The Very Modern Ed O’Neill

Irish-American TV star Ed O'Neill
Irish-American TV star Ed O'Neill

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
June / July 2014

It’s hard to put a finger on why  the sitcom Modern Family is so successful. It seems set to play to stereotypes – older man with trophy wife; gay male couple with their adopted Asian child –  but the secret of the show’s success may lie in the acting. It’s a well cast ensemble, all of whom have perfect comic timing. The characters are believable and seem familiar. The show is just plain fun. And most of the fun revolves around patriarch Jay Pritchett, played by Ed O’Neill.

This is Ed O’Neill’s second run on a successful TV sitcom. His Al Bundy on Married With Children ran for 11 seasons. (O’Neill admits that he modeled the Bundy character on his uncles who were great storytellers and “some of the funniest guys I met in my life.”)

If Married with Children was the ’90s answer to the ’70s Archie Bunker’s All in the Family, which used the sitcom format to explore bigotry and racial stereotypes, Modern Family is an evolution of that theme and challenges the status quo by pushing the envelope on what makes a family – one laugh at a time.

It’s hard to imagine that such a gifted actor almost never came to be. During his high school and college years, O’Neill, who stands 6 ft., 1 in., 230 lbs., played football, and was later signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers as a defensive lineman. O’Neill says he didn’t have a natural talent for football but he made himself into a player. It didn’t make him happy though, and so when the Steelers dropped him because he was “undisciplined and unruly,” he decided to give acting a go.

Ever since a nun in high school had put him in an oratorical competitive program, O’Neill had a hankering to perform. He enrolled in Youngstown State University to study arts and theater, and joined the Youngstown Playhouse, one of the country’s oldest and most respected community theaters. He supported himself taking odd jobs and teaching social studies to sixth graders. At age 30, he determined to make a go of it in New York. He found a job in a popular restaurant and bar, O’Neal’s Balloon near Lincoln Center, shared an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen with six other actors, and took acting classes and every bit part – off-off-Broadway – that came his way. He finally caught a break when he was asked to understudy in a play called Knockout. Two weeks before opening night, the lead left the production to do film work and O’Neill, who had trained for the part as if it was always going to be his, went on.

The play didn’t get very good reviews but O’Neill did. His portrayal of Paddy Klonski, a psychotic boxer, was so realistic that the audience booed him even as they gave him a standing ovation.

More theater work followed, and later television and movie roles. In 1980, he played Detective Schreiber alongside Al Pacino in the controversial film Cruising. His star was on the rise.

Soon after moving to New York, O’Neill met actress Catherine Rusoff whom he married in 1986. Initially, he was going to turn down the role of Al Bundy in Married with Children, but Catherine read the script and laughed, and that made him take another look. The couple moved to Hollywood in 1987 for the show and they still live there.

On the phone from his home in L.A., O’Neill talks about his recent trip to Ireland; his love of James Joyce and W.B. Yeats; and his work on Modern Family. But the main thrust of our chat is about growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, where he was born on April 12, 1946, the first of five children, and his Irish relatives.

He’s quite the raconteur, but do not expect to see Ed O’Neill do stand-up any time soon. “It’s a very hard thing to do,” he says. But if he were to do it, he would “tell stories.” He has lots of them, and he tells them well.

 

Youngstown, Ohio

It was a steel mill town. It was the center of the whole universe when it came to steel mills.

There were three major companies – Sheet and Tube, Trust Con Steel, and U.S. Steel. My paternal grandfather worked in the mill all his life. My father worked in the mill almost his whole life. I worked in the mill while I was going to college in the summers. And then for one stretch, I quit school and worked one year. It was the steel mills that ran the economy there. They never shut down; they ran for 24/7.

Along with that, we had organized crime. It started out with mafia who came in from Buffalo and Detroit and were settling around Youngstown. They took advantage of the steel mill guys. Opened after-hours clubs, bars, gambling, sold swag, cigarettes and suits. Go in the back of the bar and try on a suit. They introduced what we called it “the bug.” You would pick three numbers at random and the last three digits from the stock exchange had to match at the end of the day. It was a huge moneymaker, because almost everyone participated. You could put a buck down, get a bug slip and later you check to see if you won.

