Strangers often greet Michael O’Neill with a confused look. They know they know him, but how? He’s been told he’s the cop that put a woman into jail, that he landed a plane on the Hudson River, and that he refereed a kid’s basketball game. But he never corrects them.
If, however someone asks what he does, he’ll tell them he’s a character actor. “Depending on their age, I can usually tell whether (they know me from) Seabiscuit or The West Wing or NCIS or The Unit or Jack Ryan,” O’Neill told us. “I’d say about 80 percent of the time I’m right about what they know me from.”
Right now you can catch O’Neill, who calls Mountain Brook home, on Season 2 of Jack Ryan, an Amazon Prime series based on Tom Clancy’s character. O’Neill had met John Krasinski, who plays Ryan, while John was working with Matt Damon on the screenplay for “Promised Land,” and Krasinski had asked for O’Neill to play Senator Mitchell Chapin. So play it he did. “Krasinski’s relationship with Wendell Pierce, who plays his CIA boss, is one the most fascinating and complicated relationships on television right now,” O’Neill says.
Also of late, he is particularly proud to have been in the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner Clemency, a 2019 release. “It’s a compelling look at the cost of the death penalty, and it’s not laying a claim to (being) for or against,” O’Neill says. “It’s showing what’s happening when people have to do it—the guards, the executioner, the chaplain, the lawyer, the family of the victim and the perpetrator’s family. I played the chaplain, so I am the last man to sit with the condemned and try to bring comfort and understanding and some hope for redemption.”
That kind of acting job, he says, takes a toll on him. “It took a while to get that film off of me. We shot in a prison. The environment does something to you, as it should. It’s the only film I’ve ever worked on where they had a therapist on set. It was hard.”
So coming off the past year’s work, he was “looking for a character with a moral compass, with something, that is closer to my own” when last February he got a cast for a show filmed in Savannah called Council of Dads, which premiers March 24 at 9 p.m. on NBC (with the second episode airing April 30 at 7 p.m.). According to NBC’s website, it’s about a set of men who “discover that there’s more to being a father than anyone could do alone—and more to being a family than they ever thought possible.” “I have been waiting on this character for 25 years. It’s close to me—flawed, but trying to do the right thing, imparting a certain Southern wisdom from life experience,” O’Neill says. “It’s recharged my batteries.”
An Unexpected Start
But when O’Neill graduated from Auburn in 1974, he had no idea what career was to come. The only acting credit to the Montgomery native’s name at the time was that of a leaf in his first-grade play. He had majored in economics and never given a thought to theatre, until he got an unexpected phone call just after his last exam his senior year.
Earlier that semester, he’d won an award from his fraternity and delivered an address connected to it in Muncie, Indiana. Somehow a recording from that speech found its way to Will Geer—who played “Grandpa” Zebulon Tyler Walton on The Waltons—in Los Angeles when an editor was interviewing him for O’Neill’s fraternity’s magazine. In that moment, Geer asked the editor, “Do you know how to get in touch with this fellow?”
Before long Geer was on the phone with O’Neill in Auburn. “Son, I think you should try acting before the corporate structure snaps you up,” he told the man 50 years his junior. “Come to California and I’ll work with you.”
Conflicted, O’Neill sought out his mentor, Ed Lee Spencer, who owned a labor yard in Auburn and told him about the opportunity. “I thought Ed Lee would say, ‘Get a job instead, Son, start your family.’ But he leaned back in his chair and said, ‘You know you have to go, don’t you?’ You could have knocked me over with a feather. I said, ‘Excuse me?’ He said, ‘You probably won’t make it, but you don’t want to look back on your life and wonder what it would have been like if you had gone.’”
Six days later O’Neill got in his car and drove to California. “You won’t make it,” person after person in the industry told him. But the more they said it, the angrier he got, and the more he started studying acting.
He landed his first role on the Shirley Jones Show in 1979 and his first movie, a supernatural horror film called Ghost Story with actor Fred Astaire, in 1981. “In every given moment there was about 280 years of experience on the set,” he recalls of that first movie experience. “I knew I didn’t know what I was doing, but I would watch them and try to learn from their experience.”
But in some ways acting was more natural than O’Neill thought having grown up with the Southern tradition of storytelling, and his Aunt Nez, the great raconteur in particular. “She had a steel trap of memory about the family,” O’Neill says. “She’d be telling you a story in a rocking chair, and when she stopped rocking, you leaned forward because something good was about to be talked about. We have such a richness in our language and turn of phrase.”
