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Carroll O'Connor calls it luck.


The feisty actor's reluctant submission to a heart checkup turned into an eight-hour surgery that saved his life.

Carroll O'Connor has more money than he can ever use. He bought the out-of-sight-priced house right next to his own in Zuma Beach, California, for example, just so "some rock-'n'-roll star or other loud person couldn't buy it and screw up the neighborhood."

O'Connor has more fame and TV immortality as Archie Bunker than any TV star-institution, let alone a character actor like he'd previously been, could ever imagine.

For those who thought he'd never overcome being Archie forever in any audience's collective mind, he now has a successful TV series -- "In the Heat of the Night"--playing a Mississippi small-town police chief, Bill Gillespie. The show has the unlikely status of finishing in the top 20 of Nielsen ratings, even though it's a rural one-hour drama (not precisely the most popular form these days), and even though it originally took on the seemingly unbeatable "Moon-lighting" and has since survived a time-slot threat from that sitcom gorilla "Roseanne."

O'Connor also has a loving if sometimes mutually contentious 38-year-old marriage to a razor-sharp-minded woman (Nancy), and a 27-year-old son (Hugh), who's a late-blooming actor (he has a recurring role on "Heat"), despite severe previous misgivings about going into the business as "Archie's kid."

So is Carroll O'Connor happy?

Yes and no.

Mostly--except for a 65-year-old actor-writer-director's perfectionist streak about whatever he's currently working on--capital "Y" You-betcha.

Upstairs, in the bedroom of the beach home, a word processor is waiting for him to write the first two episodes of next fall's "Heat" shows. The writer in him grouses: "All I have to do in the first two shows is credibly tie together the loose ends left at the end of last season: Joe Don Baker's character is facing a hail-storm of bullets; Lois Nettleton [Joan St. John, Gillespie's waitress-romantic interest] has been shot and appears near death in a hospital; and I've been kidnapped, apparently by white supremacists."

But aside from worrying about his own writing challenges and about getting more good writers to sign up for a show he thinks has been seriously underwritten during its 1 1/2-season run, O'Connor sits at the dining room table of his home and declares, "I'm lucky." He shakes his head and reiterates softly: "Lord, I'm lucky."

To be alive, he means.

Dressed seashore casual in a white shirt and Bermuda shorts, O'Connor unbuttons the shirt. "This isn't ghastly or I wouldn't show you," he tells the interviewer. A long scar runs down his chest. It's from his sextuple cardiac-bypass surgery in March, when surgeons at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta took his heart out of his body while he was kept alive on a heart and lung machine, placed the heart on a table, and repaired six clogged arteries. "It's like a mechanic taking a carburetor out of a car and fixing it," he says.

He stands for a moment and displays four more scars--one on each thigh, one on each calf--where veins were used to replace the heart arteries. "They take those veins and make the bypasses in the heart, reattach the heart in the right places, check out the old pump to see if it's doing the job, and when they're absolutely sure it's O.K., they sew you up," he says. "It's almost an eight-hour operation. It sounds fantastic, and it is."

The way in which the heart problem was discovered was improbable, if not fantastic. "My regular doctor was always after me to take a stress cardiograph, but I never had the time," O'Connor recalls. "I mean, on the series, I took the role on the condition that I could also be story editor [under the pseudonym Matt Harris] and have more control over the scripts." Renting a house in Conyers, Georgia, near the small town where "Heat" is filmed, O'Connor decided one day to consult with the physician MGM-UATV retained on location there about recurrent headaches (a common enough condition for story editors). "Dr. Patton told me I had a heart murmur. No big deal--I've known that since I was ten. People go their whole lives with heart murmurs and it doesn't mean anything. But he told me, `Listen, I've got a cardiograph machine--a $350,000 piece of equipment, there's not a finer one in the land--and I'd like you to do me a favor and be the first celebrity to use it.' I told him I didn't have time--it takes all afternoon. He said, `Come on, take tomorrow afternoon off; do it.' Nancy was there; she said, `Oh, just do it.'"

So O'Connor found himself lying on a table for three hours the next afternoon "with a big donut thing around me that's the nuclear equivalent of an X-ray, thinking nothing of it' cause I'd never had a pain in my chest in my life."

Then he heard the doctor consulting with Nancy and another physician: "I didn't like that." Then a Dr. Cruise, the heart specialist in town, said: "I don't like the looks of anything I've seen, and I want you to go to Emory University for an angiogram."

"Whoops," O'Connor recalls. "He said there were arterial blockages. I got scared. I went the next day."

In Atlanta, "they had all the big guns there for me--Lyndon B. Johnson's doctor, see? He told me, `We're the main people on this angiogram, this angioplasty. We perform more angioplasties than doctors do tonsillectomies. It's routine.'

"But then they came back and said, `You've got too many blockages and they're almost total.' So it's got to be bypass surgery and they start in again with, `This is kind of a routine operation for us, you know.' Meanwhile"--O'Connor sits up in a shaky, what-is-this stance--"Nancy and I are quivering."

