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'Married' ... but not to his sitcom role

There's more to Ed O'Neill than that oaf Al Bundy. David Mamet knows it well.

May 18, 2008|Sean Mitchell | Special to The Times

You MIGHT not think that Ed O'Neill, who for 11 years embodied the sour-mouthed suburban bumpkin Al Bundy on the Fox sitcom "Married . . . With Children," would be one of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet's favorite actors. But that would be a faulty assumption based on the oversimplified surface of show business that often conceals the more quirky, varied and practical world where actors and playwrights really live.

Mamet, as it happens, met O'Neill in New York long before the actor ever got famous in that oh-so-broad and bawdy prime-time hit and through the years has cast him in two productions of "Lakeboat" and other plays and films. Now, Mamet has given him the lead in "Keep Your Pantheon," a one-act farce set in ancient Rome, on a double bill with "The Duck Variations" (starring Michael Lerner and Harold Gould), opening today at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

"With him, you work," O'Neill says, heading out of the rehearsal room in Culver City after a long afternoon of getting the play on its feet with the 10 other actors, under the supervision of both the playwright and director Neil Pepe.

Mamet and O'Neill are physical opposites -- the playwright a wiry, fit and diminutive 60-year-old, and the actor a tall, beefy former collegiate defensive end, now 62.

At a nearly deserted restaurant near the Douglas, O'Neill orders an iced tea and considers the menu. He's dressed in a hooded sweat shirt with "Redbelt" printed in red on the back, the title of the new Mamet martial arts film in which O'Neill has a cameo.

"He was involved," O'Neill says, remembering Mamet's presence during the rehearsals for "Lakeboat," their first collaboration at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., in the early 1980s. "The way he is here. He's around, shaping it."

The two Midwesterners share an interest in Brazilian jujitsu, a martial art Mamet learned about from O'Neill, who is a distinguished American practitioner. "It's been a really worthwhile relationship over the years," O'Neill says. "We're good friends."

Mamet, nevertheless, declined to be interviewed for this article.

In "Keep Your Pantheon," first produced as a radio play for the BBC last year, O'Neill plays Strabo, the narcissistic head of a second-rate acting troupe in the age of Julius Caesar. During the rehearsal he stopped after repeating a laugh line about another Roman being "one arch shy of an aqueduct," to ask Mamet "is it a-QUAduct or a-QUI-duct?" Either way, he was funny. Not yet in costume, he was neatly projecting the slap-happy banter of an overbearing lounge act -- or "Plautus meets Vaudeville," as director Pepe put it.

O'Neill has the chunky, no-nonsense face of a steelworker or veteran cop, which makes his facility for comedy a little unexpected. In the course of an hour, telling stories about his life as an actor and before that growing up Irish Catholic in the rust-belt town of Youngstown, Ohio, he deftly mimics a range of characters, from a North Carolina redneck to a hometown Mafioso and includes a bartender and highway patrolman (both football fans) he encountered on the night after he got cut from his tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969.

"It was the same day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and as I watched that in a bar, I remember thinking, somebody's having a good day."

It's a line Strabo might have uttered, in a slightly different context on a Roman stage 2,000 years ago.

"David always had Ed in mind for this role," says Pepe, the longtime Mamet associate who oversees the playwright's Atlantic Theater Company in New York. "He has an intimate understanding of David's words and rhythms. And he knows how to shape a joke."

"He's the kind of actor who, when he looks you in the eye, he's really looking you in the eye," says David Paymer, the actor who plays Strabo's long-suffering sidekick, Pelargon, and who had never worked with O'Neill before.

Against type

In "Keep Your Pantheon," which includes three generations of Mamet regulars in the cast, O'Neill plays against his tough, athletic side by portraying a preening, gay wannabe star whose jealousy of another (possibly better) acting troupe drives him to distraction while desperately scheming to escape a death sentence issued by the emperor (and drama critic) Julius Caesar.

"It's been fun," O'Neill says about the rehearsals. "David said, 'Think of it like a pilot.' "

And a pilot he didn't have to audition for. At this point in his career, O'Neill takes exception to the notion that anything true or useful comes from a Hollywood audition -- an exception he shares with Mamet, a great debunker of show business convention.

"It's bull. . . . You go and stand outside a room where an audition is going on and you look at the guys walking up and down reading their sides," O'Neill says, holding out his hands as if clutching a few pages of a script, his bright eyes suddenly frozen in focus, "and you are not looking at a bunch of happy people. That should tell you something."

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