At some point O’Neill got cast for how he held authority in a room and started to play law enforcement roles—which he says might have something to do with his mustache. In fact, it’s so true to his identity that when he shaved it for his role in The Legend of Bagger Vance and came home his young daughters didn’t know who he was.
More than anything though he’s always wanted his acting to be honest. If he could act in a way that people would think, “I’ve thought that, or I’ve felt that, or, wow, I have had that experience,” then he was where he wanted to be.
Never did that ring more true than when he landed a role in Seabiscuit that he says a lot of actors “higher on the food chain” wanted. In the script, the character he auditioned for had to abandon his son. O’Neill had taken a pillowcase full of books to the audition because literature had always been important between the father and his son, and books were all he had to leave him with. Just thinking back to the audition almost 20 years later stirs up emotion in him. “In the audition I couldn’t let go of the pillowcase, and I lost it (emotionally),” he says. “And the room lost it. And I got the role. I had three small kids at the time, and the idea of having to let a child go because you couldn’t physically support them was devastating to me.”
O’Neill connected particularly strongly with the sense of duty and responsibility of playing Ron Butterfield on The West Wing too. “I love the fact that a Southerner was protecting a New England president and literally took a bullet for him,” O’Neill says. “We would go to Washington, and the Secret Service was very generous to me, they taught me a lot about the job. So I felt a responsibility to play them with as much dignity and authenticity as I possibly could. I am still taken by the fact that they are a shield, and they know that one of them will take the bullet.”
A New Southern Chapter
Through most of his career O’Neill lived in the Los Angeles area, technically with four years there, then 15 in New York before returning to California and starting to date his now-wife Mary. Fast forward to eight years ago. The couple had been homeschooling their three daughters when Mary approached her husband one day.
“We’re moving to Birmingham,” she told him.
“Well how about New Zealand? It’s the same distance, just the opposite direction,” he kiddingly responded.
“I’m serious,” she retorted. “We’re moving to Birmingham.”
Mary had her mind set on finding a good education and community for their family, and since they’d spent two weeks every summer on Lake Martin at Michael’s friend Michael Murray’s home, the area was already familiar. The girls had library cards. Her husband eventually got on board with commuting for filming since he was always on the road anyway, and Ella, Annie and Molly started at Mountain Brook Junior High.
“I had a huge resistance to returning because I fled the South when I left mostly over race relations,” O’Neill explains. “I had an antiquated idea of what it was like because I hadn’t been here in 40 years. I was shocked and so happy to see the progress that had been made.”
From a home base in Birmingham, he’s added more and more recognizable roles to his reel. For all of his 130 credits though, he says there were probably 13,000 no’s from auditions. “Somebody had to put something in you to withstand that. It takes a long time to learn that’s not personal,” he says. And that person for him was Aunt Nez. “She valued me in a way that said they can tell you “no”, but they can’t define who you are. She let me know I had worth and it was my job how to define that. I tell young actors somebody can decide how much they pay you but they cannot decide your self worth. You get to do that. Otherwise it will beat you up in such a way that you won’t know who you are.”
Even today at the height of his career he says his roles don’t define his worth. His wife does that. His kids do that. He does that. And Aunt Nez has always done that.
Still, nerves are part of the job. “They say the stress of an audition is tantamount to a moderate automobile accident,” he explains. “There’s a lot of adrenaline that drops and stress that goes on, and I feel that every time I audition. So I grab the guitar or a shovel and dig something up in the backyard or wash dishes.”
And those were just the lessons he imbued on the December 2019 graduates of Auburn University—including his oldest daughter Ella—when he delivered a commencement speech at his alma mater.
“The biggest thing I hope I left them with is that my greatest two teachers when I went to Los Angeles were ‘no’ and my mistakes,” he summarizes. “I learned a lot from them. They create a certain grit in you, and a certain strength to improve and make repairs. But the great surprise to us all when we arrive at it, is that it’s likely the strength of your kindness, not the strength of your opinion, that going to help make those repairs.”
Michael O’Neill’s Most Recognizable Roles
Council of Dads (2020)
Senator Mitchell Chapin
Jack Ryan (2019)
Bates Motel (2014)
Senator Roland Foulkes
Grey’s Anatomy (2010)
Special Agent Ron Butterfield
The West Wing (1999-2006)
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Secondhand Lions (2003)
The Green Zone (2010)
The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)
Sea of Love (1989)