“Ed” O’Neill – The Bulldog Patriarch
The Great and the Least,
The Rich and the Poor,
The Weak and the Strong;
In Sickness and in Health,
In Joy and in Sorrow,
In Tragedy and Triumph;
You are All My Children.
(Agnes Nixon, 1970)
Name: Edward Leonard O’Neill; called “Ed”
Born: April 12, 1946 in Youngstown, Ohio, U.S.A. in St. Elizabeth Hospital
Mother: Ruth Ann née Quinlan, homemaker & socialworker
Father: Edward Phillip O’Neill, steel mill worker & truck driver
Siblings: two younger brothers & two younger sisters
Spouse: Catherine Rusoff, married since 1986 (separated ’89 – ’93)
Children: Claire (18) & Sophia (15)
Residence: Venice-L.A., California, U.S.A.
Education: Ursuline High School (catholic), Youngstown, Ohio
Ohio University, Athens (history & drama, left in sophomore year)
Youngstown State University, Youngstown, Ohio
1969: bachelor’s degree in history at Youngstown State University
Former occupations: bus boy, steel worker, barkeeper, used car salesman, truck driver, social studies teacher
Current Occupation: Actor, since 1970
Sports: Ohio University Scholarship (American Football)
1969, Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp (American Football)
Youngstown State University, Defense Line (American Football)
(Brazilian) Gracie Jiu-Jitsu: since 1991 (Black Belt since 2007); trained by Rorion Gracie
Height: 6ft 1 in / 1,85 m
Weight: 245 lb / 111 kg
1946 – 1960: Childhood
Born on April 12, 1946, in Youngstown, Ohio, in the St. Elizabeth Hospital, Edward Leonard O’Neill was the oldest of five siblings. He has two younger brothers and two younger sisters. His father, Edward Phillip O’Neill was a steel mill worker, his mother, Ruth Ann née Quinlan, a homemaker. O’Neill himself says that he gained his fathers hard-workmanship and his mother’s “hystericalness”; eventhough he comicly states, that he only earned “the bad traits”. His mother was one of four sisters and O’Neill thinks that he got part of his talent for storytelling from his “very funny” uncles-by-marriage, which also had a very dark sense of humor.
Growing up he was interested in sports, music and chasing around the neighbourhood with friends. It wasn’t until the late 50’s that his family got a black and white television. O’Neill enjoyed the early comedies of that time. For example he liked Laurel and Hardy, but couldn’t see what should be funny about the Three Stoges.
1960 – 1970: Years of Study … and Partying
He attended the catholic Ursuline High School, that only 15 years ago had been a girls only school, and also was his mother’s former High School. After Graduation he went to Ohio University, where he won an football scholarship and studied history and drama. After one and a half years he left, due to struggling with the studying-part of his scholarship and having a feude with his football trainer. He went back to his hometown and kept studying at the Youngstown State University, where he also played football in the university’s team. Although he attended school he liked the football a bit more and had no ambitions of visiting a college. In fact, what most people do not know, O’Neill had kind of a violent streak in his youth, with bar fights and police arrests.
In 1969 O’Neill was in the training camp of Pennsylvania’s Pittsburgh Steelers, but got cut out before the start of the season and so was never abled to live his dream of becoming a professional football player. Crestfallen he went on a roadtrip to Florida with a friend of his, Sammy Angod, who pitched for the Pirates.
1970 – 1987: First Steps on the Stage
Back at home, he went on his first theater-audition for “The Rainmaker”, where he landed a horrible imitation of Burt Lancaster. Then later he went on trying out and eventually got a role at the Youngstown Playhouse, where he also got a place in the acting school. Amongst the cast he was the only hetero-sexual male (as he states), what put him in an unlikely, but interesting position, he says.
Since his boyhood O’Neill loved movies, often went to the cinema and afterwards telling his friends about the movies. Being complimented for his way of retelling the movies, he always liked to tell stories and express himself through that. An ability that came in handy on stage and pulled him into the theatre at that time. Having heard about “The Circle and the Square”, he dreamed of leaving Youngstown and going to New York. He had the chance of becoming a member of this elite-acting-school, which taught dancing, fencing and various styles of acting. But O’Neill refused due to the fact that he would have had to pay for his lessons (yes, he didn’t know that before auditioning) and was chronically lacking of money.