At the end of the day they had a bagman who would come in and collect all the money for that day and take it to a place to count it. They made huge amounts of money. Cleveland had one mafia group and Pittsburgh had the other. Youngstown was sandwiched between the two. There were two warring factions of mafiosi: the Pittsburgh group and Cleveland group. They ended up killing each other over the numbers game. They were always trying to crowd out the other guys. They were killing each other, mostly by car bombs. That was their first choice, to put a bomb under the hood of your car and when you started it would blow up. This was known as the “Youngstown Tune Up,” sort of a gallows humor. No one was ever prosecuted for this. And the gangsters, everyone knew who they were but no one did anything about it because everyone was corrupt –  the mayor, police department prosecutors, and judges. They liked to get control of the prosecutor and get a couple of judges and cops, that’s all they needed.

When I was growing up there, in the ’50s and ’60s, there were two moralities. There was Catholic school and the nuns, and then there was the other morality that was going on all around us. For example, you would never pay for a parking ticket. If you got one, you handed it to some guy. He took care of it. You bought him a drink.

 

The Irish Relatives

When I was growing up, I thought there were a lot more Irish in Youngstown than there were.  The Irish came over in the 1850s following the Famine. My mother was a Quinlan, and my father, of course, O’Neill.

A lot of Irish had trades and established businesses in the area, like heating companies, oil companies. My grandfather Quinlan was a businessman. Most of the immigrants in Youngstown were Italian, Croatian, a lot from Eastern Europe. I thought the steel mills were run by Irish, but it wasn’t really true. There were Irish but not as many as I thought. Some of them were in pretty good positions in the mills. A first helper or melter were guys who ran the open-hearth floors. These guys were in positions of power.

My grandfather Joseph, my father’s father, was sort of a night watchman. Very quiet, almost painfully shy. I never really got to know him. Unfortunately, by the time I was old enough to talk to him, he was suffering from depression. If you had high blood pressure at the time, they give you medicine that caused depression. And he was already depressed enough and it basically drove him down and he killed himself. He cut his wrists.

It was my 12th birthday. I had the measles and it was April and it was raining. We lived on the north side and my grandparents on the south side. My father got a phone call, and it was my grandmother saying your father is bleeding. My father gets over there, runs up a flight of stairs and his father is laying there with a sheet over him and he is bleeding.

He grabs him, sheet and all, and rushes him down the stairs, and down the steps to the car, and drives him to the  emergency room, and is waiting and the doctor comes out and says he’s dead. That’s all he said. My father assumed he had a stroke or something. He didn’t know it was suicide.  I was in my 20s and having a drink with my father when he told me about it.

The Catholic funeral home was Irish, McVanes. John McVane, on the first night of the showing, took my father aside and said he wanted to show him something. He pulled my grandfather’s sleeves up and showed him his wrists. Suicide was something to be ashamed of. If you were Catholic you weren’t able to be buried in a Catholic church, so they kept it quiet.

My grandmother, Peggy O’Neill, her maiden name was Naughton, lived with us for many years after that. I also remember the Quinlans, my mother’s parents. We called them Ma and Pap. Ma was a scary old lady. Not attractive, wore black. Pap was a friendly man. I think he used to be a cop. When he died he was old. We had to go to the house and it smelled like old people and we hated to go. It was dark because they wanted to save electricity. When we were there my aunt and uncle would say there is a turtle in here and it’s missing, just to get rid of us. I remember them talking on the day of Pap’s funeral. All the men were drinking and the women were saying we knew this was coming because so and so saw the banshee on the roof of the house next door. So I go in to say to my father “what’s a banshee?” and he starts laughing.

“Where’d ya hear that?”

“From Aunt Nora. She said the banshee comes from Ireland and he was sitting on the roof and he had a big sickle and he was coming for Great Grandpa.”

“Well then,” he said, “he came a hell of a long way,” and the men all laughed.

My grandfather was Leonard Quinlan. My brother’s name is Tim and no one knew why he was called that. Years later I found out my grandfather’s brother was Tim and he came from Ireland. We tried years ago to look up where he came from, but weren’t successful.

Cormac Naughton, Peggy’s father, we still have his travel card. He had a handle-bar mustache and was a good-looking guy. It says Cork on his travel card and my dad would say for years he was from Cork. Well, later I said, “Dad, they shipped out of Cork. He didn’t live in Cork so we don’t know where he’s from.”

The show Who Do You Think You Are? want to do research on me and they have a lot of resources, so maybe we will find out more. The girl who called me about the show asked if I was related to Eugene O’Neill and I said I didn’t know, but I could be, on either my mother’s or father’s side. My mother was a Quinlan and so was Eugene O’Neill’s mother.

