Actor Carroll O'Connor stands in front of a battery of television cameras, like the ones that had made him a TV legend. He stares into the lights without a script, blinks and chokes back tears. This time, the lines are all too terribly real.
In front of a house in Pacific Palisades, where Hugh Edward O'Connor had killed himself just a few hours before, the TV star struggles to explain how his only child could not escape the torment of cocaine. And how, he believes, a mysterious pusher named "Harry" helped drive Hugh to put a bullet in his head.
"On and off, he has fought it very gamely, very courageously," O'Connor says of his son's addiction. "He went to three different drug rehabilitation places, and could not face going into another one for perhaps six months or a year."
Less than 12 hours after the death of Hugh O'Connor, and acting on information provided by his father, police raided the home of Harry Perzigian on Wednesday and arrested the Brentwood man on suspicion of possessing cocaine for sale. They confiscated drugs, paraphernalia and cash but said they could not prove that Perzigian, 39, had sold drugs to O'Connor and that there is no evidence to connect him to the suicide.
But to Carroll O'Connor, the connection was clear.
"These dealers, they kill people. They make a living giving people the means to kill themselves. He has been as responsible for Hugh's death as anyone on Earth," he said of Perzigian.
"Harry," O'Connor concluded resolutely, "I'm looking to see you someday."
As television's Archie Bunker, the working class stiff whose foibles and prejudices he made so real, O'Connor often had provided the fodder for national debate. With his impromptu appearance Tuesday, he had again given a public face to issues often left to fester in private. His pain spoke to a scourge that has confronted thousands of nameless families.
Even in the final week before his son's death, the anguished father had made a final attempt to cut off the supply of drugs. Last Thursday, he drove to the West Los Angeles police station to report that Perzigian had come, more than once, to Hugh O'Connor's home to sell cocaine.
"As a parent you feel, 'I can fix this, I can change it, I can control my son or daughter to the point where I can make his life turn around and he'll be OK,' " said Ronnie M. a spokeswoman for Families Anonymous, a support group for the families of addicts. "It's absolutely wrong. We're as powerless over their lives as they are powerless over their use of a chemical."
By the time Hugh O'Connor telephoned his father Tuesday afternoon, it was to say that he could not stand another attempt to beat his addiction. He would shoot himself instead. O'Connor said that he frantically called his son back several times but got no answer, then alerted police.
When officers forced their way into the home just after sunset, they found the younger O'Connor dead of a gunshot wound to the head. By his side lay a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol and a short suicide note.
"My son Hugh, a beautiful boy, and a good actor . . . has been an addict to various drugs and substances for about 16 years," O'Connor told reporters. "Anyone would have been fond of Hugh. He was good-looking, straightforward; he had a good sense of humor. (But) he had a monkey on his back, and he couldn't get rid of it."
At least outwardly, the younger O'Connor seemed to lead the charmed life of a privileged Hollywood son. He was born in Rome, where he was adopted by Nancy and Carroll O'Connor while the actor was on location filming "Cleopatra." The dark, thin young man was a striking contrast to his father, an Irishman and former merchant marine who grew up in New York.
Reared in Los Angeles, O'Connor attended Beverly Hills Preparatory School before working as a courier on his father's television show, "Archie Bunker's Place," a spinoff of "All in the Family." He had a stint as a production assistant at public television KCET in Los Angeles, then studied acting before moving to New York, where he worked as an assistant stage manager on Broadway.
He found had steady work in television, particularly as the regular character Detective Lonnie Jamison on his father's long-running television drama, "In the Heat of the Night." He was with the show from its inception in 1989.
The younger O'Connor lived in a picturesque cottage with red-tiled roof, along with his wife of three years and their toddler son. When the boy was born, O'Connor was "thrilled to be a papa and to have a little boy," said neighbor Audrey Ross. O'Connor would have turned 33 next week. His third wedding anniversary had arrived on the day he died.
But those close to him said that the outward signs of stability belied the demon he fought since age 16.
Angela Clayton O'Connor had told her father-in-law that she was tormented by the visits to her home by the alleged drug dealer. Just hours after the suicide, Carroll O'Connor threatened to take news crews with him to confront Perzigian at his apartment.
But he never had a chance to follow through. Just before noon Wednesday, detectives knocked on Perzigian's door and were invited in, said Lt. Bernie Larralde, of the Los Angeles Police Department's narcotics unit. Investigators found an ounce of cocaine on a coffee table, $1,700 in large bills and drug paraphernalia, Larralde said. Police said they heard a toilet flush just before they were let into the condominium, and they suspect that Perzigian, who was released on $15,000 bail, had flushed drugs down the toilet.
The suicide was not the first time the elder O'Connor's life has been darkened by drug addiction. His "Heat of the Night" co-star, Howard Rollins, was charged several times in drug- and alcohol-related cases.
On Tuesday, the 71-year-old O'Connor spoke forcefully about the toll drugs had taken on those close to him. "Drugs spoil a lot of things," he said. "You can't have sincere communications with a loved one who's a drunk or a doper. We all know what we have to do. We have to get rid of this menace to our country."
The O'Connor family's tragic story is told time and again, only usually be those who do not enjoy the limelight, said representatives of Families Anonymous, the Culver City-based support group for the parents and partners of drug and alcohol addicts.
"We call it a family illness because everyone in the family is affected by the abuse of drugs from alcohol to heroin," said Ronnie M., whose group does not identify members by their full names.
O'Connor's family asked that donations in their son's name be made to the National Council on Alcoholism and the Clare Foundation, a Santa Monica detoxification center.
Times staff writers Scott Shibuya Brown, Jack Cheevers and Paul Feldman contributed to this story.