ARCHIE BUNKER died yesterday. Or rather, CBS decided to pull the plug on the life-support systems that have kept him alive for the past three years. The network canceled "Archie Bunker's Place," pale successor to the classic "All in the Family," by announcing the show would not return for the new fall TV season.
Television maketh icons, and television toppleth them. But Archie Bunker, the curiously forgivable blue-collar bigot from Queens, is part of American myth now, as ineradicable as Huckleberry Finn, Lucy Ricardo or Mickey Mouse. From his home in Los Angeles, Norman Lear, who gave Archie life and produced "All in the Family," said yesterday he was saddened by Archie's demise and that he personally had broken the news to Carroll O'Connor, who has played Archie since 1971, when CBS nervously first put Lear's breakthrough comedy series on the air.
Associates of Lear say he would have preferred it if Archie had expired when "Family" ended its run in 1979, but O'Connor and CBS wanted to keep Archie alive. Lear also opposed killing off Edith Bunker--Archie's wife, played by Jean Stapleton--but O'Connor insisted Edith die when Stapleton decided to leave the show. For CBS, although the original cast and much of the point of "All in the Family" were gone, Bunker was an important ratings component of the blockbuster Sunday night schedule, and so the character was given the equivalent of artificial respiration. It proved more artificial than respiratory.
Archie Bunker was not a nice man, but he was an eminently believable character; many of his attitudes and prejudices were raging social symptoms never dealt with in such a way on television before. "All in the Family" may not have been a learning experience for the nation, but it was a recognizing experience. When "All in the Family" officially ended its network run and "Archie Bunker's Place" was offered up as a substitute, the Bunker character began its decline and O'Connor was off on a veritably intergalactic ego trip of his own.
Despite a weekly salary in excess of $100,000, O'Connor wanted more creative control over, and financial participation in, the wages of Archie. As a result, "Bunker's Place" became a joint venture of Lear's Tandem Productions (now Embassy Television) and O'Connor's own company, Ugo Productions, named not to sound like "Ego" but rather after a nickname for O'Connor's son, Hugh.
Embassy couldn't afford to produce "Archie Bunker's Place" and meet O'Connor's financial demands, so O'Connor was paid vast amounts directly by the CBS Television Network. In addition, O'Connor functioned as the story editor on the show, directed some episodes, and wrote others, receiving separate fees for each of those functions.
As a result, knowledgeable estimates of O'Connor's annual income from "Archie Bunker's Place" go as high as $5 million. O'Connor also will share from the profits of "Archie Bunker's Place" if and when it goes into syndication.
In addition, O'Connor became involved in a messy affair over "Gloria," the CBS sitcom starring Sally Struthers that premiered last fall and has now also been canceled. O'Connor produced the pilot for the series with his partner and godson, Joseph Gannon. CBS liked the idea of getting Gloria Stivic back, even as a single mother (Rob Reiner, as her husband Mike, dubbed "Meathead" by Archie, would not return), but hated the pilot and exercised its option to bring in new producers.
O'Connor reportedly felt betrayed not only by CBS but by Struthers, who he felt should have fought more in his behalf. O'Connor recently told "Entertainment Tonight" that he would refuse to appear on "Gloria" in the Archie Bunker role.
Meanwhile, the Bunker character lost much of its bite, even a great deal of bark. His foils became flimsily predictable. He ran out of windmills. Perhaps not incidentally, the fictitious, misguided Archie also turned out to be poor competition for the real-life reactionary loonies of the Reagan administration. How could Archie's made-up idiocies hope to rival the utterances and actions of Interior Secretary James Watt or FCC Chairman Mark Fowler?
Sources say CBS was especially cruel about canceling the program, keeping its producers guessing until the very last minute. One Hollywood rumor has it that CBS canceled "Archie" partly as a way of "punishing" independent producers like Embassy for the way they have fought against repeal of the FCC's Financial Interest and Syndication Rule, the one that prevents networks from reaping additional huge profits by owning and syndicating programs once they end their network careers.
Shows need to run for five years on a network in order to pay off well for producers. CBS canceled "Archie Bunker's Place" at the end of its fourth year, even though its ratings were marginally good. Networks can be such swine.
But a spokesman for CBS Broadcast Group president Gene F. Jankowski said yesterday of the allegation, "On face value, that's just ridiculous."
Another CBS spokesman said, "It's ludicrous because every producer in Hollywood is pro status quo on financial interest, and we'd have to cancel every single show if we wanted to 'punish' them." He quoted CBS Entertainment president B. Donald Grant as explaining that "Archie Bunker's Place" was canceled because "all good things have to come to an end. 'M*A*S*H' did. 'Mary Tyler Moore' did. It was time."
Thus did the bell toll for thee, Archie Bunker.
Lear, who has high praise for O'Connor, said, "The show went off with Carroll and me holding the same attitudes as when it went on. He thought it wouldn't last; he saw the cup half empty. I thought it would; I saw the cup half full. If I go back to do some more television, the challenge will be to do something as exciting and meaningful as 'All in the Family.' So to me this is as much the beginning of a new day as the twilight of an old one."
Although Lear's company made "Archie Bunker's Place," Lear has not personally been involved in TV production since "Family" closed up shop. Asked if he will "go back to do some more television," Lear said, "Yes."
Whatever the unsavory network politics involved, and despite the general mediocrity of "Archie Bunker's Place," seeing the character shot down now is a little like watching Davy Crockett fall again at the Alamo. Bunker was not really a hero, but he is securely and perhaps forever a part of our consciousness and our folklore. For 13 years he showed us a side of ourselves we are probably better off for having seen. He does not go gentle; nor is the night all that good.