From American summer stock to British feature films, in iconic stage roles and minor movie parts, partnered in scenes with Cloris Leachman or choreographed into the background of an Elizabeth Taylor appearance, Paul O’Neill was game for it all.
But just when he seemed poised for a big break in the acting world, family tragedy interfered and his career was redirected onto a new path. Though he sometimes wondered “what if...”, his work at the CBC, his own writing and his deep interest in Newfoundland heritage made him a cultural figure of influence and note in the province.
Mr. O’Neill, who died Aug. 12 at age 84, started his career as an actor, working in the United States and England. Then, at 25, he was called home to Newfoundland because his father was ill with cancer.
After his father’s death, Mr. O’Neill meant to go back to England, and only took a temporary job in the CBC newsroom. But the opportunity for a year-long posting as an announcer-operator in Corner Brook, Nfld., followed. As he became more and more interested in broadcasting, he kept postponing his return to professional acting. In the end he never went back, instead rising to become the CBC’s executive producer of radio, drama and youth programs in Newfoundland.
This was during the CBC’s well-funded heyday of the 1950s to the 1970s, a period that generated lots of local series. Mr. O’Neill produced landmark local TV shows, including Skipper and Company and Reach for the Top, and the radio programs Musicraft, Newfoundland School Broadcasts and Terra Nova Theatre. Such radio shows needed dozens of scripts each year, and provided some of the first professional credits for writers such as Michael Cook, Tom Cahill and Cassie Brown.
“It was a great time to be a writer,” said author Helen Porter, who wrote and adapted scripts for Mr. O’Neill. “And Paul was very interested in promoting Newfoundland drama.”
Mr. O’Neill was a conduit for opportunities for actors and writers, and oversaw the work of young new producers. “There was a lot of autonomy for producers in that era,” said Glen Tilley, CBC Newfoundland’s producer of radio arts and music.
“He was very generous in offering you space, and a chance to learn,” Mr. Tilley said. “I don’t know if that happens any more.”
Mr. O’Neill was also active with amateur theatre groups. In Corner Brook he founded the Playmakers company, and in St. John’s he co-founded the Theatre Arts Club. Although he sometimes directed, he rarely acted – one exception being CBC-TV’s Tales From Pigeon Inlet.
Most people thought of him as an author. He crafted stage and radio plays and poetry, publishing more than 15 books, starting with the poetry collection Spindrift and Morning Light in the late 1960s. He once had four books come out in a single year – three about fables and folklore (genres he’d loved since childhood), and one of poetry. His work appeared in many anthologies and was broadcast across the United States and Great Britain.
In the mid-1970s, he produced The Oldest City: The Story of St. John’s Newfoundland, which first appeared as two volumes but is now published as a single book. The massive project required more than five years of research and writing. It is detailed and informative, delighting in the offbeat and arcane even as his research debunked some favourite urban myths.
It was a labour of love, but Mr. O’Neill loved St. John’s.
Paul James O’Neill was born in the city on Oct. 26, 1928, to James Francis, a fish merchant, and Mary Joseph (Flynn), known as Josephine. He and his younger brother, John, grew up in Bay de Verde on Conception Bay, where the family firm dated back 125 years. When Paul was 8, his parents bought a house in St. John’s, and from then on they wintered in town and summered in Bay de Verde.
In Grade 7, Paul read a book called When The Dumb Speak, by Anastasia English. It was, he later recalled, a rather sentimental love story, but what made it extraordinary was that it was set in Newfoundland and written by a Newfoundlander – the author lived around the corner. That such a thing was possible had never occurred to him before. He took it to heart and wrote his first four novels in notebooks in Grade 8, homages along the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew line. He also started acting in school plays, and after graduating from St. Bonaventure’s College in St. John’s he wanted to study theatre.