On Heroism and Archie Bunker

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“All in the Family” – the first television show to top the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive years.

I’ve been watching the first season of “All in the Family”. I bought it at a garage sale. It came in a fancy tin box and when I got it home and opened it I discovered that the first season of “Archie Bunker’s Place” was inside, as well! I’ve always respected “All in the Family” and considered it one of the grandest, most influential sitcoms in history. Along with “I Love Lucy” and “M*A*S*H”, it is a syndication staple and can almost always be found somewhere on TV. I’ll always remember New Year’s Eve 1999. Amidst worries of a global shut-down with the arrival of the year 2000, I was in my basement watching an “All in the Family” marathon while my wife and baby son slept on the couch next to me.

For the handful of people that don’t already know, “All in the Family” was based on the British sitcom “‘Til Death Do Us Part” and starred Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker. Carroll was born in Manhattan and grew up in Queens; the same area where his future alter ego, Archie Bunker, would live. A member of the Actor’s Studio, O’Connor had a middling film career appearing in smaller roles in such films as “The Defiant Ones”, “Cleopatra”, “Hawaii” and most notably 1970’s “Kelly’s Heroes”. O’Connor would win four Prime Time Emmys for his portrayal of Archie Bunker. When he later won an Emmy for his work on his later series, the drama “In the Heat of the Night”, he became the first actor to win the lead actor Emmy for both a comedy and a drama. Edie Falco later joined him in that exclusive club. Jean Stapleton played Archie’s slow-witted wife, Edith. Stapleton had previously been a musical actress on Broadway but will forever be known as Edith Bunker, a role for which Stapleton garnered three Emmys. Perky Sally Struthers portrayed the Bunker’s mini-skirted daughter, Gloria, winning two Emmys. Carl Reiner’s son, Rob, played Michael Stivic, Gloria’s wife. Reiner won two Emmys playing “Meathead” and went on to be a noted film director with such films as “When Harry Met Sally…”, “A Few Good Men” and “Misery” to his credit. “All in the Family” was the first sitcom in which all the lead actors won Emmys.

Television legend Norman Lear recruited O’Connor to play the lead in “All in the Family”; the role and the show would become iconic. The show is notable for countless reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it spawned numerous spin-offs: “Maude” debuted in 1972 and ran for six seasons. It featured Bea Arthur as Maude, Edith’s cousin. “Good Times” is considered a spin-off of “Maude”. Esther Rolle’s character on “Good Times”, Florida Evans, had appeared as Maude’s maid. “Good Times” also ran for six seasons. “The Jeffersons” was a major hit in it’s own right and featured Lionel Jefferson and his parents who had been friends and neighbours of the Bunkers. “The Jeffersons” lasted 11 seasons – two more than “All in the Family”. “Checking In” was spun-off from “The Jeffersons”. George and Louise’s maid, Florence, had her own show for a mere four weeks. Sally Struthers had her own show, as well. “Gloria” ran for one season. “Archie Bunker’s Place” was more like a continuation of “All in the Family” with a new premise and new characters. After Edith’s death from a stroke, Archie owned his own restaurant and was raising the 10-year-old daughter of Edith’s step-cousin (?). These further adventures lasted four years. The oddest spin-off of “All in the Family” was “704 Hauser”. This was a case of the house¬†the Bunkers lived in getting it’s own show. For five episodes in the spring of 1994, John Amos starred in a “photo negative” version of “All in the Family”. Amos was the head of a black family living at the Bunker’s former address. The difference here was that Amos and his family were liberals dealing with their conservative son dating a white, Jewish woman (Maura Tierney). Like, really? Anyways, for those keeping score at home, “All in the Family” accounts for over 37 seasons of award-winning sitcom entertainment between 1971 and 1994.

“All in the Family”: the mother of all TV shows. Well, a lot of them, anyways.

I remember years ago a friend of mine stated that he couldn’t watch “All in the Family” because Archie Bunker was a bigot. This was in my mind when I started watching the first season last month. A couple things struck me almost immediately.

Archie Bunker is the focal point of this show. He is the head of the family and played by the star of the program. The fact that the main character is seemingly so unappealing is pretty rare in television. Archie comes out with racial slurs that cover all races and denominations. I’m reminded of a line from “Dirty Harry”, a film that was released the same year that “All in the Family” debuted. A colleague of Harry’s says that Harry does not play favourites – he hates everyone equally. The same can be said for Archie Bunker. On the surface it’s odd to think that a bigot is put forward as the star of a television series but there’s more going on here. The character is representative of a certain generation, a generation that is slowly being superseded by another, newer generation. This change and the inherent nostalgia are well presented by the wistful lyrics of the opening theme song of the show, sung by Archie and Edith at the piano. This was a generation that had always been shown and indeed had always seen the world as dominated by white males. A person of another sex or colour was often looked at differently by men of this generation. While not making excuses for hatred – and I am by no means an expert in this kind of thing – these men often did not know any different. It is what they had always seen, it was how they were raised. However, a great number of this generation were untouched by prejudice so perhaps this ‘excuse’ is flimsy at best.

But I bring that up to try to illustrate that, with Archie, his bigotry does not seem to come from a place of hatred. Indeed, through the run of the show, Archie is somehow given a ‘pass’ and still seen as likable. Perhaps his surroundings and some deft writing contributed to his not being eviscerated. Take Mike, for example. Archie’s daughter, Gloria, is married to Michael Stivic, who is Polish and who is living in Archie’s house with his wife while he goes to college. Mike is very liberal and the character was essential to the show being accepted. NOT ONE of Archie’s slurs is let go by Mike.

