A Tribute to Patrick O’Neal

Warner Bros. Pictures

Warner Bros. Pictures

Editor’s note: As part of our Halloween theme, we have asked some guests to contribute their thoughts on the season. JoAnna Jones joins us again for a tribute to her favorite actor, Patrick O’Neal. O’Neal had a varied career in film and television, but he made his mark in several horror-themed productions from The Twilight Zone to the classic – and unjustly overlooked – Chamber of Horrors.

Released to theaters on October 28, 1966, audiences watched the story of one Jason Cravette, who, after being found guilty of murdering his newlywed bride, chops off his own hand in order to escape from the law. The film was Chamber of Horrors and its star as the unhinged, but smooth operator was well-known character actor Patrick O’Neal.

Most people remember O’Neal as a familiar face and perpetual guest star on many TV shows of the 1970s and 1980s before his passing in 1994. Fans of the horror and sci-fi genres are probably most familiar with his turn as the Baltimore Butcher in Chamber, but O’Neal also had a lengthy resume in a variety of appearances in both television and movies.

Prior to his many guest turns later in his career, O’Neal had a very interesting resume of roles. Many probably recall the urbane O’Neal with a cold look made all the more intimidating with his intense, equally icy blue eyes. However, O’Neal’s earlier acting roles are incredibly varied and show an interesting range of characterizations which are not showcased in his later appearances. Prior to these appearances, O’Neal found a niche in which he often played, very convincingly, characters of wild emotion on the verge of breakdown. In many films and shows during the 50s and 60s, you will often find O’Neal in this particular role and turning in many good performances in the process in films such as King Rat (1965) and Castle Keep (1969).

Columbia Pictures

Columbia Pictures

When not playing the “crack up” characterizations, he was often cast in the role of villain or men who were “greatly misunderstood.” In 1965, months before his fine turn as George Segal’s toady in King Rat, he was lackey to Dana Andrews in Otto Preminger’s In Harms Way (also released in 1965). This is probably one of his more recognizable movie roles which featured the smarmy O’Neal on the receiving end of a series of bitch slaps in a memorable scene at the hands of Kirk Douglas.

Patrick O’Neal’s unique blend of acting abilities led to several memorable appearances in the horror and sci-fi shows of the time where he played both sides of the coin — hero and villain — and both very convincingly as the script warranted.

His first role in the genre dates back to 1954 in one of Vincent Price’s most entertaining horror films: The Mad Magician. O’Neal portrayed Lt. Alan Bruce, a detective who also has the hots for Karen Lee (Mary Murphy) when he’s not gathering and solving clues committed in the film. O’Neal has competition in the love department as Karen Lee also happens to be the assistant of the deranged magician, Gallico the Great (Price). We learn that Gallico also has feelings for her in his own twisted way.

The role of Alan Bruce is not remarkable. It’s a leading man role and O’Neal turns in an admirable job. He blends well with the film, but Vinnie makes the film gold, of course. O’Neal is the good guy and must put an end to Gallico’s evil ways which leads to a scene in which O’Neal and Price square off in the film’s climax in a hilarious (not meant to be) fight scene. But, what wasn’t so funny for Vinnie was that O’Neal went slightly overboard during the close-ups of the fight scene and did a number accidentally on Vincent’s nose, which eventually required Price to have plastic surgery to fix the problem.

In 1959, a guest appearance on One Step Beyond in the episode “The Return of Mitchell Campion,” was a Twilight Zone-like entry in the series in which Campion (O’Neal) takes a vacation to an island and is known by everyone despite the fact that he’s never been there before this particular visit. Or has he? We learn that Campion was a victim in a car accident, died on the table, was brought back and then after a lengthy recovery was told to go on vacation, and he picked this particular island. It becomes a question of what happened during that time he died on the table and how does it related to him coming to this island … again? By this point, you see shades of why he was considered good at the “crack up” roles. Poor Mitchell Campion is just as confused as we, the audience, are at this point. However, O’Neal makes it believable in the way he reacts to the unusual situation. His performance really makes you buy into the craziness that is unraveling on this little, remote island and how the cosmos had other plans for Mitchell Campion from a small town in Ohio.

CBS

CBS

Rod Serling did utilize O’Neal’s services for a Twilight Zone episode in 1963 with “A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain.” The episode deals with the fountain of youth and features the 36-year-old O’Neal as Harmon Gordon, a successful businessman in his seventies. Married to gold digger wife Flora, played to perfection by Ruta Lee, Harmon plays guinea pig for his scientist brother Raymond’s (The Graduate’s Mr. Robinson aka Walter Brooke) youth serum so he can twist and shout with Flora rather than 23 Skidoo. The serum is successful and O’Neal sheds the old man makeup. However, his youth really does catch up with him and the serum proceeds to turn back the clock until old Harmon is baby Harmon once again. Brother Raymond, who loathes Flora, puts all the responsibility on Flora to take care of baby Harmon, much to her dismay.

