James O'Neill (actor)
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O'Neill as Abbé Busoni in Monte Cristo, 1893
November 15, 1847|
August 10, 1920 (aged 72)|
New London, Connecticut
|Occupation||Stage, film actor|
|Spouse(s)||Mary Ellen Quinlan|
|Children||James, Edmond, Eugene|
James O'Neill was born on November 15, 1846 in County Kilkenny, Ireland. His parents were distant cousins, Edward and Mary O'Neill. His father was a farmer. The family emigrated to America in 1851 and settled in Buffalo, New York. In 1857 they moved to Cincinnati, Ohio where James was apprenticed to a machinist. His father Edward abandoned them to return to Ireland, where he soon died.
James O'Neill's brother-in-law offered him a job in his business selling military uniforms during the Civil War. He also paid for a tutor for James. Later, O'Neill tried to establish several small businesses, all of which failed. James O'Neill, in his son's view, was a man crippled by the fear of the poorhouse that had been implanted in childhood by the Irish famine.
At the age of 21, he made his stage debut in a Cincinnati, Ohio, production of Boucicault's The Colleen Bawn (1867). Also in 1867, Edwin Forrest embarked on a "farewell tour". O'Neill had a minor part in Forrest's Cincinnati production of Virginius, and then joined a travelling repertory company. He played a young sailor in Joseph Jefferson's Rip Van Winkle and for the first time found his brogue a handicap. He also played Macduff to Edwin Booth's Macbeth.
The San Francisco Chronicle of August 3, 1879 described James O'Neill as "...a quiet gentleman of medium height, well-proportioned figure, square shoulders and stands very erect. He has black hair, black eyes, rather dark complexion, a black mustache, and a fine set of teeth which he knows how to display to advantage." Though not tall, James carried himself with a natural grace that gave him stature and he had, in addition to classical good looks, a magnetic stage presence. His son described him as being "broad-shouldered and deep-chested," with "a big, finely-shaped head, a handsome profile, deep-set, light-brown eyes." 
James had the kind of charm that communicated itself palpably across the footlights, and by the age of 24 he had already established a reputation among theater managers as a box-office draw, particularly with the ladies. But he was also working doggedly at his craft, ridding himself of all vestiges of brogue and learning to pitch his voice resonantly. Before he was 25 he had – as was expected of a serious actor in that day – 50 roles committed to memory, including most of Shakespeare's protagonists.
He was considered a promising actor, quickly working his way up the ranks to become a matinee idol. He so impressed the English-born actress Adelaide Neilson, the most popular Juliet of her time, that she begged him to join her company. For reasons of his own, he declined, but years later Miss Nielson publicly singled him out, describing him as "the greatest Romeo I ever played with." Characterizing him as "a little curly-haired Irishman," she added: "When I played with other Romeos, I thought they would climb up the trellis to the balcony; but when I played with Jimmy O'Neill, I wanted to climb down the trellis, into his arms."
In 1874 O'Neill joined Richard M. Hooley's company, and the following year toured San Francisco, Virginia City and Sacramento. He then headed back east to join the Union Square Company. James O'Neill can be said to have been an actor with great sex appeal, inclined to coast on his charm, and often wasteful of his talent. Inevitably, James tended to attract women and scandal. He began to acquire a somewhat rakish reputation when an actress named Louise Hawthorne was said to have killed herself over him in 1876.
On June 14, 1877, while in New York, James O'Neill married Mary Ellen Quinlan, daughter of Thomas and Bridget Quinlan, at St. Ann's Church on 12th Street. James and Ella had three sons: James (b. 1878), Edmund (b. 1883) and Eugene O'Neill (b. 1888). While James was on tour, Ella often accompanied him, and the boys were placed in boarding school. In the fall of 1877, three months after James' marriage, a woman by the name of Nettie Walsh sued O'Neill, claiming that he had married her five years earlier, when she was only 15, and that he was the father of her three-year-old son. She said she wanted a divorce and alimony. The 31-year-old James was now the leading man in a New York-based theater company, earning the munificent wage of $195 a week. He told a reporter who interviewed him backstage, "The whole thing is a piece of blackmail and an old story that has been tagging me around ever since I began to acquire prominence in my profession." Nettie Walsh lost her case and the publicity, although it wounded James's young bride, enhanced his reputation as a romantic leading man.
