Interview date: 09/14/2009
Run date: 09/22/2009
Ed O’Neill is making his return to the world of sitcoms as part of the ensemble of ABC’s “Modern Family,” his first foray into TV comedy since the end of “Married with Children.” It took awhile for O’Neill to come to terms with the public’s tendency to associate him with his longest-running character, and you can’t blame him for being a little annoyed, since he’s been working steadily ever since. Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with him after the completion of his TCA panel about his new series, and in addition to talking “Modern Family,” we also asked about his work with David Milch on “Big Apple” and “John from Cincinnati,” how we would’ve seen him on “Deadwood” if it hadn’t been for NBC’s “Dragnet” revival, and what it was like working with David Faustino on his web series, “Star-Ving.”
Ed O’Neill: Did you ask the first question today?
Bullz-Eye: I did not.
Ed O’Neill: Never mind. I thought my memory was better than that. (Laughs) But, anyway, go ahead!
BE: So you’re heading back to the world of sitcoms.
BE: Are you excited about it?
EO: I am. Well, for one thing, for me, I don’t exactly consider “Modern Family” a sitcom, because it’s single-camera. There’s more location, so that’s a little bit different, rather than the four camera and the audience and all that. But I’m very excited about the show, and I love the fact that it’s an ensemble, and that it’s Chris and Steve, whose work I have admired over the years. So I’m happy. I’m very happy about it, you know? I think it’s going to be a really fun experience…and, hopefully, a long-lasting one!
BE: Were you surprised when you heard about ABC deciding to do the four-comedy line-up on Wednesday nights?
EO: I was, because…you wouldn’t know this, but about four or five years ago, I did “Dragnet” for ABC, the Dick Wolf show, and I got kind of called in on that at the last minute. They had an actor quit or whatever. What was his name? Oh, God. Who’s the great director, did “Treasure of Sierra Madre”? John Huston. It was his son, Danny Huston, playing Joe Friday, and for whatever reason, he quit, and they had the show up and running without a Joe Friday, so they went to me at the last minute. And I didn’t want to do it because…I thought I was going to do “Deadwood” for HBO. And that kind of got pulled out from under me.
BE: What part were you going to play?
EO: And it was written for me by David Milch, who I had worked with on “Big Apple” prior to that. Because, y’know, Swearengen historically is from Chicago. But that’s another story…and, by the way, Ian McShane was fabulous and is a friend of mine. But I was sort of up in the air, and I thought, “What am I going to do? I don’t want to do this show. It’s too much work. I know it. I see it. It’s a procedural hour-long, you follow these guys around…” Anyway, I did it. Waylon Green was the show runner, and he’s good, and Dick gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse. (Laughs) And that damned near killed me. I mean, that was 14 hours a day, 5 days a week, show after show, for a season and a half. I mean, life is too short to work like that. We worked like a fucking…I mean, it was like building pyramids! So, anyway, the point is that I used to make the complaint that it’s either too much work or not enough work, but this job seems to be right where I want it. It’s an ensemble, three different families who aren’t together all the time, a couple of days a week. You get in, you make your scenes, and that’s it. And everybody’s so good in the show that…I mean, when I watched the pilot, I thought, “My God, these kids are good!” And they can go a lot of different ways with it.
BE: I was very impressed with the pilot, but I didn’t really know what to expect going into it. In fact, I didn’t even realize it was going to be a mockumentary-styled comedy until I started watching it.
EO: I didn’t, either! Even when I was shooting it, I didn’t quite understand what was going on…which sometimes is the best! It always amused me when people ask me questions that…I understand that they don’t know what else to ask, because how many questions can you ask an actor? But they ask you questions that are better directed to the producers or the writers. I mean, I don’t know what they’re doing. I don’t know why they’re doing it. I’m just along for the ride! (Laughs) But I really like everybody, and everybody is excited. I mean, I don’t want too much pressure, because you come out with a show that now they’re saying is hot, and there’s a lot of heat on it. It’s almost as bad as coming out with one that they don’t like. But we’ll see what happens. I’ll show up to work… (Laughs) …and we’ll see what we come up with.
BE: You were talking about David Milch a moment ago. Did the “John from Cincinnati” gig come about as his way of saying, “Sorry we couldn’t make the Swearengen thing work out”?
