his writing chops as he wrote some of the episodes for the show – under the pseudonym Matt Harris.
His career continued throughout the 1990s in the shows Party of Five and Mad About You. He also acted in the films Gideon, the TV movie 36 Hours to Die, and Return to Me – which was his final acting role.
Carroll O’Connor died in 2001 at the age of 76. He was a rare breed of actor who began his career early and acted till his later years, with his last role performed only a year before his death.
While he’s best known as Archie Bunker and loved the role, he didn’t allow the role to take over his career. He continued to act in television and film well into his sixties and seventies. After all, he didn’t get his breakthrough role until he was in his forties!
He’s a testament to people who never gave up and continued to strive to make their name. When we look back at his incredible performances in film and television, we can truly be grateful that Carroll O’Connor shared his talents with us!
So, did you know about the actor who almost played Archie Bunker? Do you that Mickey Rooney would have done a great job? Or do you think that Carroll O’Connor is the only person who could have brought Archie Bunker to life?
Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.
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