Actor Ed O’Neill

O’Neill compares his success on ABC’s Emmy-winning comedy Modern Family to that of his previous Fox hit, Married with Children.

Even though he's known for his role on the hit sitcom Married...with Children, Ed O'Neill has shown his versatility in various genres, from drama to action. He studied theater and history in college in Ohio and was also a talented football player and a high school teacher. After deciding to pursue acting, he studied in New York and worked in regional theater, where he was spotted by a Fox TV executive and ultimately won the lead in what became the then-fledgling network's trademark show. O'Neill returned to series TV in the ABC Emmy-winning comedy Modern Family.



Tavis: Pleased to welcome Ed O’Neill back to this program. He of course stars on what has quickly become one of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows on all of television – “Modern Family.” The show took home the Emmy last year for best comedy and airs Wednesday nights at 9:00 on ABC. Here now, a scene from “Modern Family.”
Tavis: You are the most diverse patriarch in television. Your family is, like, all over the place.
Ed O’Neill: Yeah. (Laughter) It’s tiring.
Tavis: No, you are diversity.
O’Neill: That’s right.
Tavis: What do you make of this character and all the different pieces to his family’s puzzle?
O’Neill: Well, it’s funny, because when I first started trying to do it I was concerned. I thought, I don’t know how to play this guy. I wasn’t – I didn’t know how that relationship would work with my wife, the Colombian. I didn’t know if anybody would buy that. (Laughter) I used to make jokes – well, yeah, this is perfect casting.
Then again, at this age – I’m 64 – I really don’t even know how to play it. I don’t know how to be 64. It seems odd to me to be this old. It’s like I don’t seem to have – it’s almost I’m out there on my own now. When you’re in your thirties you sort of know what’s appropriate, you know how to live. I don’t know – so it carries over into the role. I don’t really know what’s appropriate half the time. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it’s –
Tavis: No, I get it. The question that it makes me want to ask, and so I’ll ask, is how then you find center. How do you know then when you’re hitting the bull’s-eye if by your own admission there’s so many pieces to this puzzle here that you’re not sure you’re putting it together properly? How do you know when you’re on the money?
O’Neill: Well, I think that not knowing has its own advantages.
Tavis: I can see that.
O’Neill: Where you’re just shooting in the dark and you’re blind, or you’re shooting from the hip. Somehow, it has comedic elements that it’s either going to fail horribly or it’s going to work. So far, it seems to be working.
Tavis: You like that tightrope kind of atmosphere where your craft is concerned?
O’Neill: I do, yeah, because it’s a little scary, and yeah, so I like it.
Tavis: Who wants to be scared at 74 (sic)? You’ll put yourself in full cardiac arrest. You don’t want to scare yourself too much at 64.
O’Neill: Well, I remember I heard Robert Mitchum say one time – I think he was interviewed by somebody and they said, “Bob, isn’t it time to slow down a little bit now, at this age?” He said, “No, No.” It was Barbara Walters. He said, “No, Barbara, now is when you jam the accelerator to the floor (laughter) and go right off the pier.
Tavis: That makes good sense.
O’Neill: Yeah.
Tavis: When you think about your show, and particularly the character that you play and how diverse this family is, in some ways it really does fit into the times that we live. We live in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever, and that fits.
O’Neill: Yeah, yeah. I don’t have anything to do with it, but I find myself – in my own life, for example, without getting into my own life too much –
Tavis: I’ve got to interrupt right quick; I want to hear this point. So he says, “Without getting into my own life too much.” You know what this guy did when he walked on stage? He walks on stage like a proud papa, opens up his wallet – I won’t embarrass him on TV and make him do it again – starts pulling out baby pictures. Is it Claire-bear?
O’Neill: It’s Claire and my daughter Sophia, yeah, two little girls.
Tavis: Yeah, so he pulls out baby pictures of Claire and Sophia, but not to get too much into your own life, after you passed your baby pictures around the studio.
