Images: In the Heat of the Night / DC Comics
Carroll O'Connor nearly had an entirely different television career. He was close to landing two iconic roles in the 1960s — the Skipper on Gilligan's Island and Dr. Smith on Lost in Space. Had either happened, he might have been typecast in sitcoms or sci-fi. He might have never become Archie Bunker.
Well, that now is the stuff of alternate universes and "What if…?" Of course, the public best knows O'Connor for playing the cantankerous Archie Bunker on All in the Family. The following decade, the veteran actor changed gears entirely, starring as the progressive police chief on In the Heat of the Night.
But O'Connor did, in some small, secret way, turn up in an unlikely piece of genre entertainment. His likeness inspired a Batman villain.
Rupert Thorne will never have the name recognition of the Penguin or the Joker, but over the last four decades, the Gotham politician and crime boss has been a significant thorn in the side of the Dark Knight. The mobster might have been even bigger. The original script for the 1989 blockbuster Batman movie featured Thorne in a significant role. The character was rewritten, renamed and cast with Jack Palance.
Thorne popped up several times on Batman: The Animated Series as a mobster. This version was voiced by John Vernon, who happened to once act alongside Carol O'Connor on In the Heat of the Night.
But back to the origin story.
In 1976, All in the Family was the No. 1 show in America. At the time, writer Steve Englehart and artist Walter Simonson were working on Detective Comics. In the May 1976 issue, No. 469, the creative team introduced Thorne as a dirty city councilman trying to blackmail Doctor Phosphorus (a sort of glowing skeleton of a man) into turning Gotham against Batman. Simonson based the character's appearance on Carol O'Connor. He likely had All in the Family on the tube while penciling away at his drafting table.
It's too bad time machines are the stuff of comics. Because O'Connor would have been great as a baddie on Batman in 1966.