Posted on | July 2, 2012 | No Comments
This started off as a much longer, much better profile of O’Neill but got cut down to size for space reasons (or so they said). It’s not nearly as good but it does give you a taste of a real Hollywood tough guy.
SITTING ATOP THE super-duper-deluxe Peninsula in Beverly Hills, not far from the swimming pool, Ed O’Neill is enjoying a tall glass of iced tea, while lots of overstuffed bikinis flutter by. At 66, he’s a big, kind of funny-looking guy of Irish extraction, with a blobby nose and a set of messed-up teeth and a half-inch-long impression on his upper lip where he once took an angle iron to the face. Here’s how it’s gone for him so far: wildly good.
Back in 1997, O’Neill was coming off Married… With Children after 11 seasons and wondering if he’d ever get another job, given how unforgettable a shoe-selling, sex-avoiding, smirky sad sack he’d made his Al Bundy. Two months ago, he was nominated for an Emmy, his second, for his portrayal of Jay Pritchett, the exasperated, had-it-up-to-here-but-not-really patriarch of Modern Family, now entering its fourth season and more popular than ever.
Those intervening years, O’Neill says, in no way turned him into a bitter, aging hack searching for a break that would never come. Instead, he took what TV work was offered – some West Wing episodes, Joe Friday on LA. Dragnet – and kept his chin up whenever Al Bundy would rise from the dead to undermine a job. The biggest instance of that occurred in 2001, when writer David Milch crafted Deadwood’s Al Swearengen expressly for O’Neill. “You’re going to be my Swearengen,” Milch told him. “It’s done. You’re gonna be fucking great.” Only, Milch had yet to mention any of this to HBO, which nixed O’Neill instantly.
“I wasn’t angry – I was disappointed,” O’Neill says. “See, this is a rejection business, and if you take things to heart, you will sink like a fucking stone.”
As it happens, Modern Family was nearly a part of that business, too. “After I read the pilot,” O’Neill says, “all I could think was, ‘This is a hit!’ But the offer went to Craig T. Nelson. Then my manager tells me that Nelson asked for too much money. I said, ‘Make the deal.'” He smiles. “Craig T, I heard, wanted to fire every fucking body that was connected to him when the show started doing what it’s doing.”
He frowns. The angle-iron scar on his lip shows a bead of perspiration. The downside to the success of Modern Family is that he has to go to awards shows. “I try never to go to Hollywood,” he says, snapping forward. “I don’t like anything about it. My manager told me I got that Hollywood Walk of Fame gold star and I gotta go do it. I don’t want to be on the street in Hollywood. But my daughters” – he has two, Sofia, 13, and Claire, 6 – “were like, ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ So of course, I had to.” O’Neill sits there, happy in the California shade, knowing full well that, despite such hardships, his life could have turned out much, much worse.
EVEN AT MIDNIGHT, THE SKIES glowed orange from the blast furnaces in Youngstown’s steel mills. This was in the Sixties, the heyday of American industry. O’Neill says his father was “basically a laborer” in the mills. Ed was the oldest of five. Growing up, what he did mostly was play football and fight. “In the fourth grade, I hated the violent nature of fighting,” he says. “But sometime around the eighth grade, I started to get good at it, and from there until I was 24,I enjoyed it a lot. I don’t know why, but I got to like the fight itself, the violence of it. That’s the kind of football I played, too – hitting guys, the harder the better.”
His face and voice both turn dark as dirt. “I didn’t like coaches, either,” he continues. “Like, with coaches on the opposing team, if I tackled somebody out of bounds and the coach said, ‘Late hit!’ or whatever, I would turn around and say, ‘Suck my fucking dick, you asshole. What are you, a fag?’ And they would go crazy, because they didn’t know how to handle it.” He smiles at the memory. “It just made me happy.”
After graduating from Youngstown State, he was drafted by the Steelers, only to get cut in training camp. O’Neill decided he was done with football – though not with fighting, mainly at seedy Youngstown joints like Balchik’s Lounge and the Spot Tavern. “I was drinking too much and fighting almost every night. I liked speed, too. Man, I liked speed.” His best friends from grade school, who had gone on to become wiseguys, approached him about working for the Mob. “They said, ‘You’re a tough guy, we trust you, we could find some things for you to do, light work, collecting money.’ But I knew how that was going to end. It was going to end badly.” O’Neill moved to New York, six weeks later got his first acting gig, and 10 years later moved to L.A. to become Al Bundy.
But back to fighting: The last time he was in a serious one was 17 years ago, at a Directors Guild preview of a movie that featured his wife, Catherine. She had invited him to the event even though they were separated at the time, and the movie’s writer-producer, who had been hitting on her, wasn’t happy about it. O’Neill could see the guy punching his finger at her and yelling, “I don’t give a fuck who he is, he’s not seeing this with you!”
O’Neill grins. “Well, you can imagine the effect that would have on someone like me. My vision changed. Things got red. I went over and stepped in front of her. The guy’s talking to her, not looking at me, which is a little street deal, like, You’re not here.’ I said, ‘That’s my wife you’re talking to, fucking asshole.’ He said, ‘I don’t give a fuck who it is.'” O’Neill kind of chuckles. “And I hit him. I hit him with a left hook, which is a great shot, because they never see it coming. He went right to the hospital and lawyered up. Later, he called me. He said, You hit me, man. Why the fuck did you hit me?’ I said, ‘Where the fuck did you grow up where you could say something like that to someone’s wife and not get hit?'”
After that, at the behest of his pal, the director John Milius, O’Neill started to take Brazilian jujitsu lessons from the famous Gracie brothers, to learn how to fight without getting sued for hurting the other guy. It took him 17 years, but he is now a black belt. “He’s the nicest person in the world and smart as a whip,” says Milius. “But really, he is the badass of us all.”
O’Neill slides into his Ray-Bans and slurps down the rest of his iced tea. “Of course, I still get called Al a lot,” he says. “I was someplace just yesterday and someone said, ‘Al!’ I look like the guy. What am I gonna do? Also, think about it. I came from Youngstown, worked in steel mills, thought about joining organized crime. I’ve always considered myself one of the luckiest actors ever. And I am getting called Jay more and more.”
“I got to like fighting itself – the violence of it,” says Ed O’Neill.