Tall, lean, handsome veteran stage and classically trained actor, best known for his iconic role as Youngblood Priest – the long haired, stylishly dressed cocaine dealer who wants to make one last big score so he can retire from the cocaine business, in the seminal 1972 crime drama Super Fly. Son of a jazz musician who worked as a factory worker to support his family, Ron O’Neal grew up in the ghetto. After graduating Glenville High School, he attended Ohio State University, and after a disastrous semester where he, in his words, “just played bridge”, developed an interest in acting after seeing Finian’s Rainbow at the Karamu House. He joined the Karamu House and trained with the interracial acting troupe between 1957-1966 acting in productions of Kiss Me Kate and A Streetcar Named Desire. He moved to New York in 1967 to pursue a career in acting. He taught acting classes in Harlem to support himself and appeared in Off-Broadway plays and summer stock.
His first big break came when he was cast in a Broadway production of Ceremonies In Dark Old Men. In 1970, he was propelled into the spotlight after appearing in Charles Gordone’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, No Place to Be Somebody. The stirring performance earned him an Obie Award, Drama Desk Award, Clarence Derwent Award and the National Theater Award. He had two minor roles in Move (1970) and The Organization (1971), before being contacted by an old friend from Cleveland, screenwriter Phillip Fenty, who wanted him to play the title role in a film about a drug dealer who wants to leave his life of crime behind him. Shot on a starvation budget, Super Fly became a surprise box-office hit. The gifted actor’s remarkable performance brought a great measure of class and depth to the role, which if done by a lesser actor could have easily have become “cartoonish”.
O’Neal received both praise and criticism for his performance. And there was even talk of an Oscar Nomination. But the criticism proved too much as he later said, “..the press thought I was some n****r off the street who made a movie about his own dissolute life. I never used drugs in those days. And my film was about a dealer who quit selling drugs and got out of that system. Still, the negative press soured my career and, eventually, it soured me.”
He followed up the highly successful Super Fly with the sequel, Super Fly T.N.T. (1972), in which he starred in and directed. Unfortunately, the film failed at the box-office and O’Neal soon found the only film roles offered to him were pimps and drug dealers. He returned to Broadway in 1975, replacing Cleavon Little in Murray Schisgal’s All Over Town, which was directed by Dustin Hoffman and was Othello at Connecticut’s American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford in the 1970s. He’d also been Macbeth and Petruchio in the Taming of the Shrew.
A film career that began with such promise was never allowed to come to fruition. Amidst the political backlash and controversy surrounding Super Fly, and other so called “blaxploitation” films, he was typecast-unable to get roles of merit. He was subjugated to supporting roles beneath his talent and ability – appearing in a string of mediocre low budget and straight to video films. Only his role in the 1977 drama Brothers, and his role in the 1981 made-for-TV film The Sophisticated Gents were of any merit. He also appeared in a number of television guest spots, usually as detectives. He co-starred in the short-lived 1982 series “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” and in the television series “The Equalizer” in 1986. O’Neal could be seen in episodes of “A Different World” and “Frank’s Place” among others. He appeared in a number of stage productions, including Othello at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in the 1990s. He once again directed, the 1991 well-intentioned drama Up Against A Wall and appeared with fellow “blaxploitation” icons in the 1996 hit film Original Gangsters.
Unfortunately, he was never able to break free from the iconic image he helped to create. On January 14, 2004, he died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was only 66. Ironically, he died a day after Super Fly made its debut on DVD.
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