By Karen Middleton
For The News Courier
Michael O’Neill has been an extremely busy character actor in Hollywood for about 30 years, and everybody knows him — just not his name.
“I was riding the tram around Dallas-Fort Worth airport one day and some guy says to me, ‘You did a good job of landing that plane on the river,’” said O’Neill. “He thought I was Captain C.B. ‘Sully’ Sullenberger.”
He said that although he admires the pilot who successfully ditched the disabled US Airways Flight in the Hudson River off Manhattan in January 2009, getting mistaken for other well-known people or maybe just run-of-the mill people has become commonplace for him over the years.
“As a character actor, people will say, ‘I know you from somewhere,’” said O’Neill, who used as another example a convenience store clerk he met on a motor trip across the country who thought he was a guard from a local prison camp.
However, one of his lesser-known identities is being an Auburn classmate of Limestone County District Judge Jerry Batts. The two have maintained a friendship over the years. O’Neill, a Montgomery native, and his wife, Mary, have maintained a home in Marina Del Ray, Calif., for many years, but recently purchased a home in the Mountain Brook area.
Friday, O’Neill was guest speaker at the Athens Rotary meeting.
“I’ve been trying to get him here for 15 or 20 years,” said Batts. “We go back a few years to Auburn and I can say that acting is in Michael’s DNA.”
Batts said of the 1974 Auburn graduate that when actor Hal Holbrook bought his one-main play, “Mark Twain,” to Auburn, that O’Neill went for days after imitating Holbrook.
“Michael could do Mark Twain better than Holbrook,” said Batts. “He set a goal for himself and when he left Auburn he went west to make it in Hollywood. Will Geer, the actor who played the grandfather in ‘The Waltons,’ took him under his wing. We got a call from Michael that he was going to be in an episode of ‘The Waltons,’ called ‘Dance Marathon.’ We tuned in and got to see the back of his head in one scene. He’s come a long way since then.”
While O’Neill did spend some time under the tutelage of Geer and his daughter, Ellen Geer at Theatricum Botanicum in Los Angeles, he eventually moved to New York to further his career and training.
He is best known for his role as Special Agent Ron Butterfield, the head of President Josiah Bartlett’s Secret Service detail on “West Wing.” He also played CTU Administrative Director Richard Walsh in the first two episodes of “24.” He played Sgt. Maj. Ron Cheals in the action drama series, “The Unit.”
He starred in the Season 6 two-part finale of “Grey’s Anatomy” as a broken widower who holds the hospital hostage with a 9mm while pursuing Dr. Derek Shepherd as the one responsible for unplugging his wife’s life support. His most notable film performances were in “Seabiscuit”; “Secondhand Lions”; “Transformers”; “Dancer”; “Texas Pop”; “81”; “Traffic”; “Sea of Love”; “A Quiet Little Marriage”; “Nothing by the Truth,” and “Green Zone.”
But O’Neill says it was really Batts’ influence that launched his Hollywood career. He said he had to make a speech to a national alumni association in Muncie, Ind., and remembered hearing a speech by a fellow Auburn student in which he quoted from Charles Dickens’ opening chapter of “A Tale of Two Cities” – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and a Theodore Roosevelt quote – “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better…”
That fellow student was Jerry Batts.
“I stole from Jerry Batts,” said O’Neill. “So for whatever I’ve accomplished over the last 30 years I lay at Jerry Batts’ feet.”
O’Neill said Will Geer heard a recording of his Muncie speech and was impressed with his delivery and said, “to snap me up before the corporate structure.”
He said that before that he had never been on stage except when he played a leaf in a first-grade school play in which he had no lines.
Preparing for roles
When asked by an audience member how he prepares for roles, O’Neill said he consults actual experts in the field of the character he portrays. Such as when he played the distraught widower who goes on a shooting rampage in Seattle Grace Hospital on “Grey’s Anatomy,” he talked with a profiler who studies mass shooters.
“He told me that shooters act on total whim,” he said. “Once they start shooting it’s at random, at anyone.”
O’Neill said when he played the character of Special Agent Ron Butterfield on “West Wing,” and the script featured an assassination attempt on the president, he talked with script consultant Jerry Parr, who was the retired Secret Service agent who pushed President Ronald Reagan into his car after the assassination attempt by John Hinckley in March 1981.
“They didn’t know that the president was wounded,” said O’Neill. “He said as they sped away they were taking President Reagan to the safety of the White House when the president said, ‘I think you broke my rib when you pushed me into the car on the hump.’ Reagan took a napkin and wiped blood away from his mouth in which there where bubbles, and Parr immediately recognized that it was a lung shot. He radioed back to the SUV following them, ‘Bronco, we have a problem,’ and they diverted to an inner-city hospital.
“Reagan said he wanted to walk into the hospital on his own power because he didn’t want the American people to see him incapacitated but by the time they got to the hospital, Reagan virtually had no blood pressure, so the agents had to get on each side of him and ‘walk’ him into the hospital.
“When I asked him what moment of that incident that he was proudest of, he said it was a ‘corporate failure,’ but he said he was proud that he was able to keep anyone away from the president that wasn’t involved in his critical care. When I acted on ‘West Wing,’ I was able to reenact that scene. There is no higher calling that to protect the president at all costs – even to give up your own life for the president.”