Ron O’Neal, a stage and film actor who rode the wave of blaxploitation movies in the early 1970s starring as the sartorially resplendent Harlem drug dealer in the 1972 hit “Superfly,” has died. He was 66.
O’Neal, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2000, died Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said his wife, Audrey Pool O’Neal.
“Superfly,” director Gordon Park Jr.'s gritty, low-budget film about a cocaine dealer who beats the system and leaves the drug world a wealthy man, was a surprise box-office success in the summer of 1972.
And his role as Youngblood Priest, the long-haired, ultra-hip pusher who wore form-fitting leisure suits and floor-length coats and drove a custom-designed Cadillac, made O’Neal an overnight star.
“He makes Shaft look like Little Jack Horner,” one girl, who had seen the film three times because the tall, handsome O’Neal was so “yummy,” told a reporter.
The New York Times, whose reviewer deemed “Superfly” a “very good movie,” wrote: “Ron O’Neal lives the part with a kind of furious authority that is sometimes excessive, more often expressive of a role that belongs as much to current myth as to reality.”
The film was accused by many blacks and whites of glorifying drug pushers and the drug lifestyle -- a criticism that Audrey O’Neal said her husband had not shared.
“He said he set out to make a film about a certain street hustler to show that life and to show that a person got into that life because of their condition -- it wasn’t something they chose,” she told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday.
“The whole point of his character was to get out of that life,” she said. “He felt somehow that that point was a little missed in all the hoopla surrounding it.”
O’Neal’s time in the limelight was short-lived.
“Superfly T.N.T.,” the inevitable 1973 sequel that he starred in and directed, fared poorly at the box office.
By the late ‘70s, the blaxploitation genre had faded and so had O’Neal’s film career.
“The experience left me upset,” he said of “Superfly” in a 1979 interview with The Times. “Controversy served to obscure my performance, which was not an easy thing to pull off. Outside New York, people assumed I really was a hustler. ‘Superfly’ took me from relative obscurity, but I haven’t been offered that many roles since.”
O’Neal was born in Utica, N.Y., and grew up in Cleveland. He attended Ohio State University. But after an academically disastrous semester, he returned to Cleveland.
He was aimless and frustrated when a friend took him to see a play at Karamu House, a highly regarded nonprofessional company that had been presenting plays with interracial casts since 1913.
“I saw ‘Finian’s Rainbow,’ there and it blew my mind,” O’Neal told the New York Times in 1972.
That fall season he landed a part in the chorus of a musical at the theater. He remained with the company for six years, playing everything from Walter Lee in “A Raisin in the Sun” to Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” To make a living, he painted houses.
After moving to New York City in the mid-1960s, he taught acting in Harlem and performed in summer stock and off Broadway.
He first gained recognition in 1970, starring in the Joseph Papp Public Theatre production of Charles Gordone’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “No Place To Be Somebody.” O’Neal’s work earned him the Obie, the Clarence Derwent, the Drama Desk and the Theater World awards.
Among O’NeaI’s post-"Superfly” credits were the 1975 western “The Master Gunfighter,” co-starring Tom “Billy Jack” Laughlin; the 1979 thriller “When a Stranger Calls"; and the 1979 Chuck Norris action film “A Force of One.”
Over the next two decades, he appeared in television miniseries and was a regular on the 1982-83 adventure TV series “Bring ‘Em Back Alive.” He appeared for a year on the 1985-'89 series “The Equalizer” and returned to the stage, including playing Othello at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada.
In 1996, he joined fellow blaxploitation stars Pam Grier, Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and Richard Roundtree in “Original Gangstas,” an urban action picture, which O’Neal characterized as something of “a historic event -- the only time we’ve been together on the screen.”
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his sister, Kathleen O’Neal, of Chicago.
Funeral services will be private.