EO: Well, I did “Big Apple” with Dave. We did eight one-hour episodes, and I guess I was the lead. (Shrugs) I mean, I was number one on the call sheet. And then “Deadwood” didn’t happen, but with “John from Cincinnati,” I think he just had me in mind for this particular part that I played. And that was a joy. That was a sheer joy. I mean, I loved everybody in that show. I’m crazy about Dave Milch. I mean, Dave Milch, he’s an unusual man, but he is a spectacular guy to work with, do you know what I mean? He’s so talented, and as an actor, if you don’t mind winging it…and some do…you’re in good shape with him, because every scene that you get on paper, he’s going to make better on the day, right there.
BE: I have to ask: did you understand where he was going with the series?
EO: You know, I kind of did, because I would hear him waxing on it. John wasn’t God, and he wasn’t from another planet, but what I think he had in mind was that he was from another system. Like, another dimension. He had come from a different dimension, but he didn’t know if it was an accident that he’d gotten there, but he couldn’t get back, and he was trying to figure out how to get back. And the powers that he exhibited were…they were more or less afterthoughts. Like, not even mistakes, but he would think something and it would happen, and then, you know, Milch said, “Because that would happen if a civilization was a million years beyond this one.” So that’s where he was kind of going.
BE: As opposed to “Big Apple,” which was a pretty grounded show.
EO: Well, yeah, because that was for CBS. That was a wonderful experience. We shot the eight one-hours, they aired five, and we finished the last one after we were canceled, so we were able to wrap the show up. So it’s actually a mini-series. An eight-hour miniseries.
Mark (Ed’s publicist): Ed, can I get you anything?
EO: No, no, I’m fine, Mark. I ate so much at the birthday party.
BE: Whose birthday party?
EO: My 10-year-old son’s. My 9-year-old turned 10.
BE: I don’t want to dwell on “Married with Children,” but I have to mention one thing: you turned up on David Faustino’s web series, “Star-Ving.”
EO: (Somewhere between amused and horrified) Oh, my God. “Star-Ving.” Well, that was…my friend David called me, said he had this thing with Sony on the internet. I didn’t know a thing about that. I don’t even own a computer, but…he kind of explained it to me, and I kind of got it. And I said, “Listen, I’ll be happy to do one for you.” I don’t want to do an internet show, but, anyway, I went and I did the first one, which was completely improvised, and it was kind of funny. He came to get money, and I told him to go fuck himself or something. I actually said a couple of things that I asked him to cut, because when you improv like that, oftentimes you say things that you wish you hadn’t, and there was a line about, “Your mother’s a midget,” or something. I said, “Dave, you can take that out.” And he’s, like, “No! Oh, man, that’s hilarious!” So then he wanted me to do another one with Katey and Christina, which we did do, and that was funny. That was at a table read for “Married with Children: The Movie.” And then…that was it for me for that. I think that’s gone now.
BE: I think you’re right. But they are releasing it on DVD.
EO: I think he just got so crazy with it that…I saw some of them, where it was, like, even for me, my mouth was hanging open. The one where he went to Germany…? Do you know the one I’m referring to? It was a movie he had been hired for and he didn’t realize that…I thought it was a snuff film, but it turned out to be… (Starts to laugh) I guess there are a small percentage of people that, uh, consume human waste…
BE: Oh, dear.
EO: …and this was a movie about that. I said, “Dave, you’ve lost me here. You’ve gone way far away from me now.” I mean, I love the guy, you know, and he worked very hard on that. The guy was very involved in that, and I knew the director, too: Sam Kass.
BE: I also talked to Corin Nemec about the show, too.
EO: Oh, yes. So, you know, for Dave’s sake, I was sorry to see it go, because he was really enjoying it. He loved doing it.
BE: So when you do a panel for a new series nowadays, do you go in expecting that you’re still going to find it peppered with questions about “Married with Children”?EO: You know, I don’t even care. I must say, at first, I did. It used to bother me, and I used to say things like, “My name’s not Al, you know?” Not to the press, but to fans. “My name is actually Ed.” I’d find myself saying that, and I’d think, “Who do you think they think you are? They only know you from that!” And finally I just got…I don’t know, I guess a switch went on for me, and I realized, “This was the greatest job that you’ve ever had in your life. Why are you acting like an asshole?” So from that minute on, I kind of…well, I hate the word “embraced,” but I just kind of went, “Yeah, okay.” “So you’re Al, right?” “Yep!” (Laughs)