It's a mark of an artist's genius when his work lingers in the consciousness long after its moment passes. Here, reconstructed from adolescent memory, unrefreshed by database searches or TV Land reruns, is a 30-year-old scene starring Carroll O'Connor in one of the most influential sitcoms in television history:
Archie: "That's something the hebes do. They change their last names but keep their first names so that they'll still recognize each other."
Mike: "Whaddya mean, Arch?"
Archie: "Well, you take a guy like Isaac Schwartz. He changes 'Schwartz' to 'Smith' but he leaves Isaac. So he's Isaac Smith. Jacob Cohen, he becomes Jacob Kane. See?"
Mike (sarcastically): "Yeah, I see what you mean, Arch. Like Abraham . . . Lincoln."
Edith: "I didn't know Lincoln was Jewish."
O'Connor, who died Thursday at the age of 76, created an indelible character, Archie Bunker, and played him for 13 years. Bunker changed television, but that alone doesn't begin to assay O'Connor's achievement as an actor. Where Archie was a bedrock blue-collar Republican with a limited worldview and a salty tongue, O'Connor was born into prosperity, college-educated, socially and politically liberal, a refined, sensitive man.
O'Connor was 46 when he came to his role of a lifetime, a veteran of more than 100 stage and screen parts. Before series creator Norman Lear selected him, he had been considered for the part of the Skipper on "Gilligan's Island" (Lear had also considered Mickey Rooney for Archie).
Archie was a bigot who uttered words that had never been broadcast on TV before -- spic, dago, Polack, etc. He never spoke the most inflammatory racial epithet of all -- nigger -- but Lear contrived to have Sammy Davis Jr. say it in a memorable guest appearance.
What was stunning about "All in the Family's" frankness was the context in which it came. At the height of the Vietnam War, at the height of the civil rights movement, at the birth of the feminist and gay movements, prime-time TV was merrily oblivious. Through the middle and late 1960s, CBS's schedule was dominated by corn pone classics like "The Beverly Hillbillies," "The Andy Griffith Show," "Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres." The five most popular programs in the season immediately preceding "All in the Family's" debut in January 1971 were "Marcus Welby, M.D.," "The Flip Wilson Show," "Here's Lucy," "Ironside" and "Gunsmoke."
"All in the Family" crashed this happy party like a drunken bull. Lear's writers poured on the "relevance." It wasn't just race, religion and politics that tumbled out of 704 Hauser St. but a staggering variety of conflicts and taboo "issues": impotence, homosexuality, rape, miscarriage, menopause, addiction, infidelity, breast cancer, abortion. Talk about reality TV!
Some critics denounced "All in the Family" for making bigotry enjoyable, even lovable. But that's a simplistic reading of O'Connor's skill. His achievement (and the program's) is not that he made a bigot lovable but that he made a bigot three-dimensional -- a result of a whole complex weave of experiences and influences. As Lear once said of his father, on whom Bunker was based, "I could never forgive him for being a bigot. But I found there were other things to love him for."
Archie's closest American TV ancestor, of course, was Ralph Kramden of "The Honeymooners," another bellicose, blue-collar New Yorker who mistreated his wife. "I know I am doing some of the things you did," he once wrote to Jackie Gleason. Gleason wrote back, "I wish I had done some of the things you're doing."
But where Kramden's limited mental energies were devoted to getting ahead, to beating the system, Archie's central organizing principle was to hold on to his place in it. Archie was beloved, not reviled, because audiences understood the full context of the man. Child of the Depression. A teenager forced to quit school to support his family. War veteran. Blue-collar worker struggling to maintain his job, his house, his family and most of all, his pride. O'Connor's Bunker was ultimately not a monster but a small, scared man.
It was this beleaguered quality that endeared him to his audience. It's also true that Lear never really let Archie win. He was surrounded by foils who usually outsmarted him: his son-in-law, Mike/"Meathead" (Rob Reiner), his daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), and his lovable, loving but dimwitted wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton). Archie's verbal abuse of Edith would have been intolerable, in fact, if you didn't understand the key to her character: She never really listened to Archie.
Archie may well have been the most important character in TV history. As television historian Keith Adams points out, Lear expanded his empire by creating two variations on O'Connor's creation: George Jefferson, the nouveau riche black bigot of "The Jeffersons," and Fred Sanford, the working-class black bigot of "Sanford and Son." Another non-Lear series of the same era, "Chico and the Man," revolved around a bigoted (and apparently Jewish) older man and his young Latino foil. "All in the Family" also begot "Maude," which begot "Good Times."
Normally, a 13-year run on a TV series kills an actor's career; he has become too closely identified with his signature role to be convincing in new ones. This is why actors often seek to exit a series after only a few years.
But not long after "Archie Bunker's Place," the follow-up to "All in the Family," O'Connor did the remarkable: He successfully came back to series TV. In 1988, he began starring in "In the Heat of the Night," a police drama based on the Rod Steiger-Sidney Poitier film. O'Connor played Bill Gillespie, police chief of a small Mississippi town. He won an Emmy, his fifth, for the role, which was about as far from Bunker as Queens, N.Y., is from Sparta, Miss.
That show lives on in reruns, but it's as Archie Bunker that O'Connor will be remembered to eternity. To contemporary eyes, the series may appear ahead of its time. The disturbing question is, is it ahead of our time?
Would Archie Bunker be possible today?