The couple was in San Francisco on September 10, 1878 when their first son, James O'Neill, Jr. was born in the home of one of O'Neill's friends. While in San Francisco, O'Neill took on the role of Christ in David Belasco's production The Passion for which Belasco rounded up 100 nursing mothers to appear in the tableau "the Massacre of the Innocents". The Board of Supervisors passed a local ordinance prohibiting "profane" dramas, and O'Neill and the rest of the company were arrested. O'Neill pleaded guilty and paid a $50 fine for himself and $5 for each of his co-defendants. About October 30, 1880 O'Neill and his family took a train back to New York where he re-joined the Union Square Company.
The Count of Monte Cristo
As early as 1875, while a stock star at Hooley's Theatre in Chicago, O'Neill played the title role in a stage adaptation of Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. In early 1883 O'Neill took over the lead role in Monte Cristo at Booth's Theater in New York, after Charles R. Towne died suddenly in the wings after his first performance. O'Neill's interpretation of the part caused a sensation with the theater-going public. A company was immediately set up to take the play on tour. O'Neill bought the rights to the play. The San Francisco News Latter was less appreciative of O'Neill, saying on December 31, 1887 "In his hands the romantic story has degenerated into an extravagant melodrama. ...He is reaping the pecuniary profit of his business sagacity, but it is at the cost of art." 
O'Neill soon had enough of the Count. His lines came out by rote and his performances became lackadaisical. He tried other plays but The Three Musketeers and Julius Caesar met with indifferent response, and O'Neill was forced to return to Monte Cristo in order to recoup the losses sustained in "artistic successes". Monte Cristo remained a popular favorite and would continue to make its appearance on tour as regular as clockwork. O'Neill could not afford to sacrifice wealth in the face of a growing family. His son Eugene was born in New York on October 16, 1888.
He went on to play this role over 6000 times. Some, including Eugene, saw O'Neill's willingness to play the role so many times as selling-out; squandering the potential of his art in order to make money. By 1887, The San Francisco Morning Call estimated O'Neill's fortune at a quarter of a million dollars. In March 1894, O'Neill took on the role of Shane O'Neill in the play The Prince of Ulster.
According to his son, Eugene,
My father was really a remarkable actor, but the enormous success of "Monte Cristo" kept him from doing other things. He could go out year after year and clear fifty thousand in a season. He thought that he simply couldn't afford to do anything else. But in his later years he was full of bitter regrets. He felt "Monte Cristo" had ruined his career as an artist.
The company toured as far west at St. Louis; Eugene O'Neill who had given up his studies at Princeton, was the assistant treasurer. He left the company to begin his wanderings at sea. O'Neill converted "Monte Cristo" into tabloid form for the vaudeville circuit to accommodate changing taste in theater entertainment.
O'Neill's celebrity and identification with Monte Cristo led Adolph Zukor to engage O'Neill in 1912 to appear in a feature film version of the play as the first production of his Famous Players Film Company. By that time O'Neill had been continuously playing the part for nearly 40 years and was 65 years old. Directed and photographed by Edwin S. Porter and co-starring Nance O'Neil as Mercedes, the film was initially held back in release but finally appeared in late 1913.
In the middle of 1920 James was struck by an automobile in New York City and taken to Lawrence Memorial Hospital in New London, Connecticut. He died, aged 72, on August 11, 1920 from intestinal cancer, at the family summer home, the Monte Cristo Cottage in Connecticut. His funeral at St. Joseph's Church was attended by, among others, O'Neill's sister, Mrs. M. Platt of St. Louis and Edward D. White, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. O'Neill was buried in St. Mary's cemetery.
James O'Neill later became the model for James Tyrone, the frugal, mercurial, unseeing father character in Eugene O'Neill's posthumous autobiographical play Long Day's Journey Into Night, which tells the story of the Tyrone family, which closely resembles the O'Neill family.
- "Eugene O'Neill", American Experience, PBS
- "James O'Neill", History of the San Francisco Theatre Vol. XX, WPA, Northern California, 1942
- Gelb, Arthur and Gelb, Barbara. O'Neill: Life With Monte Cristo New York Times Books
- Gelb, Barbara. "O'Neill's Father Shaped His Son's Vision", The New York Times, Theater Reviews, April 27, 1986
- Eaton, Walter Prichard (1910). The American Stage of Today. New York, NY: P.F. Collier & Son.
- Shaughnessy, Edward L. "Ella, James, and Jamie O'Neill: 'My Name Is Might-Have-Been'", The Eugene O’Neill Review, Suffolk University, 1991