Carroll O’Connor was born on August 2, 1924, in New York City. He served in World War II as a merchant marine. He became a stage actor and appeared regularly as a character actor on TV in the 1960s, but it was his portrayal of Archie Bunker in the 1970s sitcom All in the Family that made him a star. He won four Emmy Awards for the role. He died on June 21, 2001.
Carroll O'Connor was born on August 2, 1924 to a lawyer and a school teacher. His family moved from the Bronx to Elmhurst and then Forest Hills, Queens, where young O'Connor developed a strong interest in baseball. He entertained the idea of becoming a sportswriter and attended college at Wake Forest University in North Carolina in 1941.
He left college and returned to New York after the start of World War II and volunteered for the Naval Air Corps. The Navy rejected him partly because of his poor college grades, and he joined the United States Merchant Marine Academy instead as a midshipman. He was called out by officers for having a bad attitude and dropped out to join the National Maritime Union and become a merchant seamen.
After World War II, O'Connor returned to New York and worked for an Irish newspaper run by his family. He considered a career in journalism and returned to Wake Forest in 1948 and then took courses at Montana State University where he met another student, Nancy Fields, whom he married in 1951.
Still unsure about his career path, he took a trip to Dublin in 1950 and enrolled at the University College where he began to act, using the stage name George Roberts. He appeared in productions at the Dublin's Gate Theater and performed Shakespeare at the Edinburgh Festival and throughout Ireland. He graduated in 1952 and wanted to pursue an acting career.
But when he returned to New York, he couldn't find acting jobs so he worked as a New York City school teacher until he auditioned for a stage production of James Joyce's Ulysses, produced by the actor Burgess Meredith. O'Connor won that role and then starred in an Off Broadway production of Clifford Odet's Big Knife. O'Connor's portrayal of a greedy studio boss drew attention and his acting career began to take off.
In 1960, O'Connor broke into television, playing the role of the prosecutor in the Armstrong Circle Theater production of The Sacco-Vanzetti Story. Over the next decade, he worked as a character actor in television shows includng The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Bonanza and The Outer Limits, as well as movies such as Cleopatra (1963), starring Elizabeth Taylor, Otto Preminger's World War II epic In Harm's Way (1965) and the 1970 war comedy Kelly's Heroes. He had also been up for the role of the Skipper in the TV show Gilligan's Island, but lost the part to Alan Hale. However, another role was about to define him as one of the greatest TV actors of all time.
All in the Family
O'Connor was offered the role of the working-class bigot Archie Bunker in Norman Lear's All in the Family, but he wasn't confident it would be a success. He was living in Rome at the time and asked producers to buy a round-trip ticket so he could return when the show was cancelled. But the show became one of the highest-rated on television from 1971 to 1979 with a spin-off Archie Bunker's Place that remained on the air until 1983.
O'Connor, who was a political liberal, took on the controversial role of the conservative bigot Archie Bunker when other actors, including Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney, had turned it down. His portrayal of Archie showed the character's humanity with humor that connected to audiences and earned him four Emmy Awards.
Later Career & Death
After his award-winning portrayal of Archie Bunker, O'Connor starred in another hit series In the Heat of the Night, based on the 1967 movie. O'Connor played a tough Mississippi police chief from 1988 until 1992. He starred alongside his real-life son Hugh O'Connor, who played Officer Lonnie Jamison.
Tragically, Hugh, who had struggled for years with drug addiction, committed suicide in 1995. O'Connor dealt with the tragedy of losing his son by appearing in several public service announcements to raise awareness about drug addiction. He also lobbied the State of California to pass the 1997 Drug Dealer Civil Liability Act, also known as The Hugh O'Connor Memorial Law, which makes drug dealers civilly liable to families who lose a child to illegal drugs and others injured by illegal drugs.
While dealing with the loss of his son, O'Connor underwent heart surgery in 1998 to clear blockage in a cardiac artery, and in June 2001, O'Connor suffered a fatal heart attack. Actor Martin Sheen delivered the eulogy at his funeral which was attended by hundreds of actors and fans who gave him a final standing ovation as 76 doves were released to represent every year of the actor's life.
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