“Before I came out here and met Carroll [O’Connor],
I thought about Mickey Rooney playing the role [of Archie Bunker]…. I called
his manager, and he said, ‘Oh, Mickey happens to be in the office. Why don’t
you talk to him!’ And I said, ‘No, no, this is a character I would rather talk
to him about and then have him read,’ and he said, ‘No, no, no.’ Anyway, before
I know it, Mickey [was on the phone] talking about himself in the third person.
‘You got the Mick!’ ‘Mickey is gonna be out there, can I see you out there?
I’ll be out there Tuesday.’ ‘You got something for the Mick, just tell him!’ I
said, ‘Well, he’s a bigot, he’ll say spics and spades and hebes” — and he said,
‘Norm, they’re gonna kill you. They’re gonna shoot you dead in the streets.’ I
can never forget this speech. ‘You wanna do something with the Mick? Listen to
this: Vietnam vet. Private eye. Short. Blind. Large dog.’”—Norman Lear, creator
and producer of All in the Family, interviewed
by Kenya Barris in “Two Titans Dish: Norman Lear and Kenya Barris,” Entertainment
Weekly, April 7-14, 2017
I normally pick a joke or something else obviously
funny for a quote to start the work week. Yet I trust that you reacted in much
the same way that I did when I read this recollection by Norman Lear about how he seriously considered casting Mickey Rooney as Archie Bunker in All in the Family: a guffaw at the
actor’s self-aggrandizing use of the third person; his cluelessness about the
success of the show; and the sheer improbability of MGM’s Andy Hardy playing
the first regularly appearing bigot in American sitcom history.
But on further reflection, I think I was unfair to
Rooney, and that realization led me to some alternative history about what
might have happened if he rather than Carroll O’Connor had been chosen for this role that broke very markedly with the
notion of “Father Knows Best.”
First, Rooney was far from alone in questioning the
prospects for this path-breaking comedy. Sure, there were people such as
director John Rich who saw possibilities in making TV history by working on
this show. But ABC network brass rejected the pilot of the show (originally
known as Those Were the Days), and
even after CBS gave it the green light, that episode repeated the below-average
performance on audience tests that ABC had received for it.
Second, Lear was not simply picking a big name to
draw attention to his show by conceiving of Rooney as his star. Despite the
actor’s stereotyping from 20 years, off and on, as Hardy, America’s lovable boy
next door, he had, when given a chance, shown that he could not only appear to
advantage in gritty, downbeat material (e.g., as a trainer in Requiem for a Heavyweight), or even in
unsympathetic roles (e.g., in film noir such as Baby Face Nelson).
In particular, Rooney’s turn as a megalomaniac TV
star in the Rod Serling/Ernest Lehman-scripted 1957 Playhouse 90 episode The Comedian demonstrated that he was unafraid to risk displeasing
a mass audience.
How well that would have translated to Archie Bunker
is another matter. The series’ more than 200 episodes, filled with countless
varieties of racial, ethnic and religious slurs, represented shocking stuff
nearly 50 years ago. Not everyone appreciated the point of this satire
(including a nun in my parochial elementary school, who asked how I could like
a show featuring such an awful man).
The dynamics of the show would be quite different
had Rooney been cast—most notably, in how Archie was physically envisioned. The
same 5-ft., 2-in. frame that had limited Rooney’s possibilities as a movie
leading man would also have made TV audiences see, quite literally, Archie’s
contention that he was “the little guy.”
Furthermore, the nose-to-nose confrontations between
Archie and son-in-law Mike Stivic (played to perfection by O’Connor and Rob
Reiner) would have been impossible with Rooney; the advantage enjoyed by
“Meathead” would have been a matter of height as well as logic, and would have
looked an awful lot like bullying. The temptation would have been enormous for
Lear and his writing team to create more jokes playing off Archie’s (now
diminutive) size than off his malapropisms.
How physicality can affect perception of a role can
be seen in Arthur Miller’s Death of a
Salesman. The original script called for title character Willy Loman to say
“I’m short,” a line changed after the casting of burly Lee J. Cobb to “I’m
fat.” When Dustin Hoffman played the role 35 years later, Miller went back to
his original line.
O’Connor was so right as Archie Bunker—indeed, Lear
says he knew it from the first line reading—that it’s almost impossible to
imagine anyone else playing the part. But Mickey Rooney might have brought so
much to the role, in terms of audience expectations and physicality, that
reactions to the character might have ended up markedly different from what
they turned out to be.
How might Rooney have fared if he had been cast?
O’Connor, at the height of the show’s success, stayed off the set for three
episodes in a salary dispute with Lear. But there is good reason to think that
Rooney would have been far more difficult to handle.
At the show’s premiere, Rooney would have been
better known not only than O’Connor—a middle-aged character actor who had made
little impression on the public—but also Jean Stapleton, Sally Struthers and
even Rob Reiner (still striving to emerge from his father’s shadow).
Before long, Rooney might have felt entitled to
demand a salary commensurate with his status as the show’s biggest draw. His
lifestyle might have pushed him even more powerfully in this direction. He was
fond of cracking jokes about his multiple divorces (eight, by the time of his
death), but the alimony did not help his finances.
Worse still, if that was possible, was his betting
on the ponies. In a preface to The Life
and Times of Mickey Rooney, Roger Kahn recalled how he couldn’t find him
for weeks when they were supposed to be collaborating on the star’s memoir,
because the actor was spending his non-working hours at the racetrack. Rooney,
given to racking up high debts, might have felt compelled to push for a higher
salary on All in the Family to help
deal with this issue.
The rest of the cast would also surely have rebelled
against his longtime tendency toward scene-stealing—a propensity so strong that
Boys Town co-star Spencer Tracy warned
the “little snot” that if he tried it in one of their scenes, “I’ll send you to
Even his initial response to Lear’s crusty
protagonist (“Vietnam vet. Private eye. Short. Blind. Large dog”) suggests that
Rooney would have pushed for any means to soften, even sentimentalize, this
bigot well before these tendencies were well-established for the audience. The
point of the satire, then, might have been irretrievably lost.
For all his many gifts as a performer, then, Rooney
would have been ill-suited to play Archie Bunker. It is fortunate indeed that
Lear found his ideal Archie in O’Connor .