His parents were taken aback by this unorthodox choice, though they both came around, especially his mother. Mr. O’Neill wrote first to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, but his father suggested he look toward the United States, given the conditions in post-war England. Mr. O’Neill became the first male Newfoundlander accepted to the National Academy of Theatre Arts in New York. It was a two-year course that could be compressed into one year, which he did, graduating in 1949.
For the next five years he worked professionally as an actor, tackling a variety of parts. He worked on stage with Eddie Albert and Cloris Leachman at a summer theatre in Connecticut, and in the films Gift Horse starring Richard Attenborough, and Ivanhoe starring Elizabeth Taylor. His favourite role was playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire with a repertory theatre in Manchester, England.
“I did a play in London called Double Bend, at the Nottingham Theatre,” he told an interviewer for Memorial University’s archival STAGE project in 1995. “A psychological drama. When it opened, in the papers one of the critics said, ‘If a good psychiatrist had wandered into the theatre midway through the first act, he might have spared us the rest of the play.’ So it was not a success. But we got a week out of it.” Such was the life of a scrambling actor.
In 1953, Mr. O’Neill auditioned successfully for the upcoming season with the Gate Theatre in Dublin. “I was just getting known.” But then he was called home. His father was going to have surgery to treat his cancer, and Mr. O’Neill felt he should be there. After his father’s death, Mr. O’Neill and his mother moved to St. John’s, where he started his CBC career.
Mr. O’Neill served for a long time on the city’s Heritage Advisory Committee, but he resigned in frustration in 2000 because, among other things, the committee kept allowing downtown residents to add rooftop decks, which he felt interfered with the skyline.
An ardent Newfoundlander, he petitioned to have the Pink, White and Green flag made the official provincial flag before the new one, designed by Christopher Pratt, was adopted in 1980.
Although his Newfoundland passport was declared void and replaced with a Canadian one when he embarked on a 1952 trip to England, he asked for – and received – his Newfoundland passport back. In an interview with The Telegram, he called it his “most precious possession,” and said if he could come back in another life, “I think I would just love to come back as a Newfoundlander because I love it so much.” From 1981 to 1993, he lectured on provincial history to Elderhostel students at the Memorial University of Newfoundland.
Mr. O’Neill was founding president of the Newfoundland Writers’ Guild in 1968, chairman of the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council and president of the St. John’s Folk Arts Council. He was also a strong supporter and former president of the local John Howard Society, which his mother had helped found. In all, he volunteered with more than 50 organizations.
In 1998, he received an honorary degree from the Memorial University of Newfoundland. He was named a Member of the Order of Canada and received the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador.
At 60, Mr. O’Neill was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and in 2001 he developed neuropathy. He was open about his health problems but not self-pitying. When a cat scratch (he loved animals and usually had pet cats and dogs) became dangerously infected in 2007, he was quarantined at home for four weeks. He said he was lucky it was public health nurses coming to his door, not a hearse.
Mr. O’Neill loved to travel and visited 60 countries. He also enjoyed gardening, cooking and entertaining. He never married and was predeceased by his parents and brother, leaving his nieces and nephews in Massachusetts.
Asked by The Telegram 10 years ago how he would like to be remembered, he said, “I think the same way so many Newfoundland writers of the past are remembered. As people who helped make this place a better society and enhanced the life of people here through their work. If it were not for Judge D. W. Prowse, writing A History of Newfoundland (originally published in 1895), there’s so much we wouldn’t know and we are enriched by it. I would hope that my efforts have enriched the people of St. John’s.”