Aesthetically Speaking

Superfly star, Ron O’Neal, largely unsung in Tinsel Town

When Ron O’Neal, age 66, died of pancreatic cancer January 14 at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, it marked yet another largely unsung passing of a gifted African American actor. All too often the way of things… When Ron O’Neal, age 66, died of pancreatic cancer January 14 at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, it marked yet another largely unsung passing of a gifted African American actor. All too often the way of things for America’s film industry, which, despite big names like Denzel Washington and Halle Berry, is failure to value anywhere near its full compliment of talented actors, instead giving preference to European American actors, whether particularly talented or not.

O’Neal put in his dues, training at Karamu House, what you could call a Negro Ensemble Company, Penumbra Theatre or Crossroads Theatre for Cleveland. Langston Hughes once wrote there. Emmy-winning actor Robert Guillaume honed his skills at the house that Carol Khan built. In 1970, O’Neal won the Obie Award as the misfit protagonist of Charles Gordone’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama No Place To Be Somebody at Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival. Two years later he starred as Priest in the hit Superfly (a thoughtful, inventive and remarkably uplifting testament to ingenuity and indomitable will that is still mislabeled and dismissed as “blaxploitation”). After this meteoric rise from stage prominence to cinematic stardom, O’Neal became a virtual has-been so fast it’s almost like he never was. As Hollywood’s investment in milking the “blaxploitation” cash cow ended, O’Neal slipped straight into obscurity. He directed and starred in Superfly T.N.T. in 1973, then never got cast in another leading role. In fact, his film appearances were comparatively few and far between, usually showing up here or there in a blink-and-you-miss-him capacity. Just doesn’t make sense.

Over the years, O’Neal did pick up television work, but his career was nothing like where his auspicious start would’ve led had he been European American. Most notable was the role of Clarence ‘Claire’ Henderson in The Sophisticated Gents Melvin Van Peebles’ 1981 adaptation of novelist John A. Williams’ classic “The Junior Bachelor Society”. That and 1987 guest stints as Whitley Glibert’s dad on The Cosby Show’s superb spin-off A Different World. Work in feature films concluded with Original Gangstas (1996) for which he joined Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Richard Roundtree and Pam Grier and On The Edge (2002) with Williamson and Ice-T. He directed and acted in Up Against the Wall (1991).

Granted, O’Neal didn’t do too bad for a Black actor. And made out better than a lot of Latinos and Asians, not to mention Native Americans. That’s not the point. The point is that it shouldn’t have been about not doing badly for a Black actor.

What happened to O’Neal happened to a host of talented actors, among them Lou Gossett Jr. whose phone actually stopped ringing after he won the Oscar for An Officer and a Gentleman. Victor Love had his first and last lead role with Native Son. Entrenched discrimination similarly has placed a glass ceiling over the careers of Esai Morales (Latino American), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Japanese American) and Sonny Landham (Native American. Hence, when the February 22nd Screen Actors Guild Awards and February 29th Academy Awards ceremonies take place, it will not be to acknowledge the best actors in the business. It will be to acknowledge the best European American actors. Oscar nominees Benecio del Toro, Djimon Hounsou and Queen Latifah are stark exceptions that prove the rule — as the landscape at large definitively excludes actors of color.

One would like to think that change is possible, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Hollywood. After all these years, it still bottlenecks minority talent. And shows every sign of continuing to do so over the foreseeable future. This despite the continued protests of the NAACP and the efforts of activist actors like Ann Marie Johnson (In the Heat of the Night) and Hal Williams (Sanford and Son)

It’d be nice to see the

February 16, 2004
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