Death in the Family

updated 04/10/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/10/1995 01:00AM

ACTOR CARROLL O'CONNOR KNEW that his 32-year-old son, Hugh, who had been fighting a drug habit for half his life, was deeply depressed. But nothing prepared him for the phone call he received from his only child on the evening of March 28. "He told me he was going to shoot himself," O'Connor, 70, said a few hours later. "I couldn't believe it." Knowing Hugh owned guns, O'Connor called police, who sent a SWAT team and a crisis negotiator to Hugh's home in the Pacific Palisades section of L.A. They were too late. "One shot in the head," O'Connor told reporters, his voice faltering, "sitting on the sofa."

A part-time actor who played Sgt. Lonnie Jamison to his father's starring role as Chief Bill Gillespie on CBS's In the Heat of the Night, Hugh ended his life on the third anniversary of his wedding to Angela Clayton, 26, a wardrobe assistant on Heat. (The marriage was in trouble; Angela and their 2-year-old son, Sean, had been living with Carroll and his wife, Nancy.) Though O'Connor did not disclose the contents of a note Hugh left behind, he said he blames his adopted son's death on his 16-year addiction to various drugs. "He had that monkey on his back," O'Connor said, "and he couldn't get rid of it."

Hugh was in prep school in the 1970s when his father became a national icon as Archie Bunker on All in the Family. Later he worked as a courier for Archie Bunker's Place during that show's final season. On the Heat set, even though cast members were aware of his drug problem, "he was always a professional," says Anne-Marie Johnson, who played the wife of costar Howard Rollins.

O'Connor tried to get Hugh off drugs. His son, he told reporters, had been to three rehab centers over the years. Those efforts failed, and hours after his son's death, O'Connor's rage was directed at a man he named as his son's drug dealer. "He's as responsible for Hugh's death as anybody on earth," O'Connor said. His only solace may have been that hours later, in an arrest not linked to the suicide, police apprehended that man, Harry Thomas Perzigian, 39, and charged him with possession of a controlled substance.

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