The first time he got payed for acting on stage was in New York at the Helen Haze Theatre, where he performed in Lulu Russo’s Broadway-play Knockout, directed by Franz Cruzardo. By that time he had already moved to New York at the age of 30. He considered playing, instead of going to another school, before he found, that he had to make some money by this age. So he saught in Off-Off-Broadway houses and after Knockout (which got bad reviews, whilst O’Neill himself got a really good one), he managed to get into some plays, but he decided to try acting in front of the camera. His first real role in a TV series he had in 1981’s Another World, a soap opera. There he earned about 500$ a day and made first experiences backstage. He got to learn how soap operas are made and found that he didn’t like it very much, for everything was hasty and hostile. Mostly the money helped, because he could afford to look for other, bigger roles, without having to care about his accounts.
So O’Neill was considered for several huge roles, but couldn’t land any of them. For example he was casted for Cheers (where originally the barkeep should have been an ex-football player, instead of a baseball player) and Family Ties. In Family Ties he was wanted for the leading role, but refused, because he didn’t think of himself as “ready for it”. He then did some movies and pilots, he sharpened his acting methods but still didn’t think of himself as an professional actor. In this period he often played the bad guys in TV-shows like Miami Vice or Spencer for Hire (where he portrayed a portuguese fisherman and bully, which in the Boston area apparently have very light skin color). He still was acting in theaters, until he really hit it off on television.
1987 – 1997: Married … With Children
In a period of time, where O’Neill again had little money, he got recommended by a friend for the role of Lenny in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men at the Hardford Theater. Unwillingly he auditioned and afterwards knew that he did his worst. Nevertheless he got recalled and was plead to audition again. So he did and grew fonder to the cast and the play itself. The show then was a huge success with astonishing reviews, breaking the house-record for attendance. One of the casting agents for Married … with Children (MwC) went to the play and discovered O’Neill for the role of Al Bundy. At this time O’Neill was a serious actor, had no comedic experience what-so-ever and his agent gauged the show to be “horrible”. The fact, that FOX was only entering the television market, wasn’t helping his decision to audit. But he was in L.A. anyway, because of another project that never took off, so he went to the audition after a game of handball, having skimmed the script and finding it funny. The role of Al Bundy remembered him of his uncle, a judge married to an alcoholic, and so he auditioned for the role in the manner of his uncles mundane irony. As everyone will know, they liked it and considered him to be in the “pool of possibilities”.
Just when he had returned to New York FOX called in and wanted him to fly stright back to L.A., so he could meet the network and other potential castmembers. Eventhough there had been plenty of other possible choices for the role of Al Bundy, the writers and producers liked his laconic way of speaking and so he was chosen.
