James O’Neill and The Count of Monte Cristo

James O'Neill, circa 1896-Photo-B&W-Resized

Today is the birthday of James O’Neill (1847-1920). Best known today as the father of the great playwright Eugene O’Neill, in his heyday he was regarded as one of the era’s pre-eminent stage actors. Much like Joseph Jefferson (whom he performed with in his early years) O’Neill pere was almost entirely associated during his last decades with a single part in a single play: The Count of Monte Cristo. 

O’Neill moved to the U.S. with his parents as a young child, refugees from the Irish potato famine. As a young adult he bounced around briefly in various manual labor positions and failed businesses. Then at age 21 he found luck as an actor. His success on the stage was almost immediate, a testament to his oft-remarked good looks, charm and sex appeal, given his thick accent and lack of experience. He debuted in a regional production of Boucicault’s The Colleen Bawn in 1867, followed by a role in Edwin Forrest’s farewell production of Viriginius. He went on to act in productions with Joseph Jefferson and Edwin Booth, teaching himself the ropes all the while. By 1871 he was a much sought after stage star, with dozens of roles at his fingertips.

Four years later he was also a father however. By 1888 when Eugene came along he had three children — a family to support. Starting in early 80s the financial pressure was on him to do lucrative commercial acting work, and that meant constantly reprising his smash hit role in The Count of Monte Cristo. He ended up perhaps overdoing it, making a fortune in the role, and having to maintain the lifestyle of a wealthy man, all at the cost of his artistic ambitions, and by all accounts, the promise of his abilities. This phenomenon is hardly a thing of the past….the modern equivalent would be something on the order of William Shatner being perpetually typecast as Captain Kirk. He tried to play other roles but the public wouldn’t have it. So he flogged it all the more, even taking a pocket version on the road in vaudeville, and doing a film version in 1913. He lived long to see his son become a successful Broadway playwright with Beyond the Horizon, but not long to see his own dramatization by that same playwright in Long Day’s Journey into Night decades later.

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