Archie Bunker is not a role model.
Nobody knew it more than Carroll O’Connor, who played the character from 1971–1983. A staunch liberal, one of the reasons O’Connor took the role when it was offered to him was that he thought it would be a challenge to play someone so very different than himself. Archie Bunker was a flagrant bigot, who had loud opinions on everyone who wasn’t exactly like him, a white, heterosexual, Protestant, blue-collar man.
When All in the Family creator Norman Lear, may he live a thousand years and keep making brilliant television, came up with the character, he meant for Archie to be universally hated. He figured that Archie’s hardcore right-wing, hardcore ignorant views would leave the audience with one solid feeling about Bunker—overall dislike. Archie is certainly frustrating. According to him, his wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) is a dingbat, and his son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner) is a meathead. He’s racist and patronizing by turns to the Jeffersons, the Black family living next door (they got the last laugh, though—the spin-off, The Jeffersons, outlasted All in the Family by two seasons). In the hands of a lesser actor, this would have been all there was to Archie Bunker. I’m pretty sure history remembers him that way.
All in the Family premiered the year I was born. I saw the odd episode as a kid, but it wasn’t until a few years back that I decided to check it out as an adult. I was amazed at how topical everything still is, including Archie himself. And it’s a magic that I don’t think anyone’s been able to recreate (looking at you, Roseanne). The thing that made Archie work was that Carroll O’Connor was willing to be the buffoon, the butt of every joke, the guy everyone else knew better than. When people nowadays compare certain political leaders to Archie Bunker, I always have to wonder if those people understand satire. Also, there’s more to Archie than satire.
O’Connor said that most of the time, when people came up to him to thank him for his work as Archie Bunker, it was women younger than he was, saying Archie reminded them of their fathers. Not so much mine, but Archie definitely makes up a lot of America in many ways. Archie’s offensive bluster is his most visible aspect, and like I said, with a lesser actor, he probably would have stopped there. But Carroll O’Connor wasn’t lesser, and he made Archie a whole person—again I say, I am in no way saying he was a role model. That said, here’s some Archie Bunker: Behind the Bluster.
Archie grew up in poverty, the older son of an abusive father. His father was apparently where Archie inherited all his intolerant ideals, yet Archie never failed to defend his father as a good man (and you have to wonder how much of that is Archie brainwashing himself over the years, into a happier childhood than the one he actually had). Archie’s poverty was such that he had to go to school once wearing one shoe and one boot, earning him ridicule and the nickname “Shoe-bootie.” Archie once dreamed of playing for the NY Yankees, but had to drop his baseball ambitions along with school to go to work to support his family. He joined the military, was wounded in combat, and came home to a job as a foreman on a loading dock.
All in the Family was an ensemble piece. Archie was the jewel in the center of the setting, and in order to properly look at him, you have to hold him up next to the other characters. The most obvious foil for Archie Bunker is his son-in-law, Mike Stivic. At the top of the show, Mike is still in college. He and Gloria (Sally Struthers) married with the understanding that they would live with her parents while he completed his degree. Mike says over and over again that he plans to pay back every cent of his room and board, but if he does so, I don’t think it’s mentioned. Mike is supposed to be the voice of the liberal, the educated, the voice of everything Archie isn’t (though don’t get me started on Mike to a modern audience—he’s that super-woke white guy in your sociology class who thinks he knows everything about everything, just because he’s read about it).
While Michael Stivic is all those things, it has always been very clear to me that Gloria Bunker married her father in many ways. Mike is just as overbearing with his opinions as Archie is in his own, and oftentimes less honest about it. He’s also chauvinistic and passive-aggressive with his wife and her family. For example, he makes a unilateral decision that, due to the troubling state of the world, he doesn’t want to have any kids. He announces this decision as fact, without even discussing it with Gloria. When Archie verbally abuses Mike, “the meathead” gives as good as he gets, and unlike Archie (as pointed out by Mike’s best friend Lionel Jefferson), Mike should know better.
For all his calling her “dingbat,” Archie Bunker is a man who loves his wife. Really, I don’t see how anyone could fail to love Edith Bunker. She’s got the biggest and best heart of almost anyone I’ve ever seen on television. Edith knows her husband’s limitations, and she loves him anyway. She extends that kind of generosity to everyone she meets. One of my favourite Edith moments (unrelated to her husband) is when she learns that Lionel Jefferson has been dating Archie’s niece. She’s momentarily rattled, because she’s not accustomed to people with different skin dating each other. Gloria asks Edith what her father wanted from the boys Edith dated, and Edith says they had to be gentlemanly and kind. When Gloria points out, “Ma, you’re describing Lionel,” Edith thinks about it and says, “I am, aren’t I?” and boom, that’s enough for her.
