You may be surprised to learn that comedy veteran Ed O’Neill started his career by playing dramatic roles in theater. However, one of these on-stage parts was to set him on the road to stardom. You see, a twist of fate meant that O’Neill was able to prove that he had just the right qualities to play one of the most famous roles in TV sitcom history: Al Bundy in Married with Children.
Yet while O’Neill would ultimately achieve global fame and a handful of Screen Actors Guild awards, his early life was very humble. During his younger years, O’Neill, who was part of an Irish-American family, followed in his father’s footsteps by toiling in a steel mill in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio.
And in a 1990 interview with People, O’Neill’s friend Jim Johns recalled the stifling conditions that the TV star had formerly had to endure. “It was a terrible job,” Johns told the magazine. “Sometimes the mercury would hit 140 degrees when Eddie was on the floor.”
O’Neill’s childhood had sometimes been far from idyllic, too. On his 12th birthday, word reached the family that his grandfather Joseph had been found with lacerated wrists. And when Joseph’s wife phoned and told them the terrible news, O’Neill’s father raced over to the house in a desperate but futile bid to save him.
In 2014 O’Neill described the scene to the magazine Irish America; he also explained that, at the time, his father hadn’t realized that Joseph had attempted to take his own life. “[My dad] grabs [Joseph], sheet and all, and rushes him down the stairs. [Then he takes Joseph] down the steps to the car and drives him to the emergency room. [There, my father] is waiting, and the doctor comes out and says [of Joseph that] he’s dead. That’s all he said,” the TV star recounted.
But despite the tragedy and hardship of his mill-town life, O’Neill still found time to enjoy himself. “I drank a lot,” he later told People, and “chased a lot of women.” And according to the magazine, he found success during this period as a sportsman, through a brief stint as a football player. The future star demonstrated his skills on the gridiron at both Ohio University and Youngstown State University before he was eventually signed to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
However, O’Neill’s time as part of the Steelers’ defense proved troublesome – not least because he struggled with the discipline required of him in the role. “I had a lot of trouble with my coaches. Your coaches are father figures; you look to what they say. Well, the reality of it is [that] they are just shmucks,” the actor later explained to People.
Instead, O’Neill’s life would take another turn. The star told Irish America how he had an acting epiphany on a double date, revealing, “When my football career was over, I went to Florida with my friend Sammy, bellhopping in a hotel… We were sitting there in the park, and [we saw] an outdoor drama. I was watching it and remember saying… ‘I can do better than that.’”
Thankfully, a high school oratory program had previously whetted O’Neill’s appetite for acting. So after having caught this glimpse of a possible future for himself in Florida, he duly returned to his hometown to study arts and theater at Youngstown State University. There, he also joined established community theater The Youngstown Playhouse.
But after working in local theater for eight years, O’Neill realized that he needed to try that much harder if he was going to get anywhere. According to People, one day he had sat down in his dad’s favorite bar, the Golden Dawn; there, he had decided “to kick [himself] in the butt” and head to the Big Apple.
And though O’Neill was in his 30s by this time, he still decided to hang on in there. To earn a crust, he took on shifts in a New York restaurant. In his spare time, he also threw everything he could at getting himself known by taking acting classes and grabbing bit parts in anything going. Then, finally, in 1979 he landed a role as an understudy in the Broadway boxing-themed production Knockout.
Fortunately, O’Neill had had an interest in boxing ever since he had watched bouts with his father on Friday nights in the 1950s. Talking on The Rich Eisen Show in 2016, the actor also revealed that it was during these evenings that he had enjoyed his first taste of beer. Apparently, his dad had “[given] him a little sup,” even though his son wasn’t all that keen.
What’s more, the future comedy star had also had an early interest in participating in the sport. He told martial arts magazine Jits, “When I was a kid, I did a little boxing, and I was pretty athletic, I liked football, handball and baseball.”
