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O’Connor uses slander trial to renew message about drugs

July 23, 1997 GMT

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Two years after the drug-induced suicide of his son, ``All in the Family″ star Carroll O’Connor has assumed a real-life role as an anti-drug crusader. Some say it has become his obsession.

TV’s Archie Bunker is defending himself this month against a slander lawsuit filed by Harry Perzigian, the songwriter O’Connor publicly blamed for his son’s death. Perzigian wants $10 million.

The 72-year-old actor has been able to turn the courtroom into a new stage for his campaign against drugs and drug pushers.

``I invited him to sue me. We can’t let this drop,″ O’Connor said.

On Tuesday, O’Connor wept as he told jurors his first thought on learning of his son’s suicide was: ``At last it’s happened _ everything I’ve ever been afraid of.″

O’Connor said he didn’t blame others who may have aided Hugh O’Connor in obtaining drugs.

``They came to me and apologized and said they were very sorry. All his best friends came to see me except one _ I never saw that best friend that I see in court,″ he said, pointing to Perzigian.

Both sides rested their cases and final arguments were scheduled for Wednesday.

O’Connor has traveled the country lobbying for laws designed to hurt those he believes were his son’s enemies _ drug dealers who provided him with cocaine.

He has taken to the airwaves with public service messages warning other parents against the poison that drove his son to paranoia, despair and ultimately to suicide on the young man’s third wedding anniversary.

In Florida, where he lobbied heavily, the Hugh O’Connor Memorial Act now gives individuals and the state the right to sue drug dealers for damages. In New York and California, similar laws engineered by O’Connor allow seizure of drug dealers’ assets. The movement is spreading across the country.

For O’Connor, his wife, Nancy, and his daughter-in-law, Angela, the slander trial is yet another pulpit. They have spent the past week reliving Hugh O’Connor’s slide into drug addiction and their own futile efforts to save him.

O’Connor’s snow white hair and shuffling gait are reminders that he is at an age when some other fathers might be deep into retirement. He continues to work as an actor between his anti-drug appearances.

Recently he played Helen Hunt’s father on ``Mad About You.″ Next month he will travel to Dallas to star with George C. Scott in a play that O’Connor wrote about the labor movement, titled ``Another Labor Day.″

Meanwhile, he trudges to court every day, defending statements he made in the wake of his son’s death, when he denounced Perzigian as a ``sleazeball″ and ``a partner in murder.″

It was ``a figure of speech,″ O’Connor testified. ``There was no murder. Hugh was a suicide.″ But he doesn’t regret his words.

O’Connor’s blue eyes flash in anger when he speaks of the 41-year-old Perzigian, who admits he shared cocaine with Hugh O’Connor over a number of years but denies he sold drugs for profit or had any role in the man’s death.

``They were two buddies doing dope,″ says Perzigian’s lawyer, Allan Sigel. ``That’s a far cry from murder.″

After Hugh O’Connor committed suicide on March 28, 1995, Carroll O’Connor was relentless in his criticism of Perzigian.

``These dealers, they kill people,″ he tearfully told reporters outside his son’s home.

Perzigian was convicted in January 1996 of possessing cocaine for personal use and furnishing cocaine to Hugh O’Connor. He said he wants to retrieve his good name and prove he did not kill his friend.

Perzigian may have underestimated his adversary. The ruddy-faced actor familiar to millions from his roles in ``All in the Family″ and ``In the Heat of the Night″ turned the trial into a moving tableaux of his family’s grief.

He said he thought all America would understand why he accused Perzigian.

``I got what I wanted,″ he told reporters outside court. ``Here he is before the court and before you and the world.″