Once the news sank in, O'Connor requested the earliest operation possible so he wouldn't have to deal with the torture of waiting. O'Connor's version of what happened is summed up in a conversation he had later with Allen Funt ("Candid Camera"), who was faced with a similar situation and called for counsel: "I told him, `Allen, it's painless; you won't feel a thing. Get it done as soon as possible. They'll start giving you tranquilizers around 5:30 in the morning, and you'll feel as high as any hippie. They'll give you the rest of the anesthetic, and you'll go into a beautiful sleep. It'll take seven, eight hours, but it'll seem like three minutes. And there won't be any pain." O'Connor puts his hand over his heart. "The only thing I felt or feel is a little tightness in the flesh on this side."

The reaction to the news of the surgery brought a staggering amount of mail to the hospital. Among the letters was one from Burt Lancaster, who had surgery for five bypasses, who wrote: "Six, huh? You just had to outdo me." Another, from a loyal "All in the Family" fan, arrived addressed simply, "Archie, Atlanta."

Nine days later, doctors determined that his gallbladder had to go. "Once I found out what the h-- the abdominal swelling was about, I said, `So get on with it.'" That one hurt. "Still does a little. When they cut into the abdomen, it hurts," he says, sounding a little irritated, like Archie confronted with a new concept in human relations.

Weight down, pale, and jowly, O'Connor now walks a mile and a half a day on the almost exclusive Zuma Beach. Through the unusual laws of the territory, public citizens can walk the beach as long as they don't loiter or set up camp for the night, sparing Jack Lemmon, Dinah Shore, and Goldie Hawn, for example, the intrusion of strangers. O'Connor's reaction to this quirky rule is to stand on the second-floor balcony of his house to take photos of perfect civilians while they're taking photos of him. (Meanwhile, all of the celebrity residents complain that Sly Stallone constantly rides his horse onto their personal grounds.)

"Mr. O'Connor is still feisty," says Alan Autry, who plays a deputy to O'Connor's police chief. "He didn't have to, but he came back for the last show to play a scene when he could just have done a voice-over."

"He's lost a lot of weight, which is good," says Anne-Marie Johnson, who plays his co-star Howard Rollins' (Tibbs') wife, "but whatever weight that man's at, he makes it felt."

O'Connor has had to kick nicotine. "It's especially hard when I'm sitting at the word processor." He made the pledge to quit when he left the hospital--"I had one pipeful for the road the night before the bypass surgery" --and he had previously supported Rollins in his bouts with alcohol and other drugs.

Since these recent health scares, O'Connor has suggested he's working on new attitudes, in both his professional life and his personal life. An ad he took out in the entertainment trade papers said he'd "found out that my one irreducible residual of 38 years in the business is the number of lasting, loving friendships I have made....I look forward certainly to better health in general, and even, possibly (though I hate to make big promises) to having a pleasanter personality."

"Looking back over my career," says O'Connor, who has written stage plays and directed on Broadway, "I've been more unpleasant about the material that I've had to do as an actor than any other aspect. I've run into some S.O.B. directors, but I gave them back as good as I got. Mostly, when I've gotten cranky, it's been about the material, hack material. I was watching a TV movie, the one about the little girl saved out of the well in Texas, and the ending had a reporter sticking a mike in the face of one of the guys who helped save her. The reporter says, `What's your name, sir?' And the guy in the hard hat says, `Young fella, there were no names around here, just good men.'"

O'Connor cringes. "You might be tempted to say that's a good finish line, but it wasn't because nobody talks that way under those conditions. You could get the same effect by having it truthful. The guy gets asked the question, is surprised anybody even cares who he is, stammers a little, and says, `Oh, uh, Ed Curtis, sir.' And then he walks away. And if it was handled right, you'd get the same effect."

On the personal front, he says, "Nancy easily could be a widow by now, one of those widows who's wondering why her husband dropped dead when there'd never been any history of heart problems. She wasn't ready to lose me; my son wasn't ready to lose me." Smiling, he says, "There are times when they're ready to lose me, but those are only temporary." Serious again, he adds: "So it crosses my mind every day how fortunate it turned out. I could have easily told Dr. Patton, `No way am I going to take tomorrow afternoon off; I've got scripts piled up, the material isn't working, the tests can wait.'

"The groundwork for my departure was not laid, psychologically or practically." He snaps his fingers. "If I'd gone like that, it would have left all of the people I'm close to unprepared. Not that I'm supposed to be indispensable or immortal, but it wasn't time. So I keep telling myself the same thing I told you: `Lord, I'm Lucky.'"

PHOTO : Nancy O'Connor played a vital role in her husband's real-life medical drama. When he

PHOTO : complained he had no time for a heart checkup, she told him, "Oh, just do it."

PHOTO : Forever Archie Bunker to TV audiences, O'Connor says he has a better feeling for his

PHOTO : newest character, Chief Gillespie.

PHOTO : He's lost weight since his illness, a fellow worker says, but "whatever weight that man's

PHOTO : at, he makes it felt."
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:heart surgery saves the TV star's life
Author:Esterly, Glenn
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Oct 1, 1989
Previous Article:The wrong stuff.
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