Alfre Woodward, the talented actress says to me, “I’ve got someone I want you to meet.”
“Okay,” I agreed.
She led me to a corner seat in the rented party room at the Santa Monica, California Airport. The party was for her husband’s birthday. The room was a who’s who of Hollywood stars having a good time outside the bright lights.
As soon as I saw the guy she wanted me to meet I told her, “I know this guy.” Of course I knew him. He was the secret service agent guarding the President every week on the hit TV show The West Wing.
But… there was something else. I actually knew this guy. He knew me as well. We excitedly shook hands. Alfre said, “I believe you are both from Alabama.”
That was true. He’s from Montgomery. I’m from Birmingham.
But, we’re more than that.
We immediately recognized each other because we’d both gone to Auburn University during the same time period. We had not been close friends, not even close acquaintances. We knew of each other the way you know of someone who has achieved some notoriety on a campus of 20,000 students. He had been involved in student government and his fraternity. I’d played football and written for the school paper.
It didn’t take us long to reacquaint. We soon got together for dinner with our wives and we’ve been fast friends ever since.
Michael O’Neill, “Michael O” I call him, is a professional actor. He knows his business. His IMDb page proves that. He has worked in more than 75 episodes of television and 30 films. Michael O has worked in New York, Los Angeles and across Canada. He’s worked with Alfre Woodard of course, Halley Berry, Martin Sheen, Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, and a host of others. Everyone except…
We often say between the two of us we have nearly 50-years of combined experience, more than 115 episodes of television and nearly 40 films. We have worked ER, Cold Case, Without A Trace, Boston Legal, Close To Home, The West Wing, NYPD Blue and Chicago Hope. But never had we worked together, until 2016.
Our Alma Mater, Auburn University, and the whole Auburn Nation was deeply involved in a $1 Billion Fundraising campaign. Michael O, I and others were asked to host, MC and dramatize a live 90 minute show in support of the campaign in Dallas, Houston, Tampa, Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville, New York, and Washington D.C. We relished the opportunity to work together and to support our Alma Mater.
I caught up with him by phone for this post and it was like old times.
TG: Where are you?
Michael O: Working on a film in Memphis. Where are you?
TG: In Florida. I’m home for the next five days and then off again.
Michael O: Five days sounds like a vacation.
TG: Caught a break. I’m in and out the next three weeks.
TG: I have to ask you; we got to work together on the Auburn Campaign Events. What did it mean to you?
Michael O: It’s nice to give something back. It’s what you hope a college education can do. It reflects further than we could imagine. It’s easy to participate because I believe so strongly in the Performing Arts Center (coming to campus) and not just because you and I are in the arts but also because it’s important to our students and their interest, their outlook and their experience as they go out to shape the world.
TG: Talk about the night Alfre introduced us.
Michael O: That was funny! I remember my daughter Ella was 5-6 weeks old. It was the first time my wife, Mary and I had been out in a long time. We wanted to get out.
I had just worked on a project with Alfre, “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag.” We had so much fun working together.
TG: She’s great. (TG worked with Ms. Woodard on Miss Evers’ Boys).
Michael O: That night in Santa Monica she told me, “I got somebody you got to meet.” She walked up with you and right away I said ‘I know him. We were in school together.’ I knew of you from campus, not just from playing football.
TG: That’s funny I told her the same thing. I know him. That turned out to be a special night.
Michael O: Yep.
TG: Talk about your current project.
Michael O: It’s set in Iraq. A young man goes off to war, gets thrown in the middle of everything and comes back with PTDS. He loses his faith and family. There is a very spiritual message to it. I play his mentor. Military guy.
TG:Do you get immersed in your characters? How far have your gone with this guy you’re playing?
Michael O: I’ve done so many films playing military guys and know quite a few guys. I consider it an honor. They help me with the research. I try to be very respectful. It has to be believable. I tell them, ‘don’t let me get caught acting.’
TG: Of all the projects you’ve done, what’s your favorite character and why?
Michael O: Mr. Pollard in“SeaBiscuit.”One of the first times I’ve wanted something so badly and got it. I blew it wide open in the audition. There were a lot of guys high above me in the food chain who were in line for that job, but they chose me in the audition. The character was actually written better in the film than in the book.
TG: I often like to say the profession is like being a migrant worker. Here today, on to the next gig tomorrow.
Michael O: I’ve worked in so many places. That’s been part of the cultural education. Off the top of my head let’s see what I can name. New York and Toronto several times, Based in LA, so all up and down California; Santa Fe, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, New Orleans, El Paso, all over Texas; Fort Davis Texas, Alpine Texas, Houston, and Austin. Umm, Lexington, Kentucky, Florida, London…
TG: I want you to tell me the Sully story; but first talk about being recognized on the street.
Michael O: (Laughter!) Will Geer (“The Walton’s” and “Jeremiah Johnson”) mentored me. He taught me that it’s more important to be interested in the other person rather than yourself. You have to want to give back to them. You’re sharing an experience with them. It feeds me as much as it does them. Whenever someone recognizes me on the street, my daughters(3) will always bring me back to earth. They roll their eyes at the fact I’m talking to someone I don’t know.
It’s always cool when we’re both together and someone recognizes the both of us.
TG:Yeah that’s always fun!
TG: Tell the Sully story.
Michael O: I’m riding down this elevatorand this guy is stealing glances at me. When the door opens before he gets out, he says, ‘You did a good job, landing that plane on the Hudson River.’ I responded, Thank you!
TG: Any of your girls following in your footsteps?
Michael O: Nope: They’ll find their own way.
TG: What advice do you give to those who ask you about becoming an actor?
Michael O: I tell them, especially if they are asking for their children. I tell them regardless of how far their child goes in the business or if they even get into the actual business part of it; it teaches you so much. Creativity, to run your own business, listening, collaborate with others, teaches you to be observant, teaches you to be in life’s light when it’s your turn and to not be when it’s not.
TG: We still going to do a show together?
Michael O: You bet!