 

All in a Name

I was the firstborn and my grandfather Quinlan wanted me named after him and my dad went crazy. He didn’t really get along with him. My grandfather thought when my father married my mother that she married down. So my father said that’s not going to happen, he’s going to be named after me. They compromised (he had money and we lived in his house), and gave my grandfather’s name ‘Leonard’ as my middle name. When the second boy was born, they named him Timothy, after my grandfather’s brother. When my third brother was born they named him Leonard, a name my brother hated his whole life.

My father, he was a strong guy, a handsome guy and a hard worker. I don’t believe he ever missed a day of work in his life. He liked to drink beer, he wasn’t a drunk, but he didn’t go to the bars because he couldn’t afford it. There was always a struggle for money. When they fought it was always over money, and they fought often. They split up when I  was 25, my father took it very hard as a betrayal. When he was born in 1921, he was a mistake, the third of three in the Depression. They didn’t even go to his high school graduation.

He was so loyal to us children, to me and my brothers and sisters. He loved football. I was a good football player, but I was never going to be a great pro-player. I don’t think I was naturally big enough or had what you needed to be a good football player. Then football just sort of ended. I didn’t even like it anymore. I never liked the coaches and so I became a rebellious player, quick to fight, kind of violent and I wasn’t even that great. I was with the Steelers and I got cut, and I remember when I left I was relieved. The coach said that he could get me a shot with the Eagles. I said thanks a lot, but I’m done.

 

Acting Vs. Football

In high school, I got into a speech class run by a nun who used to put on plays. She put me in a oratorical competitive program. You would tell a story, and they were very corny, something like “My Childhood Hero.” It was something out of Readers Digest. I always thought it was too much and too dramatic. I was a sophomore in high school and thinking there must be a better way to do this. My uncle got me reading when I was about 12. He got me a bunch of books, one in a seven-part series by Joseph A. Altsheler about mountain men and their adventures in the woods of Kentucky and Ohio in the 1700s. I fell in love and went on to Huck Finn. My first Irish writer was Eugene O’Neill. I got hooked on his plays. I also liked Flann O’Brien.

When my football career was over, I went to Florida with my friend Sammy, bellhopping in a hotel. We had an apartment and were just playing around. We went on a double date and were smoking dope, which never agreed with me. I get very paranoid on it. We were sitting there in the park and it was an outdoor drama. I was watching it and remember saying to them, “I can do better than that.” I was sort of talking to myself. I decided to go back to college to study acting. I got involved in the Youngstown Playhouse. I went to New York in 1979 and left in 1986 or ’87.

I did mostly theater. and I did a couple of movies of the week that aired on NBC, CBS. I also did a film Cruising with Al Pacino. It was about gay murders in the village, and based on the reporting of Arthur Bell. It was very controversial. Bell was quite concerned [the film] would portray gays in a bad light. The gays organized and there was a lot of protest. We would go to these bars [to shoot a scene] and there would be hundreds of gays blowing whistles. It was wild.

I just had a small role, as a NYC detective, but I was also doing a play called Knockout at the Helen Hayes Theater. Afterwards, I did a movie Dogs of War with Christopher Walken and Tom Berenger. It was actually a pretty good film about mercenaries. It was from the novel by Frederick Forsyth. It was already a successful book.

I was so fortunate to find the one thing I am good at. I really wasn’t equipped to make anything of myself except a talent to do this.

I do miss theater. I played Lenny in

Of Mice and Men at the Hartford Stage. That’s a great play. I did a David Mamet play at the Kirk Douglas about five years ago and another David Mamet play at the Tiffany Theater called Lakeboat. I did that play twice. The last David Mamet I did was called Keep Your Pantheon, a comedy. It was extremely tough to do. It has a long one-act and I was this leader of a troupe of actors not very good actors in Rome who are just trying to get by, and running into all sorts of trouble. It got good reviews, but it was the hardest I ever worked on stage, by far. I was thinking, for what? Maybe I’m just getting older and I just think it’s tough.

 

Comedy

I had my uncles, these three men were great storytellers and some of the funniest guys I ever met in my life. I’m not having a rosy flashback – they were fucking hilarious! When I met Phyllis Diller, she said she had gone to Youngstown for a St. Patrick’s Day event at an Ancient Order of Hibernians club. I said, I remember when you were in town, my uncle Joe O’Neill was there. She said, “Joe O’Neill? He introduced me, I didn’t even want to follow the SOB, he was the funniest guy I ever heard.”