Basically the show evolved around a Chicago-based lower middle worker-class family, which was an anti-concept to most of the “happy world sitcoms” of that time. Intentionally it would be named “We are not the Cosbys” to emphasize that this family was not happy and loving, but a social trouble spot. Personally O’Neill didn’t think that a show would have any future when it is breaking as many taboos, as MwC did (fat people, lesbians, midgets, minorities at general). But eventhough they sometimes crossed a line of sorts, they were up and running for 11 seasons. The center and patriarch of this family is Al Bundy, a shoe salesman who lives of his glory from College days, when he did 4 touchdowns in just one game. (It gets referenced A LOT throughout the show.) His wife Peggy (Katey Sagal) has problems in handling money and no interest in keeping a household at all. The Bundy-children Bud (David Faustino), a notorious virgin, and Kelly (Christina Applegate), quite the opposite, are heavily afflicted by their parents incomptence, but also have an enormous talent for getting into trouble on their own. The neighbours Marcy (Amanda Bearse) and Steve Rhoades (David Garrison) are bank workers and form the counterpart to the Bundys; what means that they have manners and success in life. Later in the show Marcy and Steve get divorced and Marcy marries Jafferson D’Arcy, a pretty-boy scam artist, who permanently works her for her money. And there’s Buck, the family dog, who was synchronized by Cheech Marin, Kevin Curran and Kim Weiskopf. Most of the show’s plots evolved around everday’s problems like shopping with no money, having to buy cake or presents in the last moment, sending your kids off to school, having sex or just being abled to maintain employment. The show’s main settings were the Bundy’s living room and kitchen. Next to that there were the parental bedroom, the cellar and garage, the show store or the Rhode’s/D’Arcy’s house. Other scenes took place in open locations like the city of Chicago or swamps, but everything was shot in-studio. Seasons 1 and 2 were shot in the ABC Television Center in Hollywood; season 3 through 8 were shot at stage 9 of the Sunset-Gower Studios (former Columbia Pictures); since season 9 everything was shot on stage 28 of the Sony Pictures Studios (former MGM) in Culver City, 10 miles/16 kilometres southwest of L.A. In terms of autobiographic identification O’Neill sees himself as some sort of everyman’s Al Bundy. He, like his character, comes from the american midwest, derives from a blue collar family and had smashed dreams about becoming a professional football player (the writers actually used O’Neill’s football-past to enrich the character of Al Bundy). Also the humor in O’Neill’s family was similar to the show’s in matters of darkness, self-deprication and acidness, so he felt quite commode in his on-screen family. But not all actors-on-set felt this way. The first kids which were chosen to play the Bundy-children, didn’t feel well on the set and resigned after shooting the pilot. Because FOX anticipated such problems, they recorded the pilot ab initio in a way, that the children could be lifted out and be replaced by seperately shot “alternative” kids. And basically that’s what they ended up doing. Also the pilot was quite more realistic and had a less fictious touch, than the show would later have. O’Neill states that all castmembers were very nervous about the pilot and the first episodes, because everything about this show was unusual and it didn’t really fit in any of the traditional genres, for it not being silly, drama or “big”. But nevertheless the feeling was good, the whole crew was happy (eventhough there always was a networks dollar-clock ticking), enjoyed shooting the series and (not) evolving in character from year to year. Al Bundy, to many people in the 90’s, was a hero. The everyday’s Joe, working his ass off to maintain the house and pay triple-due bills, fighting his beloved family and just getting along with life at general: things mostly everybody somhow can relate to. And so it came, that the fans gave him positive response, whenever he was seen in public. People (, but surely not all) loved the show for being different and, in my opinion, big part of the charme generated from the offensive statements, which often wentbeyond socially excepted behaviour. Only when O’Neill visited Youngstown, his home, nobody spoke to him about MwC; people would only recognize him from the beer commercials he did at this time. The reason to that: FOX, as a young network, hadn’t the broadcasting network access, the big networks had. So the show, in it’s beginnings, just could not be seen in the midwest U.S., where it took place. The few people in his hometown, who could watch the show, were really excited about it an encouraged O’Neill enthusiastically. But when the cork burst, his fame became a burden. Everywhere he went, people would recognize him only as Al Bundy, and nobody would talk to him about his real self: nobody tokk an interest in Eward O’Neill, the person. On many occassions, out of the fear of being branded forever, he had thoughts about ending his carreer and never wokr again, after Married … with Children would have been done. For a brief period of time, he tried and said to people that he wasn’t “Al Bundy”, but himself. Soon he realized he would be better off accepting, that for the people he couldn’t be anything else than Al Bundy and even started to appreciate his fame. But still on some occasions he was frightened by his grade of prominence. For example when went to an audition in New York, for a movie about the Westies (to which he apparently had private contact in earlier times, but he didn’t get the part, because he played his role, a mob hitman, “not stonecold enough”). Outside the building, the audition took place in, there was a giant billboard with a moving promotional set-up for MwC: Al’s wife Peggy held a pan in her hand and hit him on the head with it, wherefore Al’s head would sink down and disappear behind his shirt’s collar. O’Neill was amazed and fearful about this gigantic adverstising. (Also it send him off into the audition with a bad feeling, what didn’t really help.) Besides the show, O’Neill played in several movies, as can be seen in the Filmography part of this post. After 11 seasons, and quite the number of scandals, the show was cancelled. Not so much, because nobody wanted to do it anymore, but because the smaller networks every year had to buy the new season for a huge amount of money; and with rising publicity, it didn’t get cheaper, so they begged FOX to stop. In Germany the show is still repeatedly broadcasted on smaller entertainment-networks until today. Except Amanda Bearse, O’Neill still has friendly contact with all the castmembers.