It’s an entertaining episode helmed by fine performances by O’Neal, Lee and Brooke with an average script. Following its initial telecast, the episode, due to a plagiarism suit, was never featured in the syndication package until the mid-1980s when O’Neal hosted the Silver Anniversary Special of the Twilight Zone. It is also amusing to note that O’Neal’s make-up man from the 1963 episode was pretty accurate at the time interpreting what O’Neal would look like as an older man. So much so, in fact, that O’Neal himself joked about it during a segment of the anniversary special.

MGM

MGM

Another popular show of the time utilized O’Neal’s talents with the portrayal of scientist Jonathan Meredith. The show was The Outer Limits and the episode was “Wolf 359.” This famous episode’s plot has O’Neal creating a miniature planet that evolves, and along the way develops a creature that is downright bad news as it not only poses a major threat to the planet Meredith has created, but also to anyone and anything outside of the supposed controlled experiment area.

This episode marks one of O’Neal’s finer genre appearances and is an example of what he was capable of as an actor when he was given the opportunity. O’Neal runs the gamut of emotions here, all rather convincingly and makes the infamous evil hand puppet entity appear as an actual threat to the world. The 37-year-old actor commands the role and with the support of a fine cast, “Wolf 359” remains a memorable entry in the series.

Following “Wolf 359,” O’Neal took a break from TV and concentrated on film work like In Harm’s Way, King Rat, A Fine Madness and Alvarez Kelly. After giving William Holden several headaches as the arrogant Major Steadman in Alvarez Kelly, O’Neal starred in his finest genre film: Chamber of Horrors. Originally a pilot for a TV series, Chamber was considered a bit much for television at the time. Not wasting this interesting production, time was added to plot and released as a motion picture during the Halloween season of 1966.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Warner Bros. Pictures

As Jason Cravette, O’Neal shines. This film is easily his finest performance as an actor and showcases his talents and plays to his strengths. As Cravette, O’Neal seems to be the love child of Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. It’s a very interesting characterization, and despite the fact of being the film’s villain, you can’t help not liking Cravette. The actor is having fun and just like Vincent Price in many of his films, O’Neal’s enthusiasm is indeed catchy. Chamber of Horrors is definitely a film that should be on one’s list to check out if they’re a horror film fan. Once it’s on that list, it will more than likely remain a favorite.

United Artists

United Artists

O’Neal dabbled with the invisibility theme in the 1967 film Matchless (aka Mission Top Secret) as Perry Liston, a newspaperman who is given a special ring which allows him to become invisible. The invisibility concept in Matchless is more geared towards the popular Eurospy films of the time. However, this amusing Italian-made film features genre favorite Donald Pleasance as the eccentric Gregori Andreanu and perennial villain, Henry Silva, as Hank — the thorn in Perry Liston’s side. Silva you might remember from John Landis’ hilarious Amazon Women on the Moon as the host in the “Bullshit or Not?” segment.

Universal Television

Universal Television

Keeping busy in a variety of films and T shows throughout the 60s and early 70s, O’Neal made a return to the creepy in a memorable 1971 episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. Alongside actress Kim Stanley, the two paired up for “A Fear of Spiders,” a 20 minute segment helmed by actor John Astin. Besides Chamber of Horrors, this is this author’s favorite O’Neal genre appearance. A fantastic character piece between a pompous writer and critic (O’Neal) and his lovesick neighbor (Stanley) and how the tables can turn in needing each other. While Stanley looks for romance with her neighbor Justus Walters (O’Neal) and is constantly rejected, a spider found in the apartment of Walters attempts to change that relationship due to his massive fear and anxiety of his 8-legged friend in the kitchen sink. However, this is where the fun begins, and both Stanley and O’Neal have a field day, along Tom Pedi in a small, but amusing bit as Mr. Boucher, the landlord. Between John Astin’s fine direction and our two main actors, this episode is a quite a treat and well worth a look. By the way, there is one spider special effect that might make you laugh — however, remember that the budget wasn’t so hot for the series.