My favorite comedians were Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters and Bob Newhart. I was at last year’s Emmys and I went into the green room because I was starving and Elton John was back there with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas. When I walked by them to say hello, I see Bob Newhart and he’s standing by himself in a corner and I had never met him. So I had to pass him to leave and as I pass him he said, “Hello Ed” and I said “Hello Bob, congratulations.” I told him he was one of my favorite comedians. I go back to my seat and Jimmy Kimmel is sitting behind me and I said, “I just talked to Bob Newhart,” and Jimmy said, “when he comes out let’s give him a standing ovation.” And when Newhart walked out we leaped up and then the whole place went up.

 

Modern Family

I just love it! The two actors who play Cam and Mitchell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson is gay and Eric Stonestreet is not gay! In fact, he’s quite a lady’s man, ha! He comes from a farm family in Missouri. You know who he’s actually playing is his mother. After the first year, the producers hired two gay writers and they are brilliant and they are still with us. It’s just a wonderful show and we are going into our fifth year and it won four Emmys and four SAG awards. I think we are the only ones who have ever done that.

What happens on a television series is they start to write for you. Ed likes this or it’s kind of like that. You find some of your quirks and past experiences coming into the script in some form. It turns into something a little closer to you as it moves along. You try to find things relatable to make it appear more natural and more real. It’s not something I think about too much really, I just sort of do it.

 

Trip to Ireland

This one fella, Willy O’Sullivan from Cork, owns O’Brien’s Irish pub in Santa Monica, and we are always teasing each other. He tells me, “You’re not Irish.  You’re a Yank.” But what I grew up with, on both sides, were totally Irish, their religion, manner of speaking, the way they look. They would always refer to the old country. To me, Ireland was almost like this heaven. We were proud to be Irish. My first trip, it must have been ’90, ’92. When I was walking around Dublin, all of the people looked like my relatives.

This recent trip I really enjoyed. I let my wife handle the details. Because of the kids, I have a 14 and 7 year old and they keep you going, we had a luxury van with a driver and tour guide and they were really nice guys. They were in their 50s, and the tour guide was knowledgeable about a lot of things. We went to Trinity College. We went on the River Liffey, on that Durk (or duck). We’re going down the river with a Viking helmet and horns and I said, “this is a nightmare!” But the driver was a Dublin guy and he was great! Within five minutes, I thought he could be on stage. That’s so often the case over there.

We didn’t get into a lot of pubs to hear the music, which I love, but we did a lot. We were heading to Belfast and we went to that Ring Fort up in Donegal and I did that DNA swab  to see if I was related to that guy Niall of the Nine Hostages.

We went to the Martello tower in Sandycove, the one Joyce writes about in Ulysses. That was right up in the area where Sinead O’Connor lives and they were going on about how daft she is.

I always liked her. It takes a lot of courage to be her. You know who else would have applauded her? James Joyce. He used to call Ireland “a priest ridden country.” I have read almost all of his stuff. I couldn’t read Finnegans Wake. I have it here, but I don’t know how to read it. I need a class on it or something. The first Joyce I read was Portrait of an Artist. I liked it, but when I got a hold of Dubliners, I loved it. I read it at least twice.

There is a pub out here called Molly Malone’s and every Bloomsday they have the Irish sausage and whatnot. And one year they called me and wanted me to read a letter Joyce had written to his wife Nora. The letter is beautiful. He was in Dublin in a hotel where Nora used to work. He’s missing her and writing about how much he loves her and there is a description of her and what he thinks of her and it’s a beautiful thing.

I also love Yeats. I was at his grave in Sligo. One night I went out with Charlie Durning who is at least half Irish. He certainly looks Irish, and he knew almost all of Yeats’ poems by heart. I remember that was the first time I heard that poem, “When you are old and grey and full of sleep /And nodding by the fire, take down this book / And slowly read, and dream of the soft look / Your eyes had once. . . .”

 

Final Word

When I was in New York I was in my 30s and everything was new and the possibilities were there. I always thought I was going to get work. I never thought I’d be as successful as I am. It’s not good to think too far ahead. I always had a habit of just going a day or a week at a time. You just better be concerned with tomorrow.

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