1991 – 2009: Growing Years
While having his fixed part in Married … with Children, O’Neill also participated in several movies until the shows end. For example he had a leading role in John Hughe’s 1991 Dutch, which turned out to be a huge financial disaster. Until today O’Neill hasn’t spoken to John Hughes. After that, in 1992 and ’93 he was in both Wayne’s World movies (excellent!), what he discribes as an “okay experience“. He landed his parts, because he and the movies main characters had the same agent at the time. He hardly remebers anything about the shoot, except that Michael Myers wrote his part and that everything was friendly. But it seemed like all the actors had their own “camp” at the set and were always competing in the matter of the best idea to do a shot. (Great movies anyway!) O’Neill also played in the first episode of David Faustino’s webshow “Star-ving”, which is loosely based on his life, where he refuses to loan his former on-stage-son money.
In 2001, after MwC had been cancelled since 4 years, O’Neill played the leading role in Big Apple by David Milch (NYPD Blue; Deadwood), a series about New York policemen and FBI agents, who try to stop the mob’s ferocious activities in the apple. O’Neill got to know Milch via a visit in a restaurant after shooting an episode of MwC. It was only smalltalk. Years after that O’Neill’s agent called and told him that Milch wanted him on Big Apple as a Westie. But surprisingly Milch decided to give O’Neill the lead. A bit confused O’Neill didn’t know if he liked that role, but eventually agreed to do it. It ran on CBS and wasn’t that succesful, but for O’Neill it was a very wonderful and teaching experience. In the series O’Neill had his first “big time scenes”, as he calls him. He felt that he was good at it, something he was very proud of. He also knows that only good writing can lead to good acting. “Once you know that, you’re much better off”, he says.
In 2005 he played Katey Sagal’s ex-boyfriend in an episode of 8 Simple Rules. From 2005 to 2006 O’Neill acted in 4 episodes of The West Wing, a drama series around the white house politics. He really enjoyed playing the governeur of Pennsylvania and loved working with Martin Sheen. He knew a big part of the cast from previous television or theatre engagements. Overall he describes it as a wonderful memory.
O’Neill was also casted for Deadwood, but HBO didn’t like that idea from the beginning. They just did not want to work with “Al Bundy”. He did auditions anyway, feeling good in the part, but he didn’t get it, because HBO favoured other actors. After that came John from Cincinnati (HBO, 2007), which also wasn’t that succesful, but quite the good show, with awesome characters.
In all these years he never took anything personally. Of course: sometimes you think about the things that weren’t that awesome, but still he knew that, if he took it personnally, it would destroy him from the inside. I think that this is one of the reasons why I like him so much. He always seemed like a down-to-the-earth working class man to me, who just is awesome at acting.
2009 – 2018: Modern Family
In 2008 O’Neill got a call from his agent, who told him, that Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan wanted to talk to him about their new concept, which back then was called “American Family” (yikes!). Initially O’Neill didn’t want to talkj to them, because he never again wanted to shoot a half-hour series after MwC; he even had his agents tell them, that he wouldn’t take the part. Nevertheless he agreed to meet with them. But even after that he told Lloyd and Levitan: No! He wouldbe happy to read the script, once it would be finished, but still didn’t want to play a half-hour show. So a year later he got the finished script, entitled “Modern Family” and read it twice, because it was, as he states, “so damn good.” He called his manager and told him that he wanted the role. His manager could only tell him, that the role went to Craig T. Ferguson, whom O’Neill knew since way back. A week later, after Ferguson quit due to payment issues, the role was offered to O’Neill again. His manager wasn’t fully convinced, because his client wouldn’t be the sole star of the show. But all this only lead to O’Neill wanting and getting the role. In his bones he knew, that the show would be a huge success.
