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Despite court win, O'Connor 'can't forget' son's death

Carroll O'Connor

Jury: Actor didn't slander son's drug supplier

July 25, 1997
Web posted at: 11:14 p.m. EDT (0314 GMT)

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Despite winning a slander lawsuit Friday brought by the man he holds responsible for his son's suicide, veteran actor Carroll O'Connor says he will never be able to put his son's death completely behind him.

"I can't forget it. There isn't a day that I don't think of him and want him back and miss him, and I'll feel that way until I'm not here any more," O'Connor said Friday night on CNN's "Larry King Live."

Carroll O'Connor talks to Larry King about the jury's verdict
icon 14 min. VXtreme streaming video

On Friday, a Los Angeles jury sided with O'Connor in the suit brought by Harry Perzigian, who claimed he was defamed by statements O'Connor made after the death of his son Hugh in March 1995. The elder O'Connor had alleged that Perzigian was his son's drug supplier.

After the verdict, Perzigian blamed the power of O'Connor's celebrity for the jury's decision. In closing arguments, Perzigian's lawyer, Allan Sigel, accused O'Connor of using his celebrity to persecute "a nobody" -- a charge the actor told Larry King that he rejects.

"His lawyer's a very foolish man for taking this case in the first place, for encouraging him to go on," O'Connor said. "A good, wise lawyer would have said to him, the day he walked into the office, 'Harry, we haven't got a chance. Do yourself a favor. Keep your mouth shut.'"

Perzigian admitted he had supplied drugs to the younger O'Connor, who had waged a long battle against drug and alcohol abuse before taking his life. Perzigian also served a brief jail sentence for supplying Hugh O'Connor with cocaine.

But he has denied the allegation that he was a drug dealer, describing himself as a friend who occasionally shared drugs with Hugh O'Connor. He also denied supplying the younger O'Connor with drugs on the night he killed himself.

After his son's death, O'Connor, known for his roles on the television shows "All in the Family" and "In The Heat of the Night," went on a public offensive against Perzigian. He accused him of being "a partner in murder" and a "sleazeball." He gave out his address and showed his photo on TV.

And in a previous appearance on "Larry King Live," O'Connor said of Perzigian, "I want to hurt him in the worst way," a statement that was brought up at the slander trial.

O'Connor: 'I knew a jury would back me up'

But after deliberating for six hours over two days, the six men and six women on the jury sided with O'Connor on every question presented to them. In a news conference, they said that they, too, believe Perzigian bears some responsibility for Hugh O'Connor's death.


They were clearly unsympathetic to Perzigian's claims that Carroll O'Connor had behaved outrageously, and had maliciously defamed him with his statements to the media.

"A drug dealer's a drug dealer," said one woman juror.

An emotional O'Connor walked in on the jurors' news conference Friday afternoon to thank them.

"You did a great job. It cost me a bundle, but I was willing to spend the dough," a tearful O'Connor told them. "I knew a jury wasn't going to say I was wrong. I knew a jury would back me up, and you did."

Speaking to reporters after the verdict, O'Connor said, "The message that they sent was that, as ordinary people, they probably would have done and said the same things I said."

Carroll O' Connor and his family comment on the jury's verdict
icon 15 min., 9 sec. VXtreme streaming video

Far from being apologetic for his harsh remarks about Perzigian, O'Connor, who had dared Perzigian to sue him, turned the trial into a pulpit for his message against the evil of drugs.

"I goaded him to sue me on the night my son killed himself, and he responded exactly as I thought he would not. I never thought he'd do it," O'Connor said. "I'm tickled that he [sued], because it has brought this kind of attention -- not just to Harry but to the whole problem of pushers in the streets and in the neighborhoods,"icon (969K/50 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

An angry Perzigian said, "It shows L.A. loves celebrities. You're not going to get a fair shake in L.A. if you sue a celebrity."icon (468K/21 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

But he said he was still glad he filed the lawsuit: "I've exposed Carroll O'Connor as the hateful, vengeful person he is."

O'Connor vows to continue anti-drug campaign

Since his son's death, O'Connor has become a public advocate against drug abuse, and helped campaign for a California law that allows family members of dead addicts to sue their drug dealers for monetary damages.

Several other states have passed similar laws, known as "Hugh O'Connor laws," and Carroll O'Connor told King he intends to continue his fight.

"Any other state that needs me, I'll speak up," he said.

But after his court victory Friday, O'Connor said he did not plan to continue his public campaign against Perzigian.

"I'm not going to persecute Harry, even though my wife and I are persecuted daily by the pain of the loss of our boy," O'Connor said.

"You people will handle Harry and the public will handle Harry and the people on the street will handle Harry when they see him. And he's going to have to pay for what he did, and I'm not sorry he's going to have to pay for it."

But he did offer Perzigian some advice, noting that as a result of the trial, the police and Internal Revenue Service were going to be alert to his activities.

"Harry, pay your taxes and behave yourself. That means get a good, honest job," O'Connor said. "You better move through this world with great care."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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