And when O’Neill was given his acting break in Knockout, he reportedly trained hard for the part he was understudying. Then the intended lead dropped out before the play opened. And by all accounts, O’Neill excelled in the role – even though the production itself wasn’t that well received.
Indeed, according to Irish America, O’Neill struck a real chord with the audience. “His portrayal of Paddy Klonski, a psychotic boxer, was so realistic that the audience booed him even as they gave him a standing ovation,” writer Patricia Harty said in the 2014 piece.
And the budding actor went on to bigger things, too. For starters, he landed a part in the 1980 film Cruising, which was based on journalist and writer Arthur Bell’s reports of a killer who sought gay victims in New York nightclubs. But shooting that movie was no mere walk in the park, either, as angry protesters ultimately arrived on set.
“Bell was quite concerned [that the film] would portray [gay people] in a bad light,” O’Neill later told Irish America. “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 [gay people] blowing whistles.” Of the public outcry, he added, “It was wild.”
Then, in 1983, O’Neill landed a part in a Hartford Stage production of Of Mice and Men. In the play, he played the childlike and mentally challenged Lennie Small, a powerfully built man who gets upset easily and doesn’t cope well with rejection. And unbeknown to the actor, O’Neill’s portrayal of the character was to change his fortunes forever.
You see, a casting director was in the audience viewing Of Mice and Men, and O’Neill’s version of Lennie apparently left a lasting impression. When he was searching for actors to portray the Married with Children character Al Bundy, then, he thought of O’Neill. Bundy was a dad who, like Lennie, was also given to reacting quickly and often inappropriately.
And according to a 2016 interview that O’Neill gave on The Rich Eisen Show, the man had stuck his neck out to give him – a relative unknown – the part. He explained to the talk show host, “A casting director from LA was visiting his aunt and went to the show.”
O’Neill then added, “He liked the play, and he liked me. A year later they were casting for Married With Children, and they can’t get the Bundy guy. [The casting director] said, ‘You’re gonna think I’m nuts, but I saw an actor about about a year ago in a drama, and I think he could do this.’ They almost fired him.”
The actor also explained to Eisen that he thinks he won the part because he played it differently from the other people who had auditioned. O’Neill explained, “I saw the guy as my uncle. One of my uncles. The guy was a judge, but he reminded me of this guy [Bundy]. Most of the guys who had read for it were doing it like Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners, yelling and mad.”
So, O’Neill tapped into his uncle’s character. “He’d get home from work and come in the house. And his wife would say, ‘Joe, I ran over the dog in the driveway today, and he’s dead.’ And Joe would say, ‘What’s for dinner?’ That’s how I read it, and they hadn’t heard that tack. And they thought, ‘That’s kind of funny.’ And to cut a long story short, that’s what happened.”
Even so, not everyone was in agreement with the newcomer playing the part. O’Neill told Eisen that, after Katey Sagal had been cast as Bundy’s wife, one executive had said, “You’ve done well with the gal, but I think you could do a whole lot better for the guy [meaning O’Neill].”
Certainly, casting an unknown in a major new show may have been a risk. And Married with Children itself may not have received its place in sitcom history were it not for Terry Rakolta. Rakolta had led a crusade against some of the supposedly crude subject matter seen in the series; that campaign piqued viewers’ curiosity, however, and so Married with Children’ ratings leapt up.
The show may have been very different, too, if Seinfeld’s Michael Richards – at that time, a stand-up comedian – had won the audition for the role of Al Bundy. As it was, though, O’Neill scooped the part. And that was despite the fact that, as the actor later revealed to Eisen, one Fox exec had remarked after his hiring, “It’s your funeral.”
Apparently, though, it was O’Neill’s resigned and defeatist portrayal of Bundy that secured him the job. A 2015 article by E! News revealed of the actor’s performance during the filming of Married with Children’s pilot, “He only had to walk through the front door of the Bundy home. Before he walked in, he slumped his shoulders and sighed in defeat. That one acting choice won him the part.”