The series, which currently is running its 9th season with 212 episodes and counting, evolves around the Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker clan and takes place in Los Angeles. The family patriarch Jay Francis Pritchett (O’Neill) got divorced in his late days and re-married to Gloria Delgado-Pritchett (Sofia Vergara), who brought her prepubescent-philosophical son Manny Delgado (Rico Rodriguez) into the marriage. From his first marriage Jay has two adult children: Claire and Mitchell. The marriage between Jay and Gloria is very natural, although in the beginnings Gloria might have been majorly attracted to the money, Jay made with his closet company.
Claire (Julie Bowen) is married to Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell), a barely succeeding realtor. Their children are: the not-so-clever, naive and premature older daughter Haley (Sarah Hyland), Alex (Ariel Winter), the younger daughter and family genius, and their youngest son Luke (Nolan Gould), who got most of his odd qualities from his father.
The reserved lawyer Mitchell Pritchett (Jessy Tyler Ferguson) is in a relationship with Cameron Tucker (Eric Stonestreet), a colourful, seven feet, farm mouse. They adopted their chaotic, and sometimes dark, daughter Lilly (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) from Vietnam (even if that’s not really possible, because Vietnam doesn’t give children to same sex couples), just before the first episode.
The focus of the show is the dynamics in one “contained” family. Everything that happens in our lives or the lives of our beloved ones changes us somehow. Thus portrays the show in a very clever way: from one episode to another and along the seasons, the characters change, reform themselves and adapt to changing environment. Because everybody is changing; and not only when they want to, but often when they have to. Everday problems like choosing a college, being there for your children, accepting each others flaws and all that get tackled throughout the show, without ever giving the feeling of repetition.
Two main themes around the caharacter Jay Pritchett are about disapproval: 1) he isn’t really well with his son having sex with another man; he even makes “cop knocks” before entering rooms, so he wouldn’t have to see them kiss, and 2) he also doesn’t like that his daughter Claire chose Phil to be her husband, because Jay thinks of him as only half a man. It is essential to the show that these themes never really get solved, yet from time to time Jay opens up a little – only to find his prior beliefs confirmed. It’s always “one step forward and two steps back” or the other way around with these problems … otherwise it would not be comedy! I think the show’s success foots on the fact that these social problems get tackeld every now and then, just to remind people that this portrays real life. But only portrays it!
While studying the role, O’Neill had to deal with certain epiphany: he didn’t know how to be 60 years old! In private he doesn’t feel that old and doesn’t behave like it. Also he just did not know what was appropriate to do at his age; what his options in life were. So he decided to play his role just exactly like this and play the character clueless about his position and options in the world and in life.
The first time O’Neill met the show’s other actors he was shocked: he didn’t know anybody! He realized that HE was the “get actor”; the one with a recognizable name, who would drag viewers into the show. Then again he was shocked while the first table reading, because all the actors have been way better than he had imagined. They shot the pilot and after he missed the first screening, a television was set up only for him and he could watch it alone. After that he watched it again and again he got the feeling that it would be a hilarious success. This got confirmed when he ran into a Disney official who had seen the pilot too, who said that it was the best television work, he had seen in 20 years.
After having bad experiences with shooting in front of a live audience on a sound stage while doing MwC, O’Neill loves the work with single-camera and without an audience. In addition he says, he really loves to work on Modern Family, because with the two cameras and a team this professional he hasn’t to work more than 8 hours in most days. [That’s really really little time in comparison to other TV shows’ work schedule.]
As he held it with “Al Bundy”, O’Neill also doesn’t try to be his role, feel what Jay feels or affect the writers in any way about his role. He just sees himself as a “hired gun of TV buiseness”, who shoots a scene and then moves on to the nex. He let’s the writers and producers do the worrying. So it comes that there are some touching moments, which are melodramatic, and very challenging for the actors, what can be difficult on a comedy show. But so far I think they did a good job on that.
