As O'Connor played him, Archie Bunker was perpetually and evocatively tired: tired from his job working the loading docks, tired from dealing with the new world of strangers (blacks, Jews, Catholics) who moved into his Queens neighborhood in a period of urban flux, tired of the shocks to his system as a lifetime of immutable values changed around him minute by minute. He put the "lump" in "lumpenproletariat." "All in the Family," the boundary-shattering comedy about what folks used to call "the generation gap," would have been a classic regardless, because of the passion of producer Norman Lear's ideas and the strength of his writing. But the show would not have had the resonance it did, and Archie Bunker would not be one of the three or four most important characters in TV history, without Carroll O'Connor.
Because, make no mistake, the man was acting. Unlike his braying, spluttering character, O'Connor was born in the Bronx but his real voice was no Bronx cheer; he was soft-spoken and thoughtful and said that he never heard Archie Bunkerisms growing up in his well-off childhood home. An accomplished journeyman stage and film actor, O'Connor made Archie into a character dry and operatic, hateful and touching where a cartoon would have sufficed. It would have been easy to make Archie a caricature (and he was one) or a straw man (he was that too). It would have been easy to make audiences laugh at him or dislike him. Dozens of actors could have made Archie Bunker a punch line. Carroll O'Connor made him a part of American history.
O'Connor's Archie Bunker at least for the show's raw, groundbreaking first half-decade captured a moment that political historians take for granted now but that Americans were only vaguely aware of at the time: the splintering of the classic New Deal Democrat coalition. Blue-collar union guys (like Archie) had depended on FDR and organized labor to secure them contracts, provide Social Security, look after their comfort: in short, to protect them and keep their world stable. Social justice to Archie was a pot roast on their table and an evening sit-down in his favorite chair. He was Nixon's "silent majority" personified; he was a Reagan Democrat years before anyone knew they existed.
Now a younger generation of liberals (like his son-in-law Michael "Meathead" Stivic) was upsetting all that. Their antiwar stance was, in his eyes, an insult to his Greatest Generation experience; their sexual openness shocked his values; and most shocking to him and to viewers their emphasis on civil rights opened the floodgates to minorities and rival ethnic groups, whom he called "spades" and "wops" and "Hebes" and so on without flinching. The flinching, O'Connor left up to us; he never acted to make us love or hate Archie, he said, but just to convey the truth of him as best he could.
"All in the Family" was really a years-long territorial war fought in the home (it's no accident the character's name was "Bunker"). O'Connor played Archie like a shambling, endangered silverback gorilla prowling and growling futilely around the carpeted perimeter of his living room. The values he developed through the depression and a war were fraying and decaying like his upholstered TV-watching throne. (The prominence of his other throne the upstairs toilet whose on-air flushing was so shocking three decades ago underscored the theme of Archie as an Astoria King Lear.)
Archie fought the sexual revolution by bemoaning the lusty couplings of Meathead and his "little goil" Gloria. He fought feminism in the person of cousin Maude (and, more subtly, his traditional but steel-spined wife Edith) and integration in the person of his neighbors the Jeffersons. And when the show sometimes veered into preachiness and staged editorials, he kept it grounded with his casual, rumpled humor.
O'Connor's performance remade that most stable of archetypes, the TV Dad. He prefigured Homer Simpson and Al Bundy; he took Ralph Kramden out of the realm of buffoonery and carried him to his logical extreme; he took the omniscient, benevolent TV dad of the '50s and exploded that figure as irrevocably as a gunpowder-stuffed tobacco pipe. Sure, this was a slap in the face of conservatives, who chafed at the show's Norman Lear liberalism. But the O'Connor's genius was that he played the part well enough to discomfit ideologues on the left too. Archie Bunker proved that satire is TV's most dangerous genre, because it cannot be controlled it requires interpretation, which is anathema to true believers.
The left-wing knock against "All in the Family," and more specifically against O'Connor's performance, was that people might enjoy it for the wrong reasons: bigots could use his most troglodytic insults, or sexists could call their wives "dingbats," and claim they were just quoting Archie. Worse, they argued, he made his working-class antihero empathetic and therefore, they argued, made his beliefs attractive. Wrong. Archie Bunker spoke to a whole country engaged in a second American civil war, fighting bitterly in their own living rooms with people they loved nonetheless. If he was too unreconstructed to admire, he was too real to dismiss: if you could not see yourself, or at least someone you loved, in Archie Bunker, his performance would have been meaningless, a feel-good tonic for a few progressive troops.
By making us feel for Archie Bunker, Carroll O'Connor made us think about Archie Bunker. It was a job he did so well it dogged the rest of his career (even though he went on to win another Emmy as a southern police chief in "In the Heat of the Night"), so well that it seemed easy, obvious and to some, dangerous. And that, my friends, is what you call acting.