Ron O’Neal

Ron O’Neal

Ron O’Neal was a very charismatic actor who starred in some successful movies in the 1970’s.   He was born in New York City in 1937.   He achieved fame on the stage and made his film debut in 1971 in “The Organisation”.   He gained stardom with his performance as Youngblood Priest in “Superfly” in 1972.   His other movies include “A Force of One” in 1979, “When A Stranger Calls”  and “The Final Countdown” in 1980.   He died in 2004.

Gary Brumburgh’s entry:

Forever tagged as the super baaaaaaad “Super Fly,” actor Ron O’Neal has spent his entire post 70s career trying to break the chains of a stereotype that made him his fortune. Of tough, humble beginnings, Ron was the son of a wannabe jazz musician who became a factory worker in order to support the family, growing up in Cleveland’s black ghetto. He managed to attend Ohio State University for a single semester before developing an interest in theater and joining Cleveland’s Karamu House, an interracial acting troupe, training there for nine years (1957-1966). He arrived in New York in 1967 and taught acting in Harlem to support himself, jointly appearing in summer stock and off-Broadway shows at the same time. He received critical notice in 1970 in Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre production of “No Place to Be Somebody,” in which he won the Obie, Drama Desk, Clarence Derwent and Theatre World awards for his dynamite performance. The timing couldn’t have been more ‘right on’ for this dude with the tough, streetwise style and attitude to spare — perfect for Hollywood what with the arrival of the “blaxploitation” films that were taking over at the time. Ron became an overnight star as the hip, funky anti-hero in the action-driven flick Super Fly (1972), playing one cool drug dealer who wants out of the business, taking out the entire syndicate one by one (or two by two as need be). He made his debut as a director the following year with the equally violent sequel, Super Fly T.N.T. (1973), which again starred himself. But the genre soon turned to uncool parody and within a couple of years, O’Neal was struggling badly, playing support roles and even less by the end of the decade. Although he managed to co-star in the TV series “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” and “The Equalizer” in the 80s, it’s been an uphill battle all the way for him to obliterate this stubborn image of the supercool Priest with his fu-manchu like beard and dazzling white suit. He has appeared as both hero and villain in a number of action low budgets since, including Mercenary Fighters (1987), Trained to Kill (1988) and Up Against the Wall (1991), which he also directed. In 1996, he joined other former 70s black action stars, including Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Richard Roundtree and Pam Grier, in a revival of the violent genre entitled Original Gangstas (1996). He passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2004.

– IMDb Mini Biography By: Gary Brumburgh /

Ronald Bergan’s “Guardian” obituary:

Ron O’Neal, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 66, spent most of his professional life trying to live down his role of the bad-ass Youngblood Priest in Superfly (1972), one of the key blaxploitation movies of the decade. His interpretation of the long-haired, ultra-hip, ultra-violent cocaine dealer, who wore tight white suits and drove a customised Cadillac, made him into an instant star, mainly among the vast urban black movie-going public.

They delighted in seeing their people no longer treated on the screen as servants or saints, or as a “problem”. The blaxploitation movies would eventually lead to such films as Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon, and O’Neal, with Richard Roundtree (Shaft), Jim Brown (Slaughter), Pam Grier (Foxy Brown), Fred Williamson (Black Caesar) and Richard Pryor (The Mack), became a role model for the likes of Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, Martin Lawrence and Halle Berry.

When voices were raised against the blaxploitation movies – for giving a stereotypical view of blacks, and glorifying crime – O’Neal protested that the point of the film was missed. He claimed that Youngblood Priest got into his drug-pushing life, not out of choice, but because of his social and economic position, and that he “actually wants out of the business after one last big score.”

In order to address some of the criticism levelled at Superfly, O’Neal directed and starred in the sequel Superfly T.N.T. (1973), transplanting Youngblood Priest from Harlem to a small African country, and getting him to fight for the greater good. It was no surprise, however, that the film was a box-office failure; everything that had made its predecessor so entertaining was jettisoned.

O’Neal’s career never fully recovered, and, after the 1970s, he found it difficult to make the transition from blaxploitation movies into more mainstream films. “Outside New York, people assumed I really was a hustler,” he told an interviewer in 1979. “Superfly took me from relative obscurity, but I haven’t been offered that many roles since.”

O’Neal was born in Utica, in New York state, and grew up in the Cleveland ghetto, the son of a wannabe jazz musician who became a factory worker to support the family. After one academically disastrous term at Ohio State University, the young O’Neal went to see an amateur production of the musical Finian’s Rainbow, in which a bigoted southern senator turns black. “It blew my mind,” he recalled. “I’d never seen a play before.”

He immediately joined Karamu House, an interracial theatre troupe, with whom, for the next six years, he played everything from Walter Lee, in A Raisin In The Sun, to Stanley Kowalski, in A Streetcar Named Desire. He earned money working as a house painter.

After moving to New York 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 No Place To Be Somebody, as a pimp and barkeeper trying to take control of local rackets. The work earned him a number of awards, and caught the attention of the Superfly producers.

O’Neal’s subsequent film career was undistinguished, made up mainly of appearances in low-budget, violent thrillers, such as A Force Of One (1979).

On television, aside from guest appearances in series like Murder She Wrote and Hill Street Blues, he took leading roles in the mini-series Bring ‘Em Back Alive (1982-83) and The Equalizer (1985-89). In 1996, he joined blaxploitation stars Pam Grier, Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and Richard Roundtree in Larry Cohen’s Original Gangstas, but it was a pale copy of the films that made their reputations. His last movie was On The Edge (2002), in which he appeared with Williamson and the rapper Ice-T.

He is survived by his wife Audrey.

· Ron O’Neal, actor, born September 1 1937; died January 14 2004

The above “Guardian” obituary can be also accessed online here.

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