Not everybody watching In the Heat of the Night was convinced by Carroll O'Connor's Southern accent
Carroll O'Connor was born to sit in Archie Bunker's recliner. A native New Yorker, he arguably defined for the world what New Yorkers sounded like in the 1970s while filming his popular sitcom All in the Family.
In 1976, The Detroit Free Press pondered whether O'Connor had dug himself into a hole by forever typecasting himself as a New Yorker and only a New Yorker, asking whether the public would ever accept him portraying a character from anywhere else. But when O'Connor stopped playing Archie in 1983, he was ready to change things up.
One of the first things O'Connor did was make his Broadway debut in an Irish play called Brothers. This required O'Connor to alter his New York accent to sound Irish, something that maybe came a little more naturally to him, because his grandparents were from Dublin and he had spent time living in Ireland.
O'Connor wasn't worried at all about audiences buying his accent or failing to see him as someone other than Archie Bunker.
"It's not just the accent being different," O'Connor told The Green Bay Press-Gazette in 1983. "Audiences are inventive in their imagination. They know they've come to see Carroll O'Connor in a play in which he has sons. It's a whole different thing from Archie."
By 1988, when O'Connor was ready to take his next TV starring role, he was still looking to be more than a backwards guy from Queens. So when NBC president Fred Silverman wanted to turn the Oscar-winning movie In the Heat of the Night into a TV series, he tapped O'Connor to play Mississippi police chief Bill Gillespie. This required O'Connor to do a Southern accent — and the hope was that audiences would accept it.
When In the Heat of the Night premiered, though, not everybody was convinced by O'Connor's Southern accent.
One critic, Mark Dawidziak for The Akron Beacon Journal, actually seemed somewhat offended, asking, "Was the four-time Emmy winner just too big a name to pass up? Or is this another case of that old and idiotic Hollywood line of thinking: 'Anyone can do a Southern accent. A Southern accent is a Southern accent.'"
"I thought that Carroll O'Connor, believe it or not, was the best choice," Silverman said, but the critic did not accept the TV exec's defense of the top TV star, calling it an "unfortunate miscasting." The critic took qualms with the regionality of O'Connor's supposedly Mississippi speaking patterns.
"It's as ridiculous to substitute any Southern accent as it is to assume that there is only one New York accent," Dawidziak said. "Would Hollywood allow a Boston accent to pass for the Bronx or Jersey for Northeast Ohio?"
For the role, especially when you watch the series premiere, you can tell O'Connor is making an earnest attempt to nail the Mississippi accent, but if you listen closely, you can hear what the critic calls "Archie's distinctive New York tones slipping through."
In 1983, when O'Connor first confronted being typecast as Archie Bunker, he wasn't worried about critics or audiences accepting him as someone else, and the same was true in 1988.
O'Connor took the part of Gillespie after being patient, knowing the pressure was on to continue impressing. Instead of stressing, O'Connor simply accepted there would be more good ideas for characters to come along that would give him a chance to prove he was an actor who could do much more than Archie.
"You never know what you're going to do," he told The Press-Gazette when asked in 1983 what would be next for the TV star. "Whatever comes to mind, kid."
"I'm not one of those guys to make plans," O'Connor said, and you can almost picture him settled into a comfy chair, even though he'd just stood up from Archie’s recliner for the last time. "I just kind of sit around waiting for idea guys to come up with something."