It was whilst this show, that he got nominated for Best Supporting Actor and refused the moniation, slightly because he didn’t think of himself as the best actor on the show. Big respect for that!
And Now: Conclusion
In a few words: I adore Ed O’Neill and frankly that’s why I wrote this sort-of biography. Many of his life’s stations are familiar to my own and I feel connected on a very humane basis. I never met him of course, but that’s not what I mean. His roles all have something in common: through his play they seem just too real and that’s the great art of theatre and acting, to not let the people see that all just is an act, while you yourself know that nothing is real. And watching him play, you can let yourself sink into the world of virtuality, but you would never confuse any of his roles with the man behind it. Something he worked on hard, but accomplished with elegance.
I chose the title of this post, because I think of him as a man with strong will and infinte endurance, when it comes to the things he loves – like a bulldog. His roles and the fact that he kept his family life very private make him seem like the perfect patriarch, always looking out for his loved ones and never letting down his guard. I can only recommend watching the shows and movies in which he plays, so that you can make your own picture of him. Have a Great Day and Stay Alert, yours Advocate of Entropy.
1980: Cruising, The Dogs of War, The Day The Women Got Even
1982: Farrell for the People (pilot film), Supervisors (short film)
1983: When Your Lover Leaves
1986: A Winner Never Quits, The Three Little Pigs
1987: Right to Die
1988: Police Story: Gladiator School
1989: Disorganized Crime, K-9
1990: A Very Retail Christmas, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Sibling Rivalry
1991: Dutch, The Whereabouts of Jenny
1992: Wayne’s World
1993: Wayne’s World 2, Nick’s Game
1994: Blue Chips, Little Giants
1995: W.E.I.R.D. World
1997: Prefontaine, The Spanish Prisoner
1999: The Bone Collector
2000: Lucky Numbers
2001: Nobody’s Baby
2005: Steel Valley (short film)
2012: Wreck-It Ralph (voice)
1970: All My Children (unknown number of episodes) 1
981: Another World (2 episodes)
1984: Miami Vice (Heart of Darkness)
1985: Hunter (The Garbage Man)
1985: Braker, The Equalizer (The Children’s Song), Spenser: For Hire (Widow’s Walk)
1987 – 1997: Married … with Children as Al Bundy (259 episodes in 11 seasons)
1988: Midnight Caller (Twelve Gauge)
1990: Saturday Night Live (January 13), The Earth Day Special as Al Bundy
1991: Top of the Heap as Al Bundy (Top of the Heap)
1994: In Living Color as Himself (The Dirty Dozens Tournament of Champions)
2000: The 10th Kingdom as Relish the Troll King (8 episodes)
2001: Big Apple as Detective Michael Mooney (8 episodes)
2003 – 2004: L.A. Dragnet as Lieutenant Joe Friday (22 episodes)
2004 & 2005: In The Game as Buzz
2005 – 2006: The West Wing as Governor Eric Baker (4 episodes)
2005: 8 Simple Rules (Old Flame)
2006: Inseperable, Twenty Good Years (Between Brock and a Hard Place), The Unit (Silver Star)
2007: John from Cincinnati as Bill Jacks (10 episodes)
2009: WordGirl, uncredited (The Wrong Side the Law)
2009 – present: Modern Family as Jay Francis Pritchett (113 episodes, so far)
2011: Handy Manny (Great Garage Rescue), Kick Buttkowski: Suburban Daredevil (Truth or Daredevil)
2012: The Penguins of Madagascar (Operation: Antarctica)
2009: Star-ving as Himself (Crackle)
2009: TV Land Award – Innovator Award for Married … with Children
2011 – 2014: Screen Actor’s Guild Award – Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series for Modern Family
2011: Walk of Fame-Star
1992 & 1993: Golden Globe Award – Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series (Comedy/Musical) for Married … with Children
2010: Screen Actors Guild Award – Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series for Modern Family
2011: Screen Actors Guild Award – Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Comedy Series for Modern Family
Golden Nymphe – Outstading Actor in a Comedy Series for Modern Family
Critic’s Choice Television Award – Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for Modern Family
2011 – 2013: Primetime Emmy Award – Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for Modern Family