The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Ron O’Neal

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The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Ron O’Neal

By Mother Brain

The phrase ‘one hit wonder’ is usually applied to singers who only had one major hit in their career. The same often applies to actors in cinema. Some of these actors including James Dean and Bruce Lee left the world just before they hit the big time but left an enduring legacy over time. For black cinema, however, there was Ron O’Neal, the actor best known as Priest in the 1972 blaxploitation classic, Superfly.
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Born in Utica, NY in 1937, O’Neal was born and raise in poverty. His father was a factory worker by day and a jazz musician by night. O’Neal struggled through school throughout his young life and eventually flunked out of Ohio State University after one semester. Soon thereafter, O’Neal caught the acting bug after watching a production of Finian’s Rainbow at the Karamu House in Cleveland, OH. He joined the house’s famous interracial acting troupe and spent the next 9 years appearing in productions of shows like Kiss Me Kate and A Streetcar Named Desire. Afterwords, he made a living as a acting instructor in Harlem.

The early 70s brought O’Neal a series of opportunities that would ultimately pay off. He caught the attention of the acting world when he appeared in Charles Gordone’s No Place to Be Somebody which earned him numerous awards including the Obie Award and the National Theater Award. It wasn’t long before O’Neal made the jump to the silver screen appearing in small roles in 1970’s Move and 1971’s The Organization which marked Sidney Poitier’s 3rd appearance in the role of Virgil Tibbs from the Oscar winning In the Heat of the Night. Then came Superfly.

 

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The story about a Harlem cocaine dealer executing his last score originated with novice screenwriter Philip Fenty who was a mutual friend of O’Neal from Cleveland. Fenty convinced O’Neal to play the lead role of Priest under the direction of Gordon Parks Jr., the son of the famous photographer and Shaft director Gordon Parks. Working under the conditions of shoestring budget, O’Neal would embody the role of the anti-hero drug dealer with his street swagger, flashy 70s outfits, trademark processed hair with long caesar sideburns, and a pimped out Cadillac. But beyond the flash and style of Superfly as well as its unforgettable soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield, O’Neal brought a certain level of realism and authenticity to the role in the blaxploitation era when most black actors made their performances more comic book-like. Even in such fantastical moments as Priest fighting off dirty cops with martial arts moves, he’s still quick to outsmart the main villain (who has a gun to his head) without getting more physical by telling him he has a murder contract set in case anything happens to him.

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Superfly became an instant hit when it was released in 1972, briefly knocking The Godfather off the box office. O’Neal became an icon to black audiences and won lots of praise from the critics, including a push for an Oscar nomination; however, Superfly was also met with serious controversy for its subject matter. There were those in the media who were too convinced by O’Neal’s performance and felt that he and the film were glorifying the drug underworld. But in truth, O’Neal was the complete opposite of his character and even objected to the film’s now iconic cocaine montage which he felt was “a commercial for cocaine.”

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He didn’t help his career when he immediately signed on to star, write, and direct the sequel, Superfly TNT in 1973. Working the original story with Fenty and Roots creator, Alex Haley, the sequel followed Priest in Europe deciding to help African rebels overthrow their colonial government. It was no different from any poorly made blaxploitation film of the time and the problematic film quickly bombed at the box office. With fewer offers coming his way (mostly Superfly knockoffs), O’Neal returned to the stage in 1975 when he replaced Blazing Saddles’ Cleavon Little in a production of Murray Schisgal’s All Over Town under the direction of Dustin Hoffman.
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By the 80s, the blaxploitation era was gone and many of its black stars either reverted to supporting roles in major films and television shows or found themselves broke. O’Neal’s Superfly days were long gone as the actor hit his 40s, gained weight, and suffered serious hair loss. His mulatto looks made him a workable character actor on hit shows like The Greatest American Hero, Hill Street Blues, Knight Rider, The Equalizer, and A Different World just to name a few and portray cops, criminals, politicians, etc. But in 1984, O’Neal found himself in another controversial film called Red Dawn where he played Col. Ernesto Bella, a Cuban officer who leads Russian troopers to invade a small Colorado town and combats a group of young American survivors who become the rebellious Wolverines. It was a role that was only meant to last until halfway through the film. But because O’Neal devoted himself to the performance and worked hard to perfect his ability to speak in Russian, director John Milius decided to expand his character, turning Col. Bella into a disillusioned soldier who eventually wants to be reunited with the love of his life and spares the lives of the Wolverine leaders played by Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen.

After Red Dawn, O’Neal tried to resist any chance of reviving his blaxploitation status when he turned down Keenan Ivory Wayans’ sendup of the genre, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, as well as refusing to reprise his role as Priest in 1990‘s The Return of Superfly (he was replaced by One Life to Live star Nathan Purdee). In 1991, O’Neal returned to the director’s chair with the indie drama, Up Against the Wall. The film follows a Chicago teen from the projects struggling to gain acceptance in a suburban high school. It gained very little notices and O’Neal went back to television roles including the part of a character named ‘Superfly’ on the short lived Sinbad Show on Fox. Then in 1996, his icon status in blaxploitation cinema was cemented when he was cast opposite fellow 70s icons Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, and Richard Roundtree in Original Gangstas, the story of retired ex-cons cleaning up their old Indiana neighborhood of their old gang now run by new breed of criminals. O’Neal only had two scenes in the entire film but for blaxploitation fans, it was a delight to see him back on the big screen and sticking it to the less refined thugs of the 90s.
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As O’Neal’s career slowed down in the late 90s and early 2000s, so did his health. On January 14, 2004, Ron O’Neal passed away due to pancreatic cancer at age 66. Ironically, he died on the same exact day that Superfly was finally released on DVD. His passing was not well publicized at the time which symbolized the sad truth about his career. What many people forget about O’Neal was that he was more than just Priest in Superfly. He was a gifted actor who also had a superb singing voice and also had a passion for opera music. The Superfly role would forever be a curse on his career because the critically praised work he displayed on the stage could not successfully translate into film outside the 1972 classic; however, his influence can be seen in many of today’s black actors as well as artists in the hip-hop genre who cited Superfly and O’Neal’s performance to have had a major impact on their careers.

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