Silent Night, Bloody Night made its way to audiences in 1972. It sat on the shelf for two years before making its way to the theaters. Featuring two familiar faces from the classic Hollywood era, John Carradine and Walter Abel, the film features New York-based actors filmed in and around locations of Long Island. It’s an ambitious little project which New Yorker O’Neal lent his services as a realtor finalizing the transaction of the supposed spooky house (of course!) to the town’s elders. O’Neal checks out about 30 minutes into the movie after the film’s maniac does what he does best. Look for some of Andy Warhol’s superstars such as Mary Woronov, Ondine and Candy Darling taking a break from The Factory to make appearances in the film.

Columbia Pictures

Columbia Pictures

“Something strange is happening in the town of Stepford. Where the men spend their nights doing something secret. And every woman acts like every man’s dream of the ‘perfect’ wife.” In 1975, this was the infamous tagline of The Stepford Wives. As Dale Coba, O’Neal is the sinister mastermind behind the creation of the perpetually chipper and aiming to please wives in the town of Stepford. Katharine Ross plays the rightfully suspicious Joanna Eberhart, who has just moved there with her husband, and notices the oddball quality the neighborhood possesses. While getting settled into her new digs, she meets Bobbie (Paula Prentiss), a brash woman who isn’t afraid to shake things up a little bit with the fine folks of Stepford. Joanna and Bobbie’s suspicions don’t sit well with Coba, and that marks trouble for Joanna and Bobbie.

In a well-known scene, Joanna’s first interaction with Dale Coba sets
the stage:

Joanna Eberhart: Why do they call you Diz?
Dale Coba: I used to work in Disneyland.
Joanna Eberhart: No, really!
Dale Coba: No. Really.
Joanna Eberhart: I don’t believe you.
Dale Coba: Why not?
Joanna Eberhart: You don’t seem to be the kind of
person that likes to make other people happy.

This particular interaction sets the scene that will lead into the horrible secrets that the men of Stepford keep hidden. O’Neal is just about perfect as Dale Coba — he is cold, ruthless and makes you uneasy every step of the way as he achieves his bizarre goals. The viewer will dislike him immediately and the vibe and look of Coba puts the viewer on creepy alert. O’Neal’s Coba has a serpentine-like quality, and his performance in The Stepford Wives is a masterclass in how to create the perfectly human villain.

Pushing the fast forward button to 1985, Larry Cohen’s The Stuff was released. Cohen, who worked with O’Neal previously in the 60s series Coronet Blue, cast the actor as Fletcher, the executive bigwig who brings The Stuff to the masses. This was O’Neal’s last excursion in the genre. The part seems more like a favor to the director than anything as screen time is limited. However, he is having fun with the part of the corrupted businessman and the scenes between him and Michael Moriarty are well-played. The naughty Mr. Fletcher meets his just desserts (hahahaha, get it? OK, never mind.) when he is force fed his own product, and we learn first-hand do you eat The Stuff or does The Stuff eat you?

TriStar Pictures

TriStar Pictures

Following The Stuff, O’Neal continued to work in television and film as an in-demand actor and even landed one of his best movie parts in Sidney Lumet’s Q & A, alongside Nick Nolte and Timothy Hutton, as the corrupted homicide chief Kevin Quinn. The scene where he sings to Timothy Hutton a few lines of Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera” to prove his point on how he is untouchable in the current situation that Hutton is attempting to nail him on is eerie, unsettling and pretty damn cool.

Patrick O’Neal had an incredibly long, varied and successful acting career. He stopped working in 1993 following a series of serious medical conditions which included a mental breakdown, brain surgery, tuberculosis and then cancer, which ultimately took his life in September 1994. While he is duly recognized for his fantastic portrayal in Chamber of Horrors, O’Neal has contributed other interesting performances in the horror, sci-fi and fantasy genres as well as performances that might make you look at his career in a different light.

Note from the Author: This article is dedicated to my friend, Don Leifert, who always kidded me about Patrick O’Neal being one of my favorite actors. One day he asked my advice on what he should watch to appreciate him more as an actor. I gave him a list, Don did his homework and saw him in a different light afterwards and became a fan, borrowing DVDs and all. He was having so much fun that he wanted to do a piece with me on O’Neal for a publication. However, not long after that, Don unexpectedly passed away in his sleep. Well, Don … it’s 5 years later, but here is an article on Patrick thanks to Hotchka!

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2 Comments

  1. Wow, well done article on one of Hollywood’s premiere character actors! Just great! O’Neal’s name in the credits for any guest star or film made it a must watch. Thanks for giving him the recognition he deserves!

  2. Thank you so much, Deb! Glad that you enjoyed the article. I was an enjoyable piece to write and I’m happy that others are sharing the enthusiasm. :)