Originally created 06/29/01

Ramblin' Rhodes: Georgian knew private side of 'Archie Bunker'



Carroll O'Connor, who died June 21 of a heart attack, is remembered fondly by bluegrass musician and actor Randall Franks.

Mr. Franks, who lives near Tunnel Hill, Ga., played police officer Randy Goode on Mr. O'Connor's TV series In the Heat of the Night, filmed in the small Georgia town of Covington between 1988 and 1994.

"He came along in my life when I had lost my father," Mr. Franks said in a telephone interview. "He filled the role somewhat of a surrogate father. He was a good role model. He affected a lot of people's lives, both with what he did on-camera and what he did to help others in his personal life."

That may sound like a strange remark for people who remember Mr. O'Connor from his famous role as ultraconservative Archie Bunker in the TV series All in the Family, but it's not strange to those who know the real life of the far more liberal actor.

Mr. O'Connor may have been one of the most familiar faces on television, but he wasn't known for a star ego.

"At least not with me," Mr. Franks said. "He was a true star and deserved all the respect that went along with that, but he also was always gracious and down to earth."

Mr. O'Connor clearly enjoyed the many years he spent in Covington, about 100 miles west of Augusta off Interstate 20.

"My impression was that he considered Georgia as his second home," Mr. Franks said. "He spent many months over those six years in the area. It was a regular sight to see him shopping in a local grocery store, at a gas station filling up his Explorer or visiting with his neighbors on their front lawns in the subdivision where he had a condominium."

Mr. Franks also knew Mr. O'Connor's drug-addicted son, Hugh, who portrayed a policeman on the TV series. Hugh O'Connor was 32 when he shot himself to death in 1995.

"I think, like any parent, he never got over the death of his child," Mr. Franks said. "I think he did all he could to place his grieving into ... encouraging other parents to take an interest in their children's lives and do their best to intervene if they see their children becoming involved with drugs."

Acting is a side career for Mr. Franks, who has played and sung with several bluegrass groups.

He once switched roles with Mr. O'Connor, more or less, and produced the compact disc Christmas Time's A'Comin', featuring the Heat of the Night cast singing Christmas carols.

"When Carroll became the show's creative director, he also became my boss as well as fellow actor," Mr. Franks said. "So getting the opportunity to produce and direct his recording sessions for the Christmas album was a unique twist. ... He didn't record many songs in his life; just a few.

"The rest of the cast was trying to get him to cut something popular like White Christmas, but he wanted to do something different and decided on the French Christmas carol Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella. He not only wanted to sing it in English, but also in French."

Mr. Franks found the French words in the library at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and he enlisted his friend Grand Ole Opry star Jesse McReynolds of Jim & Jesse to play mandolin on Mr. O'Connor's recording.

"It was a wonderful thing to be a part of that," Mr. Franks said.

"One of the last things we talked about was that he wanted to do an album singing American waltzes. I compiled a tape of various waltzes, including Bill Monroe doing his Kentucky Waltz, and some Louvin Brothers songs. Nothing came of it, but it would have been another neat project to be involved in with him."

Don Rhodes has written about country music for 30 years. He can be reached at (706) 823-3214 or at ramblin@morris.com.