When Mike goes too far with his badmouthing Archie, Edith actually gets harsh with him. She demands that he listen to her, that he understand that Archie’s resentment of Mike is owing to all the opportunities that Mike will have in life, that Archie never will. Edith may not be the sharpest crayon in the box, but she understands people. Archie knows it, which is why he often defers to her (albeit in his own crusty way) and seeks her advice and approval. Archie and Edith don’t often do more than bicker, but in S6, Archie feels deeply threatened by Edith’s volunteer work at a retirement home. Her saying that the work gives her a sense of purpose cuts him deeply—I think that under all his bravado and bluster, Archie knows exactly what he is, and how limited that is. He (like Edith) knows that he is never going to be more than what he is, and Edith trying to be more than what she is frightens and angers him.
Archie forbids her to continue, but she puts her foot down, and then he pulls out every stop he knows in order to win her back (except apologise—Archie Bunker doesn’t know how to do that), including inviting her to sit in his own chair. In S7, Archie and Edith are briefly estranged, and Archie is tempted by another woman. Even so, he can’t bring himself to actually cheat on Edith. The scene in the S2 episode of Archie Bunker’s Place when we learn that Edith has died off-screen (in her sleep, of a stroke) and Archie is sitting in their bedroom that has been stripped of Edith’s things save one pink slipper—I bet even the camera crew was crying along with Archie that day.
Gloria is always her father’s “little goil,” and he loves her fiercely. When she and Mike are having problems, Archie takes her on his lap and tells her of how when she first started school, she didn’t want to go alone. He would walk her to school, but then when he finally told her she had to go on her own, he followed her the whole way, clumsily ducking behind trash cans. He didn’t think she knew he was there (she did), but he had to make sure she was okay.
When Gloria suffers a miscarriage, Archie feels absolutely helpless. He’s come home with a giant stuffed bear for his impending grandson. When told the news, he’s got no idea how to handle something like this, and all he wants is to ease his daughter’s heartbreak. The women in Archie’s family understand him. Gloria is absolutely fine with prompting her limited father to help him find the right words to say to her, for both their sakes. It’s a heartwarming family dynamic, really. She knows his limitations, loves him anyway, and doesn’t mind making the extra effort at communication, because she knows she’s better at it than he is. Gloria learned this generosity of spirit from her mother…at least, as far as her father was concerned.
In S9, Edith’s niece Stephanie (Danielle Brisebois) is left with the Bunkers by her unfit father. Archie is at first hesitant to take the little girl into their home, but she quickly wins him over. In the continuation series Archie Bunker’s Place, a growing-up Stephanie reveals herself to be both liberal and Jewish, neither of which thrills Archie. It’s another case of Archie’s great big heart being in conflict with his sensibilities (and his mouth), and ultimately, like every other time, the heart wins out.
Watching Archie butt heads with the Jeffersons (till they got their own spin-off) is always fantastic. I love George Jefferson (Sherman Helmsley) as much as I do Archie, and for a lot of the same reasons. The two men are very alike in that they are both outspoken, they both love their very tolerant wives, and they are both bigots. George (and his brother Henry, who held his place on the show till Helmsley finished his run of the Broadway show Purlie) is just as bad as Archie is when it comes to his “honky” neighbor. And while their broad views don’t change, both men prove that they can sometimes be taught by individuals.
I think my favourite example of this is at Lionel’s engagement party. Archie and George are talking, and George says something snarky to his mother. Archie tells George he should be more polite to his “mammy.” Mrs. Jefferson naturally objects, saying “don’t you call me Mammy, you call me Mrs. Jefferson!” Archie immediately corrects himself and apologises. She doesn’t want to hear it, and stomps away—but Archie goes on to say that he honestly thought that all Black people called their mothers “mammy,” because he had heard Al Jolson singing about it for years.
That right there, to me, sums up Archie perfectly. A product of his generation and upbringing, he honestly didn’t know. He was ignorant, and misinformed by something he learned from the media, but he was willing to be taught something else. And he apologised to her without hesitation. Don’t get me wrong, this (or his friendship with Lionel, or “Black Elmo” from work, or even Sammy Davis Jr.) doesn’t help much with his misguided overall opinion of “coloreds” as a race, but it’s nice that he can experience individuals and learn from them how to be better, even if it’s only for a minute.
Archie Bunker is a guy for whom the world is moving too fast, and it’s moving without him, and since he doesn’t think he could ever really catch up anyway, he doesn’t really want to. Lord knows I relate to Archie when he goes for a physical, and even the doctor is younger than he is (I have to keep reminding myself that almost-50 nowadays is worlds away from almost-50 circa the early 1970s), and that just adds to Archie’s worry that he’s going to lose his job to a younger man. Archie wants to cling to the world he knows because it’s comfortable, like the armchair he loves.
To borrow words from Stephen Sondheim, Archie is a “dinosaur surviving the crunch.” And while I say yet again that he is not a role model, I think most of us can see a little bit of ourselves (or at least, our parents) in Archie Bunker if we’re being honest. Behind the bluster is a decent, hardworking human, whose heart was able to sometimes push against the limitations of his mind. And that’s definitely a lesson a lot of us can use. So really—a role model? No, with maybe a little yes thrown in. There are plenty of good qualities in the man that are worth emulating, if one can see behind the bluster.