40 Years Ago: Archie Bunker Calls It a Day
Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker was one of the most celebrated, significant and outrageous characters ever to appear on American network television. For 12 years, Bunker appeared on TV weekly, dispensing reactionary opinions, arguing with those around him and occasionally even learning something.
Then, on April 4, 1983, with the end of his second show, Archie Bunker's Place, he was gone — and American television was never the same.
O'Connor first began playing Archie in Norman Lear's CBS sitcom All in the Family in 1971. The show was an immediate cultural dynamo, generating controversy, praise, imitations and spinoffs, and it became one of the most-loved sitcoms of its generation. But by 1979, All in the Family seemed to have run its course.
Lear felt it was time for the show to "die an honorable death," according to an interview that O'Connor gave to the Emmy Foundation. Jean Stapleton, who played Archie's wife Edith, had also announced that she did not intend to return after the ninth season. She worried that her acting career might be "buried" under the character of Edith, limiting her to similar roles in the future.
Watch the Intro to 'Archie Bunker's Place'
But Robert Daly, then-vice president of CBS Television Network, felt the show could still churn out at least one more year of good ratings. He sent O'Connor to try to convince Lear to let them keep it running.
"The only way it got on was when [CBS president William S. Paley] called me to his office and had four or five pages of names of people who would be out of work if the show didn't go on," Lear told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016. "And so the show went on."
But Lear had some demands: They had to change the name, they couldn’t use the famous opening credit sequence of Archie and Edith playing the piano, and they had to honor Stapleton's desire to leave.
The result was Archie Bunker's Place, which debuted on Sept. 23, 1979, and lasted for four seasons. The first hurdle to clear was Edith's absence. The show centered around the bar – the titular Archie Bunker's Place – that Archie had purchased during the eighth season of All in the Family, which allowed most of the action to take place in a space where Edith wasn't present. It also allowed the show to largely dispense with All in the Family stalwarts Sally Struthers, who played Archie's daughter Gloria; and Rob Reiner, who played Gloria's husband Michael.
Watch Gloria and Meathead Return from California in 'Archie Bunker's Place'
Stapleton agreed to appear sporadically and acted in five episodes of the first season, but she was written off the show before season 2, which opened with an episode in which she had succumbed to a stroke. "The death of Edith was discussed at length by the cast of All in the Family," Stapleton told The Christian Science Monitor in 1981. "It was necessary because it would have been dishonest for her to get a divorce – the Bunkers would never divorce each other. If we sent her off for a long visit to California, she would still be hovering over the series, making it difficult to enlarge and expand Archie's life."
For the most part, Archie Bunker's Place was fully O'Connor's show; in that sense, it accomplished what it set out to do. While it never matched the heights of its predecessor, it was successful enough to give Daly his earnings and accomplished enough to give O'Connor a chance to continue exploring his beloved character.
Archie Bunker's Place ranked among the top 15 shows for its first three seasons, with Nielsen ratings in the 20s — not a full-blown hit, but still a modest success for CBS. It also replicated the intelligent, culture-war commentary that was so notable in All In The Family. The conservative, obstreperous Archie continued to clash with the liberals in his midst, now provided by a succession of Jewish business partners – first Martin Balsam as Murray Klein, then Barry Gordon as Gary Rabinowitz – while a variety of bar regulars filled out the plot lines.
Watch Sammy Davis Jr. Visit the Bar in 'Archie Bunker's Place'
The show even produced some fine episodes and memorable moments. "Archie Alone," the hourlong season 2 premiere in which Archie struggles with Edith's death, is a minor masterpiece of writing and characterization. O'Connor once again displays the touching humanity below the surface of one of the crankiest characters in television history. Several high-profile and entertaining guest appearances – including Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Stiller, Reggie Jackson and Don Rickles – also kept things lively.
Nevertheless, the show ran out of steam fairly quickly. Despite O'Connor's immense talent, Archie Bunker's Place didn't have the main component that had made All in the Family so personal and relatable: a strong family dynamic to ground all the bickering. Instead, Archie increasingly began to feel like a character in search of a series, relying on the same old bits that had propelled him to stardom.
It likely didn't help that, with the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, O'Connor's conservatism went from an outsider position to the status quo. It's probably not a coincidence that Archie Bunker's Place concludes with Archie recounting his dream about being in the Oval Office, from which he was awoken by the sound of a flushing toilet. In the end, even O'Connor and the show's producers realized his beloved character had finally succumbed to history.