It looked like the kind of bar you would find Al Bundy. The shabby green walls were adorned with plastic trophies and faded sports photos. An old-fashioned pinball machine with a brightly lit woman in a mild stage of undress rested in the corner. Thick smoke and dust coated the air, as if an overloaded vacuum cleaner bag had just exploded in the room.
Sitting at the corner was Ed O’Neill, the actor who devolves once a week into the schlump Bundy for Fox Television’s popular sitcom “Married...With Children.”
Only in this case O’Neill, playing the lead character in ABC’s Monday movie “The Whereabouts of Jenny,” wasn’t dressed in Bundy’s slatternly white undershirt. He was attired conservatively as an honest bar owner.
And he wasn’t insulting under-sexed wife Peg, putting down daughter Kelly as a slut, or scolding son Bud. He was commiserating with his bartender about the safety of his daughter (Cassy Friel), whom a callous U.S. District Attorney (Mike Farrell) had sequestered in the Federal Witness Relocation Program. Can it be? “Al Bundy” a serious guy?
“Yeah, it’s a departure from what I do (on ‘Married...With Children’),” O’Neill said during a break on the movie set in Culver City. “Although anything would be.”
“At first we were trying to get Randy Quaid for the role, but it didn’t happen,” said first-time executive producer Tony Danza, who got to know O’Neill after seeing him repeatedly outside his “Who’s the Boss” rehearsal hall, located next to the “Married . . . With Children” set at Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood.
“So I said, ‘You know who would be perfect is Ed O’Neill?’ ” Danza said. “I believed in him right from the beginning, although there was resistance in certain camps. Ed plays this broad guy. He always has this look on his face--Al Bundy. But he’s a great dramatic actor. He brings everyman to the role. Instead of being directly on center he moves it over a little bit.”
Until four years ago, right up to the day he signed on with “Married... With Children,” O’Neill was a serious actor, mostly on stage in regional theaters in the East. The casting director for the Fox sitcom had seen him at the Hartford (Conn.) Stage Company, playing Lenny, the powerful childlike man in “Of Mice and Men.”
“When I tried out for ‘Married... With Children,’ I know the guys who wrote the show were saying, ‘This is great. It’s just what we need. A dramatic actor from New York,”’ O’Neill said in tones several decibels lower than Bundy’s booming, sneering voice.
The irony now is, nobody today seems to take O’Neill seriously. His supporting role in director John Milius’ big-budget war film “Flight of the Intruder,” which opens in theaters Friday, was aborted at the last minute.
“He’s so recognized with the comedy series that marketing research screenings played weirdly,” said a Paramount spokesperson who asked to remain anonymous. “When he came on screen the audiences laughed at him, even though he was playing a serious role as a Navy captain presiding over a court-martial hearing. They had to recast the role after the film was shoo.”
“It’s not as much my job as the audience’s job to accept something else from me,” said O’Neill, who also starred in the 1986 NBC detective movie “Popeye Doyle.” “They have to believe. ... Obviously you’re going to have some people who say, ‘Oh, I only like him as Al.’ That’s just the way it is.”
O’Neill, 44, has become America’s favorite belly-scratching bum, a lovable bundle of Bundy. The actor feels indebted to his character. Bundy, a composite of O’Neill’s uncles and a crude high school pal, has lifted O’Neill from an exhausting and relatively obscure life on stage.
O’Neill was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio and wanted only to play professional football. He even attended training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers before being cut. Then he saw an ad in the local paper for the Youngstown Playhouse.
“I was 23 at the time. I started to audition for plays,” O’Neill said. “I had no idea why. I had no conception of how to act. I just kept thinking, ‘The Rainmaker.’ They’re doing ‘The Rainmaker.’ I saw Burt Lancaster do this. I can do this.
“I auditioned for ‘The Rainmaker.’ Nothing. I auditioned for ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ Nothing. ‘Antigone’ was my big break. I got a part as a Roman guard. I carried a spear.”
Eventually O’Neill moved to New York where he hustled acting jobs, once on Broadway with Danny Aiello in a play called “Knockout.” He practically lived on the streets of Manhattan for eight years before landing the sitcom.
O’Neill is currently shooting his first starring feature film role in a summer John Hughes movie called “Dutch,” in which he plays a cement truck company owner who must escort a 13-year-old kid across country. At this point, the actor says he’s not worried about getting stuck in Al Bundy’s shoes forever.
“I never would have gone to New York at 32 with nothing if I didn’t think I could act,” O’Neill said. “I mean, God takes care of fools, I guess. How else can you explain it?”
“The Whereabouts of Jenny” airs Monday at 9 p.m. on ABC. “Married... With Children” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Fox.