The Laughter of Archie Bunker

Posted: Jun 29, 2001 12:00 AM
The series starring Archie Bunker was the most devastating ideological scam in the cultural history of television. Archie Bunker was the conservative. He was ignorant, semi-literate, racist, mean, cowardly and a sycophantic bully. Viewers were invited to assume that these were properties of everyone who resisted any civil-rights initiative, who thought favorable notice might be made of anything done by President Nixon, or who thought the Vietnam War defensible.

The program's success was owing to two factors: the conceptual genius of Norman Lear and the theatrical genius of Carroll O'Connor.

If you grit your teeth and decide that all references to ethnic minorities will be in street language, and that they will be full-throatedly extravagant in expression, then what you will need to bring it off is the leaven of humor. Norman Lear and his writers get all the credit for that -- in episode after episode, the exchanges were hilarious. They were all done in the disciplined framework of Archie, house bully; "Meathead," idealistic, argumentative son-in-law; "little girl," blond daughter loyal to her liberal husband; and "Dingbat," Archie's wife, moronic and endearing.

The obituaries on the program mostly take the line that the program did the service of calling to the mind of its viewers the egregious prejudices of urban working men. The pilot program showed Archie seated in the chair that would become famous because of his proprietary attachment to it, unlit cigar in his hand. He gives his calling card. "I'm white, I'm male, I'm Protestant. Where's there a law to protect me?"

Archie Bunker ran with that. Non-whites were inferior, non-males accessories, non-Protestants suspicious, though so were such Protestants as attended with any fidelity to the practice of Christianity. Archie's was a once-a-year-in-church religion, never to be tempted by any Christian commandment. Faith, hope and charity -- especially charity -- were as instinctively suspect in Archie's world as "hebes" and "coloreds." Archie was a saintly exhibit of the anti-Christian. By multiplying his deeds and attitudes, you could come up with something like 95 Antitheses of the Protestant faith.

But the triumph of the show would not have been thinkable without the contribution of Carroll O'Connor. His career, before coming to Queens for Norman Lear, was respectable but not remarkable. And as much can be said about his subsequent career. It is a sad expression, and something of a sin to say about an accomplished actor, but if ever it could be said that someone was born to play a part, it had to be Carroll O'Connor, born to play Archie Bunker.

He could look just plain stupid, if a name came up or an event he could not identify but knew somehow that others could. The guile of Archie Bunker could have been sculpted by Michelangelo doing the cardinal vices. His cowardice, when intimidated by a superior or by sheer confusion, would make his lips quiver in abjection. His meanness brought his eyes together, set his lips and tightened his nostrils, though a slight vacuity in what could be seen of his eyes suggested a redemptive innocence. His bombast was not given a stadium to play off, but he had the whole of the little living room at his house in Astoria, Queens, and he filled that room.

Archie Bunker laughing, there wasn't very much of. Laughter bounces mostly off hearty experiences in life, and Archie's life didn't have very many of those. But I had one very full exposure to O'Connor laughing.

On a summer day in 1976, my wife and I were invited to dinner in honor of Henry Kissinger at a glossy affair in Pocantico Hills, by the freshly dispossessed vice president, Nelson Rockefeller. That was before the age of VCRs, and I contemplated with horror my absence from television at 8 p.m. on Saturday, but some invitations you can't turn down.

There were 40 or 50 of eight scattered about the lawn. I found myself seated next to -- Carroll O'Connor! I told him that Providence had effected this meeting because we now had a consolation prize for missing O'Connor in "All in the Family." He quickly engaged us in conversation and told the story that was evidently much on his mind. He had returned that very day from Rome. He had traveled there, he told us, with a lifelong friend who was maybe the oldest anti-fascist activist in America, having begun at age 8 collecting coins in Los Angeles for the committee to Aid the Allies in their war against Nazism and fascism. His traveling companion loved jazz piano and, walking with O'Connor down an ancient Roman street near midnight, heard the tinkle of a piano, so they dropped into the boite.

O'Connor's face warned us of drama to come. "My friend Abe, after a few pieces, asked the headwaiter, 'Who is that guy playing the piano?' And the maitre d' said, 'That's Romano Mussolini.' Abe froze. 'Any relation to ...?' 'Yes. He's Il Duce's son.' But Abe sat there, and we moved over, closer to the piano, and he began asking for favorite tunes. After about the fourth Scotch and soda, I swear it must have been 2 in the morning, he leaned over and said to the piano player, 'You know, that was a hell of a thing they did to your father!'"

The laughter was robust and wholesome. Carroll O'Connor had proved to us he could laugh better than Archie Bunker ever could.