Ed O`Neill

by Eirik Knutzen | Mar 29, 2001
Ed O`Neill Ed O`Neill - who became an international television star after more than a decade playing the rude and crude shoe salesman Al Bundy in "Married ... With Children" in Hollywood - is now lonely and heart-broken in New York City. The problem is that while he is portraying the rough and tough NYPD Detective Mike Mooney in the midseason drama series "Big Apple" (Thurs., 10-11 p.m., CBS) on freezing locations in the Red Hook dock area of Brooklyn, his wife, actress Cathy Rusaoff, and their 18-month-old daughter, Sophia, remain in sunny Los Angeles.

"Being away from my family is the hardest thing I`ve ever done," grouses the hulking O`Neill, 54, who still looks like Al Bundy, but no longer sounds like him. "We were married 20 years before Sophia, my only child, came along. My wife always wanted to have a baby, but I thought I was doing her a favor by not having any. Then our daughter arrived and I realized how dumb I have been - the favor was for me.

"The moment I laid eyes on Sophia, I fell in love with her like a stone," he continues, chuckling. "I thought, `Oh, my God, there`s nothing like it!` I love her like I never even thought I wanted to.

"When it`s your child, all those instincts you never know you had just kick in. The first time they smile at you, you go, `My God, my God, my God! I`m gonna die!`

"Not wishing to expose his wife and child to New York`s harsh winter - including snow, rain and sleet - O`Neill only wants occasional visits for a week at the time.

"We do a lots of exteriors in the city to take advantage of being there, but it is brutal to stand on the Brooklyn Bridge at 4 in the morning. I can`t tell you how brutal it is to work outside in temperatures hovering around 20 degrees with the chill factor. I keep hoping the producers are going to say, `Gee, we miss L.A.`"

To keep his mind off the two people who mean the most to him in the entire world, the exceedingly fit, 6-foot-1, 235-pound actor practices Brazilian jujitsu twice a week, uses a rowing machine whenever he has access to one and walks all over the Big Apple. In L.A., he collects speeding tickets gunning around in hot Porsches; in Manhattan, he strolls in Central Park, browses in book stores, catch a few movies and Broadway play or two.

On the set of "Big Apple" - created by David Milch ("NYPD Blue") and Anthony Yerkovich ("Miami Vice") - O`Neill portrays a veteran city cop with a young partner, Detective Vincent Trout (Jeffrey Pierce), who seem to spend most of their time battling with rival factions in the FBI, led by special agents William Preecher (David Strathairn) and Jimmy Flynn (Titus Welliver). In the somewhat confusing tale, Michael Madsen plays Terry Maddock, a violence-prone FBI informant.

O`Neill, the oldest in a gang of five kids born in Youngstown, Ohio, to a social worker and a frequently unemployed steel mill laborer, was born to play the raw Al Bundy in "Married ... With Children" (1987-97).

"In my volatile, Irish-Catholic family, there were no table manners of any kind," he recalls. "We went for food with both hands. Bickering and knock-down fights were part of everyday life."

A fine athlete at Youngstown`s parochial Ursuline High School, he parlayed his skills as defensive end into football scholarships at Ohio University and Youngstown State University - where they kept benching him for fighting. Majoring in "beer drinking," O`Neill never quite graduated with a bachelor`s degree in his official fields of English literature and history. But he was good enough on the playing field to try out for the NFL`s Pittsburgh Steelers in 1970.

He was cut from the Steelers` roster three weeks later, after several serious physical altercations with a couple of high draft choices. O`Neill celebrated his freedom with a three-day hazy blur in a Pittsburgh watering hole, then spent six months as a larcenous bellhop at a luxury hotel in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. There was a lot of money to be made taking kick-backs from local restaurant owners for referring customers and selling liquor at half price out of the trunk of his car to the hotel`s patrons.

When the novelty of non-stop partying wore off, O`Neill returned to Youngstown and completed his college degree while teaching English and history at a local grammar school for several years. To stave off boredom, he gradually became involved with several community theater groups and campus stage productions. With enough confidence to give acting a serious try, he boarded a Greyhound bus for New York in 1978.

"My dad was beside himself," O`Neill recalls. "He said that I had already screwed up my football career and now was setting myself up for another fall as an actor. His idea was that I should teach, sell insurance, whatever - anything but the dead-end acting profession."

A few weeks later, he had a tiny part in an off-off-Broadway production of "Requiem For A Heavyweight" that paid $1 subway fare nightly while paying the rent as a waiter in the Manhattan saloon, O`Neal`s Balloon. The funny, totally unaffected actor soon befriended a fellow thespian up for the lead role in a play titled "Knockout." Drawing on his "experience" in "Requiem For A Heavyweight," O`Neill taught the appreciative man a thing or two about the finer points of pugilism.

"Finally, he arranged an audition for me as his understudy. I got it, and then, four weeks into the rehearsals, he was fired and I replaced him. I opened on Broadway in a starring role six months after arriving in New York."

A brief stint on the daytime soap opera, "Another World," led to dozens of episodic guest shots, telefilm and motion picture roles - including "Cruising" (1980), "The Dogs Of War" (1980), "K-9" (1989), "Dutch" (1991), "Wayne`s World" (1992), "Prefontaine" (1997), "The Bone Collector" (1999) and the upcoming "Nobody`s Baby."

"The fantastic thing is that I still find acting challenging and fun, never boring," says O`Neill. "I`m still fascinated by the process of building a character from scratch, like Mike Mooney in `Big Apple,`" he continues. "Mooney is a flawed character, who lives alone in Queens while keeping an eye on his sick sister. He`s the guy you want as a backup in a bar fight, but I`m still looking for the whole persona.

"Al Bundy was much closer to home - I borrowed his voice from an uncle and certain mannerisms from two other uncles. His cultural primitiveness came from an old acquaintance, a Youngstown football player who was more of an animal than Al could want to be."

(c) Copley News Service

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Author: Eirik Knutzen

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