Best known and beloved for the role of Archie Bunker on TV’s All in the Family, actor Carroll O’Connor is an American legend and a pop culture icon. Long before the years he spent on television, however, O’Connor was a film actor. In fact, he was one of the highest paid and most respected character actors of his time.
Bonnie Hunt’s charming romance, Return to Me is the first major feature film O’Connor has starred in since the late Seventies. In the film, he plays Minnie Driver’s doting grandfather Marty, proprietor of O’Reilly’s Italian restaurant.
I spoke with O’Connor about his return to film, Archie Bunker and his stalwart efforts to combat drug addiction.
Return to Me is a return to the Big Screen for you…
For an awfully long time, I was on television. Thirteen years on one series and seven years on another.
What made you return to film?
Bonnie. She has a sort of history with me all these years watching me on television from the time she was kid. She kept telling me that I was her favorite actor in the world. How could you not give into that? And she told me that the studio wanted her to get one of two other guys, heavyweights. “I’m resisting them. I want you. I think I wrote this part for you. I always wanted to.” I couldn’t resist. I said, “Well, you and I will fight the studio together.” That’s all I needed. The studio--that I could buck the studio in any way.
Did you have to “buck the studio?”
No, I didn’t have to. You see, I kept turning it down. My policy for years was to require a firm offer and then to read the script. If I liked the script and I liked the offer, then I would say, “Yes,” then I would meet with somebody. So this was unusual. This was a first ever of the “meeting a director.”
Years ago, there was a famous director, who was making pictures down in Mexico, and he wanted me to come down there and see him. I said to my agent, “Make me an offer.” He says: “No, no, you can’t say that to him. He’s gonna fly you down in a private jet--a private jet right from Burbank.” I said, “I don’t give a damn. Make me an offer, I’ll read the script and see if the part is right for me.”
Did he end up making you an offer?
No, and the guy’s never forgiven me. I wouldn’t go. A friend of mine who is now gone got the part--one of my best friends in the business, Martin Balsam.
This film also marks a return to your Irish accent. Did you enjoy that?
I loved it. I have never played an Irish part in America. In Ireland, I play nothing but Irish parts, but in America, I could never get an Irish part. (Affects an Irish brogue) And, I wasn’t rusty at all. I’ve heard that all my life. It’s in my head. It’s never out of my head, day in and day out. I have all the old ghosts with me all the time and they’re talking to me.
Is it with you more than the voice of Archie?
Oh yes, yes, much stronger. But I think I did a good imitation of the New York guy. I did a very accurate imitation of Archie, because I’ve heard that a lot too. I was in contact with the Archie Bunkers all through my growing-up years.
You are most famous for playing Archie Bunker, of course, and you will be best remembered for that role. Are you comfortable with that legacy?
I don’t mind being remembered as Archie. It’s the best part I ever played. This story is hard to believe, but it’s true. My wife was at an outdoor audience with the present Pope, and she happened to be in the front and he was going around the circle, shaking hands with people, shaking hands with people. So Nancy, who won’t talk to anybody, all she said was, “ Holy Father, what a great pleasure it is to meet you, especially since you were an actor, and my husband is an actor, and his name is Carroll O’Connor. And you may have seen him right here on Italian television.”
“Oh, did I, did I?”
“Yes,” she says: “He plays Archie Bono.”
“Oh,” says the Pope: “Very funny, very funny.”
Archie’s chair is in the Smithsonian. How does it feel to be such a significant part of popular culture?
Well, it was great when it was the only one down there, but as the years went by, they kept putting junk from all the series’ down there. The honor became diluted. Everything is down there now. They have the flagpole from Gilligan’s Island.
You were also the character of Sheriff Gillespie on TV’s In the Heat of the Night, a show you also executive produced and wrote and directed several episodes. You wore these hats under an assumed name, though. Why?
Well, I was afraid of the press. A lot of the press don’t like it when you’re the executive producer of the show, when you’re the star of the show, when you direct some of the episodes, when you’re in charge of all of the writing and when you write four of the episodes a season, yourself. They say unkind things. They say that you’re a showoff. Which, of course, is true. I am a showoff, but I don’t like to see it in the paper.
Did you have any advice for Bonnie, who wrote and directed as well as starred in Return to Me?
I didn’t need to advise her. She’s one of the cleverest women in the business, cleverest people in the business. Imagine, she wrote that script, she directed and produced it and she starred in it and her performance was wonderful. And she got good performances out of all of us. She’s a very boss chick.
What about David Duchovny or Minnie Driver?
When I had the opportunity to watch David work with Minnie and with other people on the character, I liked what he was doing, but I thought he was underplaying. And then when I saw the picture, I thought, “This guy is a really smart actor.” He wasn’t underplaying; he was doing it just right. And he was letting the camera do the work. And I thought he was nothing less than wonderful in the picture.
At the end, when he says to her in Rome, “I love you,” I’ve never heard “I love you” said any better, ever, by anybody. It was very touching, the most touching moment in the film. Because it’s hard to say that to her, having lost his nice wife that he loved. Oh, he’s a good actor, very good. I think this picture will do him a lot of good. I think Belushi is the scream of the picture. And my cardplaying pals and Bob (Loggia), well, you know, they’ll be cast very quickly. Not me, (affecting the Irish brogue again) because there are not that many roles waiting around for my people to play.
This is a very sweet-natured romance, the kind of film we don’t see to often anymore, almost a fairytale…
I don’t think fairytale is quite right. Fairytale stuff, well some of it is horrible, highly imaginative stuff, that you know can’t be. What the hell does Magnolia got to do with anybody’s life? What does American Beauty got to do with anybody’s life? Whereas Music of the Heart has to do with the lives of kids in the ghetto and a lovely woman’s life--a very inspirational sort of picture. See, those are not fairy stories, they’re just good stories. The fairy stories are frogs raining at the end of the picture. Did you see the story I’m talking about?
Everybody was in a rainstorm of frogs. What would you call that?
That’s what you call that. The Magnolia type film makes a lot more money. Well, maybe yes and maybe no. If they run the budget too high, they won’t make money. They’re very well-promoted films with name stars like Cruise. I think it’s the worst part he ever played. From the standpoint of the character he played. An awful character he played. But he played it very well, of course. And he liked it. I don’t know.
I have a great story. At a lunch here yesterday, the very funny comic Hal Canter, he’s a comedy producer in television, has been for years. And he was telling somebody about the Academy tapes they send to all of us. And Hal said, “I saw a picture the other night and my wife and I sat watching this picture and it was so bad that we got up and left the house.”
So what’s coming up next for you?
I never have had in my life another project waiting.
How about your anti-drug political lobbying?
Oh, I don’t think the War on Drugs is going very well at the moment, not very well at all. I’ve got to dedicate myself to do more. I have a web page, carroll@o’connor.net . People can write to me about all kinds of things, especially drug problems. And I’m going to try to push in the year of 2000 to get more help from the boys in Congress. I’ve talked to many of them and they’re all well-disposed and they all want to fight drugs, but they’re dragging their heels. I don’t know what to do.
I have a plan in mind of getting after the pushers, the street pushers, through the revenue service. You know they don’t file income tax. That’s a much better rap to get them on. That’s a federal rap. We also need a nationwide rehabilitation program in every important major region of the country. Addicts have to go away for six months, maybe seven or eight. We’ve got to confront them with love, not threats, and they might be moved because of all the expressions of love. We ought to spend some billions on this, because that’s the only way.