The comedy legend wrote in his memoir that working with O’Connor on All in the Family was beyond difficult. They fought constantly and viscously, Lear said, but they created one of the greatest television shows ever through it. Their battles usually revolved around O’Connor’s unhappiness with the role and his hatred of the scripts.
“For the next eight years, Carroll would continue to dislike every script at the start,” Lear wrote in Even This I Get to Experience. “It was nothing but fear, and blind anger was his only defense. Certainly, he bettered many a scene with it, but it needn’t have taken his belligerence to get there.”
Norman Lear Talks Difficult Birth of ‘The Elevator Story’
Norman Lear explores in lurid detail a week when O’Connor, so unhappy with a script, nearly led to the show’s cancellation. It was the famous second-season episode titled The Elevator Story. In it, an unruly elevatory traps Archie Bunker in close quarters with many people and a woman giving birth. We would never see the baby being born, obviously. But the audience would watch Archie Bunker watch a baby being born. O’Connor hated the idea, Lear remembers.
O’Connor walked out of the table read. Later, in a heated meeting with Lear and CBS President Bob Wood, he and his attorney laid out their case.
“Carroll said flat out that he thought this week’s script was repulsive and unplayable and that in no way was he going to do it,” Lear writes.
Through shouts, the men in the room tried to hash out another arrangement. But, in the end, there was no other option. O’Connor would need to do it or CBS would cancel All in the Family for failing to produce an episode.
Carroll walked out of the meeting, claiming it was “good bye,” Lear remembers.
But after several phone calls, Wood and O’Connor struck a deal, and the star agreed to film his scenes. Most fans of the show consider The Elevator Story a classic episode.
This was O’Connor’s process, Lear explains. Bemoan, fight, acquiesce, improve.
“The marvel of Carroll’s performance as Archie Bunker was that at some point each week, deep into the rehearsal process, he seemed to pass through a membrane, on one side of which was the actor Carroll O’Connor, and on the other side the character Archie Bunker,” Lear said. “He was easily the best writer of dialogue we had for the character. If Carroll O’Connor hadn’t played Archie Bunker, jails wouldn’t be a “detergent” to crime, New York would not be a ‘smelting pot,’ living wouldn’t be a question of either ‘feast or salmon,’ and there would not be a medical specialty known as ‘groinocology.'”