O’Neal, Ron 1937–2004
Ron O’Neal 1937–2004
For some three decades before his death from cancer in 2004, actor Ron O’Neal struggled to distance himself from his 1972 role as Young-blood Priest in the 1972 smash movie, Superfly. Considered one of the classics in the “blaxploitation” genre of the era, Superfly featured O’Neal as the iconic anti-hero of a gritty urban milieu who tries to cash out of the drug-dealing business with one final, lucrative transaction. The stage-trained actor’s “interpretation of the long-haired, ultra-hip, ultra-violent cocaine dealer,” noted Guardian journalist Ronald Bergan, “who wore tight white suits and drove a customised Cadillac, made him into an instant star, mainly among the vast urban black movie-going public.”
O’Neal was born on September 1, 1937, in Utica, New York, but he grew up in a working-class black neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. His father was a factory worker who had been a jazz musician in the 1920s and even played in the pit orchestra for the hit revue Blackbirds of 1929. Yet as O’Neal told the New York Times in a lengthy 1972 interview, his father “kept his clarinet and saxophone up in the attic, and I never even knew he had been a musician until after he was dead.” The idea of a dream deferred became a force in O’Neal’s own tenuous ambitions, he told the newspaper’s Maurice Peterson. His father died when he was 16, and his son believed the hard labor was the cause of death. “I swore right then that they’d never work me to death in those factories,” he told Peterson in the New York Times. “I told my mother that; I told everybody.”
Tragedy struck the O’Neal family again just six months after the father’s death, when O’Neal’s brother, a truck driver, died in an accident. His mother found a job in a hospital and, after finishing high school, O’Neal spent one semester at Ohio State University in Columbus, where he preferred playing bridge and chess to attending class, and earned dismal grades as a result. Returning to Cleveland, his prospects dim, he even considered taking a dreaded factory job himself, but one day a friend took him to see a play at the Karamu House, an experimental theater group in Cleveland that dated
At a Glance…
Born September 1, 1937, in Utica, NY; died of pancreatic cancer, January 14, 2004, in Los Angeles, CA; son of a factory worker and a hospital employee; married; wife’s name, Audrey Pool,
Career; Actor, 1956-2004. Housepainter, Cleveland, OH, c. 1956-64; Harlem Youth Arts Program, NY, acting instructor, 1964-66,
Awards: Actors’ Equity, Clarence Derwent Award, 1969, Village Voice, Obie (Off-Broadway) Award for best performance, 1970, and Drama Desk Award, 1970, all for No Place to Be Somebody.
back to 1913 and featured interracial productions. “I saw Finian’s Rainbow there and it blew my mind,” he recalled in the interview with Peterson. “I had never seen a play before.”
Within months, O’Neal had joined the Karamu House ensemble and spent the next eight years performing in plays like A Raisin in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. He worked as a house painter to support his acting career. “It was good training,” he said of the Karamu years in the New York Times interview, “and, though I wasn’t paid, at least I wasn’t charged, as I would have been at an actor’s studio.” In 1964, offered a job teaching acting classes at the groundbreaking Harlem Youth Arts Program, O’Neal relocated to New York City. He taught for two years there and tried to win parts in off-Broadway productions, but found it difficult. Part of the reason was due to his appearance: with his long, straight hippie hair and lighter skin, O’Neal failed to fit the bill for standard African-American roles in theater. One day in 1970 he tried out for a play called Ceremonies in Dark Old Men. “As soon as I stepped into the room, the producer said, ‘you won’t do,’” he told Peterson. “By this time, I was getting pretty desperate, so I went out and bought an Afro wig. When I got back to the office, he took one look at me and said, ‘Well, now, that’s better!’”
O’Neal won the role, but was also offered another right afterward, for a play slated for a weeklong tryout at the small experimental theater at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre. The Ceremonies role would pay him $112 a week, while he would have to do the untested play for free. He chose the latter, and No Place to Be Somebody, a new drama by Charles Gordone, became a turning point in O’Neal’s career. Papp, a highly regarded theater impresario, liked the unsentimental urban drama so much that he signed O’Neal and rest of the cast to a contract immediately. The play went on to enjoy a long run at the American National Theatre Academy venue, and critics applauded O’Neal’s portrayal of a bar owner and part-time pimp trying to gain the upper hand over the local mob. Gordone became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize in drama for the work, and O’Neal racked up several honors himself for No Place to Be Somebody, including the prestigious Obie, Drama Desk, and Clarence Derwent awards.
O’Neal’s big break was a mixed blessing, however, for he still found it difficult to win new roles. He appeared in a 1970 Elliott Gould movie called Move, returned to No Place for its run on Broadway, which lasted just three weeks, and then didn’t work for seven months. Papp offered him part in his acclaimed “Shakespeare in the Park” summer series, but another director took over the project, and when O’Neal went to see him, he was cagey about whether or not there was a part for him. The director finally told him, “’Quite frankly, I really don’t think Black people should do Shakespeare,’” O’Neal recalled in the New York Times interview. “I said, ‘Well, at least you’re honest about it,’ and that was the end of that.”
O’Neal took another film role, in a 1971 drama with Sidney Poitier called The Organization, but he loathed it. He was cast as a Puerto Rican “who was always upset, always angry—what they thought a Puerto Rican is,” he told Peterson. He returned to the stage in The Dream on Monkey Mountain with the Negro Ensemble Company, which earned good reviews during its 1971 Los Angeles previews and again for a New York run, but it was a part he had almost not received, and he remained frustrated over the stalling of what had seemed a promising career just a year before.
