‘All in the Family’: The ‘Repulsive’ Episode That Left Carroll O’Connor in Tears and Nearly Ended the Series

To hear All in the Family creator and producer Norman Lear tell it, working with show star Carroll O’Connor was both a blessing and an affliction.

A blessing because when he first saw O’Connor read for the role of Archie Bunker, he knew he’d found the only actor for the part. And working with the actor was an affliction because, Lear claimed, O’Connor made the weekly process of going over the show’s scripts “impossible.”

One script in particular drove the actor to tears and nearly resulted in the show’s permanent axing.

Carroll O'Connor, wearing a brown hat with a dark blue band and a beige jacket, and holding a cigar against a red background as Archie Bunker in 'All in the Family', circa 1975
Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker in ‘All in the Family’, 1975 |
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The episode O’Connor found distasteful

As All in the Family creator and producer Norman Lear described in his 2014 memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, the actor was a joy to watch at his craft. He seemed to morph into the character of Archie Bunker seamlessly. Unfortunately, he poured an equal amount of passion into the show’s scripts, taking issue with nearly all of them, according to Lear.

But the script that resulted in O’Connor dissolving into tears and attorneys, and with CBS threatening to kill off the show entirely was “The Elevator Story.”

Norman Lear discusses how he knew Carroll O’Connor was perfect as Archie Bunker

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In the second season’s fourteenth episode, which eventually did air in 1972, Archie finds himself on an elevator with a “working-class couple, clearly Latin.” The wife of the couple is “extremely pregnant and nervous.”

The elevator also carries a “classy Black guy” and an “emotionally fragile woman.”

Soon, the elevator gets stuck, the ordeal causes the pregnant woman to go into labor and everyone is trapped until someone can arrive to get it moving again.

O’Connor called in attorneys

When O’Connor first read the script at the cast’s table reading, which Lear said “seemed an agony for Carroll,” the actor “announced there was no way in the world he would do this show.”

Logistically, the New York City-born actor said, it would be impossible to shoot on an elevator with five actors. And the story itself, Lear quoted O’Connor as saying was “a joke! You know you can’t do that! A baby born on the floor of a godd**n elevator! What’s that all about? I don’t want to talk about this anymore!”

'All in the Family' episode 'Sammy's Visit' featuring (at right) Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker and (left) entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. (as himself), 1972
‘All in the Family’ episode ‘Sammy’s Visit’ featuring (at right) Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker and (left) entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. (as himself), 1972 | CBS via Getty Images

Eventually, O’Connor called for an emergency meeting at CBS executive Robert Wood’s office, along with the actor’s attorney: “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 disagreed, of course, and the heated conversation continued back and forth.

“We were at a standoff,” Lear wrote. “In what became a heated argument, every alternative was discussed. There had to be another script we could get ready. Maybe even one without Archie?”

‘All in the Family’ almost ceased to be

The producer reported then that O’Connor finally began to weep out of exasperation.

“Carroll fell to pieces and began to cry,” Lear said. “He couldn’t go on, hated the show, couldn’t bear me, and cried to a point that made me realize that this behavior had to end here.”

Lear went ahead and scheduled the episode for filming but O’Connor was a no-show. “CBS formally advised…Mr. O’Connor and his advisers that All in the Family would be canceled,” Lear wrote.

After further grappling between O’Connor’s and the network’s attorneys, the show went on. Lear described the scene that had offended O’Connor in the first place: The couple give birth on the elevator, “Archie’s expressions mirroring everything going on – and then, cutting through the commotion, from the center of all life, comes that first cry and Archie melts, simply melts at the wonder, the mystery and beauty of it all.

“It was a watershed performance.”