Boston — Talk about your working-class heroes. At a time when the country was torn by war and the refusal to go to war, Archie Bunker came to symbolize for millions the workingman who had fought his country's battles and wasn't about to listen to ''the pinko excuses of a bunch o' hippies.''
His attitude certainly found a constituency. Hard hats of all ages and nationalities claimed the thick-headed bigot for their very own.
Although there was a time when the show's producer, Norman Lear, reportedly approached Mickey Rooney and Jackie Gleason (''And away we go, Edith there'') to play Archie, the face and bearing of Carroll O'Connor are now synonymous with the guy who was unabashedly prejudiced against any color, except the ''good old red, white, and blue, Meathead.'' O'Connor can hardly walk down the street without some guy leaning out of a truck and yelling, ''Hey, Archie, how you doin'?''
Today, O'Connor walks into a suite at the posh Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston, wearing what looks like a Savile Row suit and the air of a gentleman to the manner born . . . or at least bred. He is here, as actor and director, to bring the Broadway-bound play ''Brothers'' before Boston audiences.
As he sits down to engage a dozen reporters and a few furiously clicking cameras in conversation, the mannerisms and facial characteristics of Archie Bunker are all very much in evidence. It takes a while to figure out the essential difference between Carroll O'Connor and Archie Bunker.
The answer comes as O'Connor turns a press conference into a brunch in the parlor with old friends, talking easily about his schooling in Dublin (he took his younger brother Hugh over to apply at the Royal College of Surgeons and wound up staying himself to study and eventually become an actor); the secret of a 32-year marriage (you reach a point early on when you realize that life wouldn't be the same, or as good, without each other); and the beginnings of ''All in the Family.'' (''The press killed us, after we opened. . . . They all acted like the Daughters of the American Revolution.'')
He believes strongly that the series never changed anybody's ideas about America. ''All that is a lot of baloney. It had no influence at all.'' Nor does it bother him that, as Archie, he became the rallying cry for hard hats and arch-conservatives, some of whom staged mock ''Archie Bunker for President'' campaigns: ''I'm not going to let it bother me. I just put that guy up there as real as I could make him and never worried about the effect on people. Let the chips fall where they may.''
O'Connor is happy with where the chips fell. He thinks the show had a positive effect on people. He says he received a letter, early in the run, from a 19-year-old boy who hadn't spoken with his father for six months. The boy was trying desperately to get a job so that he could leave home. He happened to pass his father watching TV, and the father said, breaking their silence, ''Sit down and watch this, you might learn something.'' ''He told me that afterwards they started talking about the show, and went on talking. The letter ended, 'I'm glad , because I really love the guy.' ''
The series' secret ingredient, he argues, was its universality. ''Everything that is really great in theater or elsewhere is something we know well. Whether it's the Greek (tragedians) or Shakespeare. He says that is what attracted him to ''Brothers,'' a play about ''a domineering father who thinks he has raised his sons very well and finds out in a time of crisis that he hasn't. ''People will recognize a whole lot of things about (the father's character).''
If all goes well, people in the theater, who know Carroll O'Connor only as Archie Bunker, will finally recognize a well-rounded actor - one who has appeared in a dozen films, including the legendary ''Lonely Are the Brave,'' and such stage masterpieces as ''Ulysses in Nighttown.''
Sitting with him in this informal gathering of reporters, you recognize the essential ingredient that distinguishes him from Archie Bunker: Archie was terribly insecure, a man who built walls of ignorance and prejudice around everything he couldn't understand. Carroll O'Connor appears to be a fellow who tries to tear down walls and understand things.