'Married' ... but not to his sitcom role

Special to The Times

You MIGHT not think that Ed O'Neill, who for 11 years embodied the sour-mouthed suburban bumpkin Al Bundy on the Fox sitcom "Married . . . With Children," would be one of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet's favorite actors. But that would be a faulty assumption based on the oversimplified surface of show business that often conceals the more quirky, varied and practical world where actors and playwrights really live.

Mamet, as it happens, met O'Neill in New York long before the actor ever got famous in that oh-so-broad and bawdy prime-time hit and through the years has cast him in two productions of "Lakeboat" and other plays and films. Now, Mamet has given him the lead in "Keep Your Pantheon," a one-act farce set in ancient Rome, on a double bill with "The Duck Variations" (starring Michael Lerner and Harold Gould), opening today at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

"With him, you work," O'Neill says, heading out of the rehearsal room in Culver City after a long afternoon of getting the play on its feet with the 10 other actors, under the supervision of both the playwright and director Neil Pepe.

Mamet and O'Neill are physical opposites -- the playwright a wiry, fit and diminutive 60-year-old, and the actor a tall, beefy former collegiate defensive end, now 62.

At a nearly deserted restaurant near the Douglas, O'Neill orders an iced tea and considers the menu. He's dressed in a hooded sweat shirt with "Redbelt" printed in red on the back, the title of the new Mamet martial arts film in which O'Neill has a cameo.

"He was involved," O'Neill says, remembering Mamet's presence during the rehearsals for "Lakeboat," their first collaboration at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., in the early 1980s. "The way he is here. He's around, shaping it."

The two Midwesterners share an interest in Brazilian jujitsu, a martial art Mamet learned about from O'Neill, who is a distinguished American practitioner. "It's been a really worthwhile relationship over the years," O'Neill says. "We're good friends."

Mamet, nevertheless, declined to be interviewed for this article.

In "Keep Your Pantheon," first produced as a radio play for the BBC last year, O'Neill plays Strabo, the narcissistic head of a second-rate acting troupe in the age of Julius Caesar. During the rehearsal he stopped after repeating a laugh line about another Roman being "one arch shy of an aqueduct," to ask Mamet "is it a-QUAduct or a-QUI-duct?" Either way, he was funny. Not yet in costume, he was neatly projecting the slap-happy banter of an overbearing lounge act -- or "Plautus meets Vaudeville," as director Pepe put it.

O'Neill has the chunky, no-nonsense face of a steelworker or veteran cop, which makes his facility for comedy a little unexpected. In the course of an hour, telling stories about his life as an actor and before that growing up Irish Catholic in the rust-belt town of Youngstown, Ohio, he deftly mimics a range of characters, from a North Carolina redneck to a hometown Mafioso and includes a bartender and highway patrolman (both football fans) he encountered on the night after he got cut from his tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969.

"It was the same day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and as I watched that in a bar, I remember thinking, somebody's having a good day."

It's a line Strabo might have uttered, in a slightly different context on a Roman stage 2,000 years ago.

"David always had Ed in mind for this role," says Pepe, the longtime Mamet associate who oversees the playwright's Atlantic Theater Company in New York. "He has an intimate understanding of David's words and rhythms. And he knows how to shape a joke."

"He's the kind of actor who, when he looks you in the eye, he's really looking you in the eye," says David Paymer, the actor who plays Strabo's long-suffering sidekick, Pelargon, and who had never worked with O'Neill before.

Against type

In "Keep Your Pantheon," which includes three generations of Mamet regulars in the cast, O'Neill plays against his tough, athletic side by portraying a preening, gay wannabe star whose jealousy of another (possibly better) acting troupe drives him to distraction while desperately scheming to escape a death sentence issued by the emperor (and drama critic) Julius Caesar.

"It's been fun," O'Neill says about the rehearsals. "David said, 'Think of it like a pilot.' "

And a pilot he didn't have to audition for. At this point in his career, O'Neill takes exception to the notion that anything true or useful comes from a Hollywood audition -- an exception he shares with Mamet, a great debunker of show business convention.

"It's bull. . . . You go and stand outside a room where an audition is going on and you look at the guys walking up and down reading their sides," O'Neill says, holding out his hands as if clutching a few pages of a script, his bright eyes suddenly frozen in focus, "and you are not looking at a bunch of happy people. That should tell you something."

There is an audition scene in "Keep Your Pantheon," in which Strabo's company, weathering an insult to its presumed stature, must try out to be selected for the Lesser Sicilian Cork Festival. The name alone offers a clue to the irreverent tone Mamet has adopted toward the trade in which he has achieved such renown.

But even if you pass the audition, "You never know," O'Neill says about getting the right role. Once, early in his career, he got an offer to do "Of Mice and Men" in Hartford, Conn., playing Lennie, the soft-headed brute. "I'd seen Lon Chaney [Jr.] do it in the movies. I just didn't want to do it."

But the director wanted him and he ran out of excuses and ended up doing the play, to surprising success.

By contrast, he once eagerly took the part of Biff in "Death of a Salesman" only to be disappointed in his own performance. "I thought I'd be great, but it didn't turn out that way."

He went to Calgary to play Stanley in "A Streetcar Named Desire" ("The Canadians were paying about three to four times as much as theaters in America at the time"), but the director asked him to allow Blanche to be the main character. "That just didn't work," he recalls.

"I think if you look at his career as a whole, there's a whole lot more going on than 'Married . . . With Children,' " says Paymer, himself a Mamet regular and well-traveled TV and film actor. "He did Joe Friday in 'Dragnet' for Dick Wolf, he did that show on HBO, 'John From Cincinnati,' for David Milch," playing a retired cop who wasn't quite retired. And lots of theater from the beginning.

"I'm in the valley," O'Neill says, conjuring an image of his career arc. "I've been up here, but now I'm down here," he says, looking for the kind of role that propelled Bruce Willis in a new direction after "Moonlighting." "Remember that?" he says, referring to high-rise thriller "Die Hard."

Not that O'Neill wants to be born again as an action star.

"I've always considered myself one of the luckiest guys," O'Neill says about his life and career. He and his wife, actress Catherine Rusoff, have two young daughters. He was living modestly in Greenwich Village when "Married . . . With Children" came along in 1987. His initial contract was for six episodes. "We thought that we'd do six shows and be out of there," he says.

He was happy when the show became Fox's first hit, but then it went on -- and on, bringing him success, financial security and a household name not his own. Strangers hailed him as Al Bundy across lobbies and sidewalks. "I used to be more sensitive about it," O'Neill says now. "I would say, 'You know, that's not my name, Al?' "

The show is still running in syndication worldwide. "There was a time when I thought, 'I'm better than this,' but I got over it. I thought it was funny," he says in the show's defense. "When I watch reruns, some are funny, some are not. Comedy is not easy to do -- where you make someone laugh out loud in their living room."

Again, he might be speaking a truth that his latest character, Strabo, could attest to, in Latin. The difference is that in Mamet's ancient Rome, low ratings wouldn't just lead to cancellation but to the cast members being beheaded. It's an idea that a network chief or two on occasion has possibly considered.

"You know in 'Roseanne,' " O'Neill says, in reference to that other famous sitcom about a dysfunctional family, "at the end they always kissed and got into bed. That would never happen. Right? We didn't do that." The rowdiest farce, he means to say, must remain somehow tethered to the real world, and even in a toga, he is hoping to prove that once again.

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'Keep Your Pantheon' and 'The Duck Variations'

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre,

9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through

Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays,

1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays

Ends: June 8

Price: $20 to $50

Contact: (213) 628-2772

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