Class of 1957
John J. O’Connor was a television critic at The New York Times for more than 25 years, covering the medium when nascent cable stations were just beginning to offer serious competition to the three established networks. He was with The Times from 1971 until retiring in 1997.
O’Connor, who had always nurtured the idea of being a critic, was a man with eclectic tastes. He would approach a show like “The Simpsons” with the same seriousness of purpose that he would bring to “Masterpiece Theater.” In 1990, he compared the Simpsons with another of television’s fictional families, concluding that Homer, Marge and the gang were more in touch with life’s harsh realities than the folks on “The Cosby Show.“ After seeing a 1994 television special called “Jackson Family Honors,” starring Michael Jackson — a program about a real family, not a make-believe one — he said it “scored a 10 on the bizarre meter.”
Like many TV viewers of that era, he regularly followed the characters in “Dallas,” but eventually his patience seemed to wear thin. In a 1980 piece on the long-awaited episode that revealed “who shot J.R.,” he wrote: “For the last few weeks, ‘Dallas’ episodes have been carefully creating a situation in which just about every major character becomes a prime suspect. Tonight, starting at 10, all will be revealed, doubtlessly to the relief of a nation on tenterhooks. Some among us may wonder why the despicable J.R. wasn’t shot sooner and more accurately. In fact, why hasn’t somebody shot ‘Dallas’?”
He reviewed all kinds of television programs, from light fare to more serious efforts, but often provided a broader background to what he was seeing. He wrote that the David Frost series of paid interviews with former president Richard M. Nixon in 1977 had “extraordinary impact,” but added that it raised “serious questions about the contemporary crafts of marketing and communication.” He praised “Upstairs, Downstairs,” the 1974 British series on “Masterpiece Theater,” as “marvelous television,” but also said it underscored “the paucity of imagination on American television series.”
In addition to writing reviews of television programs, O’Connor frequently contributed essays to the Sunday Arts & Leisure section. Toward the end of his years at The Times, during which he write more than 3,100 bylined pieces, he shared duties with Walter Goodman. Goodman wrote about documentaries and news programs and O’Connor reviewed fictional shows.
O’Connor was born in the Bronx on July 10, 1933, and attended Cardinal Hayes High School before enrolling at City College. After graduating with his bachelor’s degree, he went to Yale University and left with a master’s. He joined The Wall Street Journal in 1959 as a copy editor and by the time he left, he had become the newspaper’s arts editor and the theater and dance critic.
When he moved to The Times in 1971, mini-series were just coming into their own and O’Connor recognized their importance. He found “Rich Man, Poor Man,” a 1976 series, “somewhat short of great art,” and said that even though “Roots” in 1977 had problems with stereotypes and historical accuracy, it marked “a significant step forward” in the context of pop entertainment.
|The Simpsons: Life’s hars|
About his own job, he said a reviewer should be concerned about the quality of a program, not its potential popularity. Between the two, he wrote, “no correlation has yet been convincingly established.”
Amid the typical frenetic chatter of pre-computer newsrooms, O’Connor was an oasis of calm, turning out copy that was crisp, to the point and on time. Always willing to lend a hand with alumni events, he happily took part in a discussion about television at one of the Communications Alumni Group’s annual dinners. It was one of the CAG’s liveliest and best-attended events.
O’Connor died on Nov. 13, 2009. He was 76.