O’Neill: I know.
Tavis: But you were saying, Mr. O’Neill – I apologize, I digress.
O’Neill: No, but I mean I do have a bit of that modern family in my own life, and I know a lot of people, a lot of friends who are also experiencing a much different life than, say, our parents.
Tavis: The nuclear family ain’t the same.
O’Neill: No.
Tavis: Yeah.
O’Neill: No. So yeah, that’s interesting.
Tavis: I suspect if you can take what is now the new normal, to use that phrase, and find comedy in it, that’s what works.
O’Neill: Yeah.
Tavis: You guys have struck gold on that.
O’Neill: Yeah, yeah. It’s an amazing show. There’s a lot of elements, of course, that make it work, and certainly not the least of which are great writers and producers and the three separate but interrelated families. So they can go a lot of places quickly with story lines, and it never gets boring.
Tavis: It took you a while, some years, to decide – obviously, you’d been offered stuff, but it took you a while to decide that you were going to come back to television in this way. You wanted to have the right vehicle, make the right decision, make the right choice. So here you are back now. Strange question – I was about to ask whether or not you made the right choice, given that the show was obviously a hit.
It’s possible, though, that the show could not have been a hit and you still could have felt like you made the right choice. It just wasn’t a hit. So I’m asking – are you happy with the choice that you made?
O’Neill: Yeah, I am. Yes, I am, and yes, you’re – that’s an interesting way to look at it, because I have done shows that weren’t successful, but they were the right choices. I did “Big Apple” for David Milch that I absolutely loved. Short-lived, shot it on location in New York, and I still would show anybody that show, I’m very proud of it.
Then “John from Cincinnati,” which I did from – again David Milch – for HBO, that ran one year, and again, that wasn’t considered a successful show but yet it was a great experience.
Tavis: How does the artist in you, or for that matter just the human being in you, deal with something that you think was high-quality work and it just isn’t met with the kind of acclaim that you thought it might have been or should have been? Obviously, as throughout – every artist travels, it’s a journey you go. Doesn’t mean it has to be a hit because you do it.
But how do you process when you put yourself into it, you think it’s great, and the audience says, “Not so much?”
O’Neill: Yeah. That’s hard. It’s hard, but that’s one of those tough lessons you have to learn in this business, and if you can’t do that, then perhaps you’re in the wrong business. You have to kind of have that resiliency, where you say, “Ugh, I wish this worked, but what’s next?” Because that’s how you survive in this business. Otherwise, you’re looking backwards.
Tavis: To your point of surviving, one, it requires a little bit of talent, and I have none, but number two, if I had a little talent, acting is the last thing I’d ever do. I say it all the time, because I just don’t have the constitution to take that kind of rejection day in and day out, day in and day out. You get told “No” in this town a whole lot more than you get told “Yes.”
O’Neill: Well, let me say that your acting – you act very well. (Laughter) You may not have to audition anymore, or you may not do it in the same way in a business sense, but you act every time you’re up here. You may not always feel like smiling, you may not always be interested in who you’re talking to.
Tavis: That’s fair.
O’Neill: But you sure show a good acting ability.
Tavis: Thank you. I raise that because when you were talking about the fact that it’s a tough business, do you recall the days, or do you choose not to remember the days when you were getting those nos a whole lot more than you were getting those yeses?
O’Neill: Oh, I don’t forget those days. (Laughter) Are you kidding?
Tavis: You don’t want to think about that, do you?
O’Neill: No, you always remember those days, and that actually helps you, I think, because I think most of us get those. Most actors get those days, much more than not. Like for example, this show I’m in now is the first show that I’ve ever been in that has had this kind of acclaim.
Tavis: Oh, come on. You forgot about –
O’Neill: “Married with Children” was not the same experience. That was a show that was on a fledgling network that took a lot of years to get off the ground, that never got the kind of critical success that this show’s getting. It was a different audience, for example.
