Had it not been for a speech that Michael O’Neill gave to his fraternity, he probably wouldn’t have been an actor.
He wouldn’t have been Special Agent Ron Butterfield on “The West Wing.” Or Sen. Mitchell Chapin in “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.” Or the mass shooter Gary Clark, perhaps the most memorable guest character ever on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Not to mention the roles he’s played in movies such as “Seabiscuit,” “Transformers” and “Dallas Buyers Club.”
But after O’Neill, who was about to graduate from Auburn University with a degree in finance, delivered an address to a national Lambda Chi Alpha gathering in Muncie, Indiana, he got a call from a fellow fraternity member – Will Geer, who was one of TV’s biggest stars at the time, playing Grandpa on “The Waltons.”
“I had just finished my last final and was well into a keg of beer,” O’Neill said with a chuckle. “He had heard the address. He said, ‘Son, I think you should try acting before the corporate structure snaps you up.’ I’ll never forget that. I got in my car two weeks later and drove to Hollywood.”
Working with Geer and his daughter, Ellen, at their Theatricum Botanicum, he’d soon learn that Geer didn’t single him out – “I must have heard him say the exact same thing 100 times to other people,” O’Neill said – but it didn’t matter. His trajectory was set, and it was going to be played out on stage and screen.
He toiled away for years, first in Los Angeles and then in New York, where he studied at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse, worked off- and off-off-Broadway and “did whatever I needed to keep body and soul together.”
And then, 25 years after launching his unlikely career, the White House came calling. In 1999, O’Neill auditioned for “The West Wing,” a new series created by a young writing phenom named Aaron Sorkin, and it didn’t go well.
“You didn’t change Aaron Sorkin’s words, and I stumbled and messed up the audition,” O’Neill recalled. “Chris Misiano, the director, stepped in and said, ‘Oh, I gave you the wrong direction there,’ and he gave me another chance.”
That second chance would prove to be O’Neill’s big break. He made his debut as Special Agent Ron Butterfield in “Mr. Willis of Ohio,” the award-winning series’ sixth episode, and over the course of the next eight years, he’d appear in 15 more.
“I get recognized for it all the time,” O’Neill said. “New generations are discovering it now.”
In 2010, O’Neill took on another role that viewers still remember, and it took its toll on the actor. In a four-episode arc on “Grey’s Anatomy,” he played a man seeking revenge for his wife’s death by going on a shooting rampage throughout the series’ Seattle Grace Hospital. In a memorable season finale, Clark confronted Patrick Dempsey’s Derek Shepherd.
“It was very difficult, and I needed some therapy after it,” O’Neill said. “It’s still painful.”
Moving back to the South
By that time, O’Neill had married, and he and his wife, Mary, an attorney and sister of actor Michael O’Keefe, were raising their three young daughters in Marina Del Rey, California.
“My wife turned to me in our kitchen one day and said, ‘We’re moving to Birmingham,’” he recalls. “My career was at a pretty decent place, and my family was at a pretty decent place. We had chosen to homeschool our girls, and she said our girls were curious and wanted to go to school and there was nothing in California to suit them. Los Angeles is an image-driven city, and adolescent girls don’t need image-driven issues. We had dear friends in Birmingham that we visited a lot, so my girls knew it more than other cities.”
So eight years ago, the O’Neills packed up and moved to Mountain Brook. O’Neill, a Montgomery native who had grown up during the civil rights movement and didn’t have fond memories of his home state’s racial history, didn’t know what to expect, but he has been pleasantly surprised.
“It’s friendly and smart and I think progressive in some ways,” he said of Birmingham. “You have a lot of people in Birmingham who have repatriated there for the hospital industry, the banking industry, the restaurant industry. It’s a wonderful city.”
And their daughters have thrived. Their oldest, Ella, graduated summa cum laude from Auburn in December, and her father gave the commencement address. His younger twin daughters, Annie and Molly, are in school at Rhodes College and California Polytechnic State University.
Moving to Alabama didn’t mean O’Neill put his career on hold. “Sometimes I need to be in Los Angeles or New York,” he said. “I go for extended periods of time.”
The past year has been particularly busy, with O’Neill appearing in three feature films – “Clemency,” “The Stand at Paxton County” and “Indivisible” – and, among other series, the second season of “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” on Amazon.
Most recently, he has been in Savannah, Georgia, filming the first episodes of his new NBC series “Council of Dads,” which will premiere in March. Based on the book by Bruce Feiler, it’s about a young father, diagnosed with cancer, who puts together a group of six friends to help raise his daughters.
“I feel like I’ve been waiting on this one for 25 years,” O’Neill said. “It’s really, really powerful. I’ve done a lot of characters that have driven people apart, and this one may bring people together.”
O’Neill has appeared in more than 100 TV series and movies, playing senators, FBI agents, fathers, chaplains, disturbed killers – a wide array of roles. “There are certain things I won’t play,” he said. “I won’t play a racist, and I won’t play a guy who hurts a child.”
“Council of Dads” has already joined a list of O’Neill’s favorite projects.
“Clearly, Butterfield in ‘The West Wing’ is a favorite of mine, and ‘Seabiscuit’ was really important to me because I had three small children at the time,” he said. “I loved ‘Transformers’ for a different reason – I had never done one of those big, big films, and it was just a lot of fun. ‘The Unit’ meant a lot to me, because of the proud tradition in the South of serving in the military.”
That array of roles means that O’Neill gets recognized often.
“There are a lot of ‘West Wing’ or ‘Seabiscuit’ or ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ fans,” he said. “My wife sees it more than I do. What happens a lot is that people confuse me for someone they know because I’ve been in their living rooms. There’s a lot of that.”
And that’s just fine with O’Neill, who might never have gone into acting at all save for that kind word from Geer.
“I never thought this would happen, and the only part that I envisioned was that it would be better for me late than early,” said O’Neill, who turns 69 in May. “That seems to be what’s happening now. It was a busy year, a really busy year, and I’m thankful. I’m grateful they’re letting the old guy run.”