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“Meathead” became iconic but Mike served to balance out Archie’s rhetoric.

Archie will drop one of his inappropriate comments and the studio audience will laugh. This laughter, actually, could stand some discussion but let’s just say that the audience is laughing incredulously; they cannot believe what they have just heard. Mike will immediately challenge Archie’s generalizations, often bringing in various statistics and facts to counter what Archie has said. He’ll often throw in a joke at Archie’s expense and this will draw a laugh that needs not be explained. Perhaps we could say that the audience laughs at the ridiculousness of Archie’s comments and they laugh with Mike as he makes things right by cutting down Archie and his stereotypes.

Gloria also combats her father’s ideology but perhaps in a more emotional way – she loves her father and knows that he is a good man. This is just something in his personality that needs to be corrected. Edith – Archie’s wife constantly being referred to as a “dingbat” needs it’s own post, maybe – seems oblivious to the vicious side of Archie’s stances. And her responses will at first seem idiotic but they will often cut to the heart of what makes Archie’s prejudices so unfounded. She is unmoved and untainted by her constant exposure to these attitudes.

The show was also able to maintain balance by adding black characters to serve as foils for Archie’s outdated thinking. Mike’s good friend, Lionel Jefferson, often has to listen to Archie’s idiocy. Lionel takes it in stride. He heckles Archie so astutely that Archie doesn’t even realize that he’s being heckled. Lionel nonviolently puts one over on Archie all the time, to the delight of the studio audience. Lionel’s father, the legendary George Jefferson, takes a less pacific approach. He is a perfect nemesis for Archie Bunker in that George is fed up with being suppressed by white society. So much so that he hates “honkies”. In what appears to be the first episode in which we meet George Jefferson, Edith has invited George and his wife, Louise, over for supper. Archie is outraged. He has started a neighbourhood petition to deter black families from moving in; how will having them over for supper look? On top of this, this dinner date means giving up his Mets tickets. The Jefferson’s come over and “George” fights with Archie about there not being any blacks at NASA. The audience revels in Archie getting some of the stuff he constantly slings thrown back at him. The payoff comes when it is revealed that this is not George at all but Louise’s brother-in-law. The real George refuses to sit down and break bread with “whitey”. The audience erupts in laughter. Archie can’t believe that George stayed home instead of coming to supper. “He’s not at home,” Archie is told, “he’s at the Mets game”. How perfect is this? The Jefferson family joins Mike in combating Archie’s bigotry, bringing balance to the show.

The way that Lionel is able to one-up Archie without Archie even realizing he’s being ridiculed hints at Archie not being too swift. And it was savvy on the part of the creators and writers of the show to add Archie’s malapropisms to his character. By mangling the English language, there is the minutest sense that perhaps Archie is not as intelligent as he might be. If he is dumb enough to get words wrong, he is dumb enough to get people wrong: Archie often sees his son-in-law’s way of thinking as smacking of communism: “What new subversion are you fermenting here?”. ¬†And ‘bums’ who don’t work are “welfare incipients”. And Archie loves his cigars, especially when they are given to him as a gift: “Whoever sent these cigars wants to remain unanimous. These cigars are the nectarines of the gods”.

In this day and age, some of the slurs Archie comes out with can feel like physical blows. You find yourself laughing but not so much because you think that what he said is funny. You are also shaking your head at the audacity of the comment and the incredible close-mindedness it represents. “Man, were people really like that?!”, you find yourself saying. Yes, they were. Some will argue that we haven’t come that far from there after all. I tend to disagree. Maybe it helps to have someone be so blunt and verbalize these epithets so that we can be aware of that from which we progress and this can also remind us that we need to be ever vigilant and continue to progress even further. So, who will stand up and be that person? That person – ourselves, really – that we despise and strive to be different from?

Archie Bunker was not presented as a hero, which is rare on television. But Carroll O’Connor? Now, there’s a hero. He was willing to play the buffoon. But more than just a clown, he was willing to portray the dark side of man’s thinking and attitudes. He was willing to present to millions of families every Saturday night the archaic and harmful thinking of a generation. He was willing to be the pathetic “before” picture in a plan for America losing the weight of bigotry. For the greater good, Carroll O’Connor was willing to risk being hated and vilified in order to show the nation what needed to be fixed. That, in my opinion, is heroic. It is a testament to all of the talent involved in making “All in the Family” that Archie and the show emerged as one of the most socially and culturally impactful programs in history.

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Carroll O’Connor and Archie Bunker. Hero and icon.

In somewhat of a postscript to all this, after nine seasons of the original show, “Archie Bunker’s Place” is interesting in that Archie is to some extent remorseful about his attitudes. The show was created, written and ran predominantly by Jews. Archie’s new partner in the restaurant business, Murray Klein – played by Martin Balsam – is also Jewish. At first, Archie cannot fathom being in a partnership with a Jew, which he almost apologetically explains to Murray. Then Murray speaks to Archie’s 10-year-old ward, Stephanie. When Murray learns that Stephanie is Jewish and Archie had to join the local temple so that she could go to Sunday school, he realizes that maybe Archie is not such a bad guy after all. All this is, of course, the ultimate mea culpa for the bigot from Queens. The Archie Bunker of the early days – the beginning of the story arc and that which made the show popular – is no more. The moral here is obvious: if Archie Bunker can change, we all can change.

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