21 News Exclusive: Valley native Ed O'Neill discusses career - 21 News Now, More Local News for Youngstown, Ohio -

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21 News Exclusive: Valley native Ed O'Neill talks about his career and growing up in the Valley

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio - He's an example that someone from Youngstown can make it all the way to Hollywood. 21 News anchor Leslie Barrett sat down with actor Ed O'Neill who opened up about his Mahoning Valley roots, the impact the area has had on his career and his journey to the top.

O'Neill doesn't get back to his hometown very often. His immediate family doesn't live here anymore, but when he does return the people at Carchedi's restaurant in Lowellville treat him like family.

"You feel like a ghost in many ways. The things that were here before are gone. So it's kind of bitter sweet in a funny way," O'Neill said.

O'Neill grew up in a house on the north side at the corner of North Heights and Ohio Avenues. The house isn't there anymore, the neighborhood has changed, but his memories are longstanding.

His uncles through marriage had a major impact on his acting career.

"At family gatherings I used to sit and listen to them tell stories and there were a few others in the family, great uncles, who were very funny storytellers. I think I got some of that from them listening to them as a young kid. I must have."

McHale's Navy and Disney actor Joe Flynn was related to O'Neill's mother's family- the Quinlans. Flynn even lived on the second floor apartment in the same house as O'Neill.

"I never spoke to him, certainly not about acting. I was like nine or 10. I was playing baseball. I didn't even know what it was," he said.

At Ursuline High School in the early 60s he was involved in the oratorical competition and plays but he never thought of becoming a professional actor.

As a small guy on the football team, he became especially focused on the sport his junior year and approached Coach Jerry Hanlon.

"I know I was stammering. I was terrified of the guy. I said I think what I should do because I'm only 150 (lbs.) and now I'm fourth string and I want to start next year. And he was like (O'Neill imitates him and looks at his watch). I said I'm thinking of quitting and then going to the Y(MCA) everyday to lift weights instead of standing out here holding bags. I thought that made perfect sense, but of course as a coach, his response was kid if you quit now you won't even get a uniform next year. So I said ok. I don't think I said I am going to quit. I just walked away and then I did quit. I got as fanatical with that after that as I did with acting later on. Once I would get onto something, I mean would quit jobs I would be a major screw up, but when I got onto something it was all out."

It's an insight into his personal drive that paved the way for him to start his senior year and to go on to play at Ohio University, Youngstown State University and with the Steelers.  

Then the theater became O'Neill's guiding light when he was cut by the Steelers and he was trying to find his direction in the early 70s.

"I think I saw an ad in the paper for tryouts at the (Youngstown) Playhouse for a movie I had seen (The Rainmaker). I went out there, I didn't get it, horrible, and then eventually right around that time I got in some little production and I loved it. I just started to become sort of obsessed with it," he said.

O'Neill got his start on stages in Youngstown at YSU and the Youngstown Playhouse. Even in his bio for a performance at the playhouse, his fate was predicted. It reads "his name will become indelibly inscribed as one of our most talented stars."

When he moved on to New York City and was working in a restaurant, he found out an actor in the Broadway show "Knockout" needed to learn how to box. O'Neill taught him some moves and auditioned to become his understudy.

"I got the job and then two weeks later the guy I was backing up they fired and I got the job.  I went from busing tables for no tips to co-starring on Broadway, (he snaps his fingers) like that."

That big break led to several movie roles and then to the character that would make him famous in 1986- Al Bundy in "Married with Children."

"I was actually imitating one of those uncles I mentioned, who actually was in fact a 7th District Appeals Court judge state of Ohio, one of the top guys but he had that self deprecating kind of sense of humor where he expected things to go wrong and they did and so I imitated him at the audition."

His imitation of his uncle Joe O'Neill resonated with people. After O'Neill performed in the FOX sitcom 11 years, he didn't really want to commit to another half hour show.

So he passed on "Modern Family" when the creators first pitched the idea. He agreed to read the script when it was done a year later and that's when he knew he had to get on board with the ABC comedy that's now heading into its fifth season.

"When I went to the first table read I didn't know anyone in it. Sofia Vergara was sitting where you are and I thought I know why they cast her but I hope she can read. I didn't know any of the actors. We started reading it, five minutes in I go these people are good."

In his real family life, he and his wife Catherine Rusoff have two daughters, Sophia and Claire. Sophia, who is almost 14 years old, appeared in an episode of Modern Family during a Bat Mitzvah scene and she wants to become an actress.

Even after his latest accomplishment, an honorary degree from YSU, he still has more aspirations.

"A movie. Some good movie that I can do well," O'Neill said.

In the near future, you'll hear his voice as the disgruntled octopus in the sequel to Finding Nemo and you may recognize him in the Zyrtec "Love the Air" commercials.

"If you're muddling through your allergies that sort of thing.  It's me."

When asked to reflect on what he's most proud of in his career he said "that I worked, that I got to where I could do it professionally was a big deal because so many don't."

Realizing just how lucky he is that his determination, hard work and thick skin has led to applause in show biz.

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