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.
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.”