By Bob Jackson
Everywhere Ed O’Neill’s career has taken him over the years, his roots have always remained firmly planted in his Youngstown upbringing.
“I’ve taken [Youngstown] everywhere,” the star of “Modern Family” and “Married...With Children” said Saturday. “I grew up here, so this place shaped my sense of humor, anything I did athletically came from here, I loved the music here in Youngstown. I took it all with me.”
O’Neill spoke with the press shortly after he’d given the address at Youngstown State University’s spring undergraduate commencement, during which he received an honorary doctor of arts degree.
He left Youngstown nearly 40 years ago to pursue a career in acting, and doesn’t get to return home as often as he’d like. But even while living the life of a TV star at his homes in California and Hawaii, there still are things he misses about his hometown.
“I miss the local Italian food here,” he said. “And I miss how green it is here.”
O’Neill said he and his wife, Catherine Rusoff, drove from Poland to Lowellville on Friday and soaked in the local scenery. “It’s beautiful,” he said.
Dressed in gray pants and a dark blue T-shirt, O’Neill casually reminisced about his life in Youngstown, where he grew up on the North Side and graduated from Ursuline High School. The house where he grew up has since been torn down.
“Sometimes when you come back it’s kind of like you’re a ghost because your house, a lot of your friends, sometimes whole neighborhoods are all gone,” he said.
He enrolled at YSU in the late 1960s, where he played defensive lineman for the football team and ended up being drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969, although he was cut and didn’t make the team.
“I loved football, but if I had it to do over again I wouldn’t have played,” O’Neill said, citing the toll that the brutality of the sport often takes on its players.
“The game is not designed for the bodies we have.”
But O’Neill said it was his participation in a totally different team at YSU that really sparked his interest and finally gave him direction in life. He’d gotten interested in theater, and had landed small parts in a couple Youngstown Playhouse productions before enrolling at YSU and becoming involved in its theater program.
“It was good training,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of [acting] stuff, but it all started here.”
When he left in 1977 to pursue acting in the Big Apple, O’Neill said it was the theatrical training he’d gotten in Youngstown that carried him through the hungry years to eventual fame as Al Bundy.
“I don’t think I would have succeeded had I not had the confidence that I gained from doing all those shows here,” he said.
O’Neill said he initially resented being constantly identified with Al Bundy after “Married... With Children” ended its 11-year run because he was concerned about being typecast and not being able to land more work. Eventually, though, through the encouragment of his wife, he embraced the character and the fame it had brought him.
When “Modern Family” came along, he recognized it as a potential hit and was eager to sign on.
He said making a speech in front of hundreds of graduates and their families Saturday made him a little nervous.
“That’s a little bit different than what I do,” he said. “But I think it went well.”