Tavis: I’ll debate you on this. (Laughter)
O’Neill: Well, I’m not going to argue too hard.
Tavis: No, no, no, you got – (laughter) yeah, you’ve got to redefine acclaim for me. The show runs, what, 11, 12 seasons?
O’Neill: Ten-and-a-half.
Tavis: Yeah, ten-and-a-half, 11 seasons, everybody in the country knows you; you can’t walk down the street without being called Mr. Bundy. How much acclaim do you want?
O’Neill: No, that was a great job. I loved “Married with Children,” I loved doing it. It took me out of the – I didn’t have to worry about –
Tavis: Out of the soup line.
O’Neill: Yeah, yeah, exactly, exactly. (Laughter) It took me out of the system, and that’s really what I wanted. More than anything else I wanted to be able to do what I wanted. So for that – and I loved the show. But at the same time, it did not get the same kind of respect. I have a different kind of person coming up to me every day now.
Tavis: Right, oh, I got it.
O’Neill: In stores and so forth, and saying, “Mr. O’Neill, that show, my God.” “Married with Children” was more Vegas guys – “Hey, Al.” (Laughter) Oh, yeah, I’ve had guys say, “Take my wife, grab her (blank), grab her (blank). You don’t give a (blank). Here.” (Laughter) And I say, “It’s a lawsuit, sir, I can’t fondle your wife’s (blank) on camera.” (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, okay –
O’Neill: “Nah, she don’t care – tell him!” (Laughter) So it was a little bit of a different crowd.
Tavis: So which kind of acclaim feels better? (Laughter)
O’Neill: You know what?
Tavis: No pun intended.
O’Neill: The “Married with Children” kind of thing kept you hungry. It kept me wanting the approval of my peers, which I didn’t really get. They all said, “Oh, yeah, no, you’re successful.” That in itself is a certain amount of acclaim.
Tavis: In this town, for sure.
O’Neill: Yes. But this show, you get people like Helen Mirren or Spielberg coming, “Oh, my God, this show is -” That’s what I’m talking about.
Tavis: And that means something.
O’Neill: That means a lot.
Tavis: Yeah, especially –
O’Neill: Yeah, to me it means a lot. I enjoy it.
Tavis: So how fortunate – I don’t want to put words in your mouth – how fortunate, how blessed, how lucky do you feel that you have had a chance, then, at this age, to have another bite at the apple and to have a successful bite at it and to get this kind of acclaim for “Modern Family?”
O’Neill: As lucky as you can be. In terms of the business, as lucky as you can be. I feel very lucky.
Tavis: This won’t be it and the show’s going to be around for a while, I suspect, given how well it’s doing, but if this were it, if your career were going to be defined by these two bookends, you’ve done a lot of work and you’ll do a lot more, but if your career were going to be defined by these two bookends, “Married with Children,” “Modern Family,” you’d be happy with that?
O’Neill: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah.
O’Neill: Yeah, and even before this show, I used to say I was one of the luckiest actors because of “Married with Children.” Most actors are struggling from the day they start till the day they stop – most actors, 99 percent. Maybe that’s too low. (Laughter) So to get a show like a “Married” that runs ten-and-a-half-years and you get a lot of money and you get a lot of acclaim, you’ve got to say you’re lucky.
Even if you don’t get the Oscar or the whatever, some other actors get it, you’re still way ahead of the game.
Tavis: Yeah, you are. You’re so far out front people can’t even see you. That’s how far out front you are. His name, of course, Ed O’Neill; the show, “Modern Family.” It’s a big hit for ABC, the hottest comedy on TV these days, and I’m just always glad to have you on this set, so thanks for coming to see us again.
O’Neill: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Have a great year.
O’Neill: Pleasure, you too.
Tavis: My pleasure. Thanks, Ed.
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Last modified: May 11, 2014 at 11:05 pm