O’Neal’s fortunes were about to change once again, however. A friend of his, Phillip Fenty, ran a successful advertising agency, but was writing a screenplay that fell into a new and daring black film genre. Two releases from 1971 marked the onset of what became known as the blaxploitation film genre, Shaft and Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song. Both portrayed urban life in America as a melting pot, a roiling mix of violence, distrust of corrupt authorities, political awakening, and streets ruled by sharp-witted characters who triumphed through sheer nerve. Fenty told O’Neal that he would write the screenplay’s main character with O’Neal in mind, and the actor agreed to become Superfly if the project got off the ground.
Superfly built upon the box-office success of Shaft, the 1971 film directed by Gordon Parks Sr. The title character of Shaft was played by Richard Roundtree, who became an overnight star thanks to the film and its intriguing premise about who actually controlled the streets of Harlem. Parks’s son, Gordon Jr., signed on to direct Superfly, and it became a sensation as well.
O’Neal played Harlem cocaine dealer Youngblood Priest, who has wearied of his lifestyle and engineers a deal that will net him a small fortune and enable him to get out the business forever. Corrupt cops and vicious mobsters prove more of a danger than the threat of potential jail time, but O’Neal’s hero walks away unscathed, with his retirement money intact.
When Superfly hit theaters in the summer of 1972, Warner Brothers spent little to promote it, fearing negative publicity, but the movie quickly caught on via word of mouth and became a sensation. Made by Parks on a budget of just $500,000, it grossed $5 million, and the soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield sold two million copies. “Urban audiences flocked to the cinemas, identifying with the tall, charismatic leading man and loving the gritty dialogue, locations, and situations,” noted Perrone in London’s Independent. “The film was condemned by critics and by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for glorifying the dealer life style, but O’Neal remained adamant that the whole point of Superfly was that the pusher was trying to escape his circumstances.”
In interviews at the time, O’Neal argued strenuously that the Mayfield soundtrack provided the real theme behind the film, weaving a strong anti-drug message into the narrative that did not glamorize the drug trade, but instead portrayed the desperation and ambiguity of those drawn into it, both as purveyors and consumers. Even “the title is an ironic one,” O’Neal explained to the New York Times’s Peterson. “’Fly’ means hip, glamorous, together, and we show that that life is just the opposite.” He also scoffed at the NAACP picketing of certain theaters in the Los Angeles area, in which protesters handed out leaflets demanding that the studio recall Superfly and re-shoot it with a new, more morally resounding ending. “Can you dig that?” O’Neal joked with Peterson. “Here’s a picture where a Black man finally manages to beat the system and they’d rather see him dead!”
Partly in response to the storm over Superfly, O’Neal agreed to appear in a sequel, which also marked his directorial debut. Super Fly TNT, released in 1973, found Priest living in Europe, but missing the action of his former career. Inspired by the story of a group of African rebels fighting for their country’s independence, he becomes involved in the illegal arms trade. The Times of London termed it “a bore, with Rome and Senegal seeming much less hip than Harlem in the original.”
O’Neal hard a hard time finding solid roles after Superfly. He appeared in several crime and action films over the next quarter-century, including Billy Jack (1975), A Force of One (1979), and Red Dawn (1984). His first television role came opposite Muhammad Ali in a 1979 television miniseries, Freedom Road, about a slave who becomes a politician. In the 1980s and 1990s O’Neal won recurring roles on the small screen in Bring ’Em Back Alive and The Equalizer, and occasional guest roles on shows like Hill Street Blues and Living Single. He returned to directing in 1991 with Up Against the Wall, a little-seen drama set in a Chicago housing project, and to the theater in a 1994 Stratford Festival production of Othello.
In the years since the blaxploitation films came and went, a cult following has sprung up around them. Mainstream Hollywood responded with Original Gangstas, a 1996 film that featured all the genre’s screen luminaries, including O’Neal, Roundtree, and the original Foxy Brown, Pam Grier, in a drama set on the gang-violence-plagued streets of Gary, Indiana. O’Neal enjoyed making the film, and noted that it was the first time that all the era’s names had ever appeared together in the same movie. He noted in an Entertainment Weekly interview that though he had been forever typecast by his Superfly role, he remembered fondly the spirit of daring and originality with which those films had been made. “I had a sense of hope, a sense of the future,” he told the magazine. “I saw no reason why black films wouldn’t go on, strengthen themselves, and become better.”
O’Neal was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2000, and made his last film, On the Edge, in 2002 with Ice-T. He died on January 14, 2004, at the age of 66. In the New York Times interview from 1972, he had predicted that Superfly, though somewhat controversial in its message, would prove inspirational in the end. “Black people are dying quietly without skills, motivation, or any desire to accomplish,” he insisted. “If indeed ‘Super Fly’ does encourage young people, I’m happy. And I doubt that they’ll be encouraged to become coke hustlers, because they’re too intelligent. I’m hoping that the most inspiration will come from our success as filmmakers.”
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Vol. 37, Gale, 2002.
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), May 10, 1996, p. L11.
Daily Variety, January 19, 2004, p. 9; March 8, 2004, p. 16.
Entertainment Weekly, May 10, 1996, p. 45.
Independent (London, England), January 20, 2004, p. 16.
Jet, February 9, 2004, p. 64.
New York Times, September 17, 1972, p. D11; January 17, 2004, p. B7.
Times (London, England), March 12, 2004, p. 42.
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