And, ultimately, O’Neill made a mark for himself on primetime TV. Married with Children certainly won over its fair share of fans, too. What’s more, by the end of the show’s 11-season run, it had become the longest-running scripted live-action series ever to be seen on Fox.
On a somewhat sour note, however, O’Neill was apparently not told that Married with Children was due to end. Instead, the actor had heard the news that the show had been axed by Fox while he was on vacation. And that shock didn’t come by way of the network itself, either.
You see, O’Neill only knew of Married with Children’s fate after he had heard two strangers discussing a newspaper article about the cancellation. And in a generous gesture, the star bought the couple a meal to thank them for the heads-up. That kind act was reportedly something that O’Neill could afford, too. How? Well, a 1997 Los Angeles Times report suggested that the actor had scooped in excess of $500,000 per episode during the final season of Married with Children.
Regardless of how the show had ended, though, O’Neill had made Al Bundy his own. And the screen dad himself has a legion of fans – among them writer Paul Moore. In a piece for the website Joe, Moore contends that for all his bad points, Al Bundy is a character with whom you can empathize.
In tribute to Bundy, Moore added, “There’s certain TV characters that become so ingrained in pop culture that they seem to take on a life of their own. [Bundy]… says what he thinks [and] doesn’t give a damn about other people but is still doomed to be forever broke, miserable and selling women’s shoes.”
Yet despite Bundy’s obvious shortcomings as both a husband and a father, he has some redeeming features, Moore explained. The writer concluded, “Despite Al’s many flaws, the show was skilled at revealing just enough of his decency and heart – which reminded us that he was just a man that was devoted to his family.”
O’Neill himself notched up some film parts after Married with Children’s cancellation. In particular, he appeared in a leading role in 1991 dramedy Dutch, following that up with a part in the sports-themed Little Giants in 1994. Both movies performed poorly at the box office, however, which could have spelled curtains for O’Neill’s career on screen.
But fortune would favor O’Neill yet again when he landed the part of Jay Pritchett in Modern Family. Initially, Craig T. Nelson had been in the frame to play the patriarch; when a deal with Nelson fell through, though, O’Neill was cast.
Of that time, O’Neill explained in a 2013 interview with E! News, “When I read [the Modern Family script, I thought, ‘Oh boy, this is pretty good.’ And I called my manager, and he said, ‘Well, they’re out to Craig T. Nelson.’” Casting director Jeff Greenberg added, “[The execs] couldn’t really decide between Craig and Ed. They’re both wonderful comic actors.”
Fortunately for O’Neill, though, he landed the job. And it paid off, too: Modern Family not only remains a massive hit, but it has also earned the star three Primetime Emmy Award nominations. Despite this, O’Neill is said to have told a 2012 TV documentary crew that his black belt in jiu-jitsu was his best achievement to date, family aside.
And, yes, just like Al Bundy and Jay Pritchett, O’Neill is a family man. The actor wed Catherine Rusoff in 1986, with the couple still together to this day. They also share two daughters, Sophia and Claire. Rusoff herself, meanwhile, is also an actress and has appeared in small- and big-screen roles. She even portrayed two different characters in Married with Children after she and O’Neill had married.
Perhaps, then, O’Neill pays more attention to his family and his roles than he does with other stars. Certainly, he appears to have trouble recognizing fellow celebrities, as he suggested to Ellen DeGeneres in 2018. On Ellen’s show, O’Neill revealed that he hadn’t identified Britney Spears when she had asked to pose with him for a picture two years previously. And the TV star was baffled when he was told that the picture had subsequently attracted 53,000 likes on social media, prompting him to ask who exactly the female star was.
Nor, it seems, did he recognize Taylor Swift. “I went to Sarah Hyland’s birthday party, and this beautiful young woman came up to me. And you know, when I go to these things, I don’t look at people closely,” O’Neill recalled on The Ellen Generes Show. “And I know she’s famous, but I can’t place her…” In a self-deprecating way – almost with a resigned Bundy-ish shrug – he concluded, “I’m old.”