Carroll O’Connor thought his life was over when his only son, Hugh O’Connor, committed suicide at 32 in 1995 after a long battle with drug addiction. “Nothing will give me any peace,” said the actor, best known for his iconic role as Archie Bunker on All in the Family. “I’ve lost a son. And I’ll go to my grave without any peace over that.” Still, Carroll was determined not to allow his son to have died in vain.
He and Nancy, his wife since 1951, adopted Hugh as a baby in Rome and stayed by his side when he conquered Hodgkin’s disease at the age of 16. It was around that time Hugh developed a drug problem, but Carroll never gave up on him, employing him as a courier on the All in the Family set and later casting him in a regular role on In the Heat of the Night.
“Carroll loved Hugh,” In the Heat of the Night costar Denise Nicholas tells Closer in the latest issue, on newsstands now. “He tried to save him from drugs. Hugh’s death broke his heart. I can barely talk about it without crying.”
When Carroll heard about the Drug Dealer Liability Act, which allows people to sue narcotics pushers who cause the death of users, he became a vocal advocate for the law. It went into effect in California in 1997 and has been adopted in many other states as well and became known as the Hugh O’Connor Memorial Law.
“He was 100 percent supportive, and it was perhaps cathartic for him to have something he could do in response to his son’s death,” Steve Boreman, an attorney who worked with Carroll on the legislation, tells Closer. “He felt like something needed to be done as far as the people who are profiting from selling poison.”
In the end, Carroll found meaning in Hugh’s life and death. “The biggest part of my life was the acquiring and loss of a son, nothing was as important as that,” he said. “Get between your kids and drugs any way you can if you want to save their lives.”
The role of Archie Bunker catapulted Carroll from character actor to TV superstar when All in the Family debuted in 1971. He played the part so convincingly that many fans believed he shared the character’s bigoted beliefs, but nothing could be further from the truth.
“He cared about the little guy,” says Rob Reiner, who played his son-in-law on the sitcom. “He shone a light on bigotry and ignorance and hope.” Carroll continued to put a spotlight on racial issues when he took over Rod Steiger’s Oscar-winning role as a Southern sheriff on TV’s In the Heat of the Night in 1988.
“That role embodied more of the real Carroll, in terms of embracing people of different ethnicities,” says Denise. “He ended up marrying [my character], a black woman, and we got hate mail for days.”
Always supportive of his costars, Carroll stood behind Howard Rollins as he endured his own struggle with substance abuse and hired Denise to pen scripts for the show after she pointed out there were no African-American writers on staff. “If he cared about you, he would not turn his back on you,” says Denise. “The man had character, we don’t see that a lot today.”
Carroll died at 76 in 2001 from a heart attack due to complications from diabetes. Denise has only the fondest of memories of her friend and costar. “He had these exquisite blue eyes, and they seemed to sparkle and dance when he was happy, you could see it,” she says. “Those of us who were the beneficiaries of his largesse will always remember that as his legacy. I really miss him.”
For more on this story and others, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now!