We expect Michael O’Neill to be in support and in command.
In recurring roles, he’s been the Secret Service chief in “West Wing,” a sergeant major in “The Unit,” a counter-terrorism official in “24,” senators in “Rectify” and “Jack Ryan.”
“I’ve played a lot of … authority figures,” O’Neill said. “That’s the mustache, by the way. They think because I have a mustache, I have authority.”
But now “Council of Dads” gives him fresh turf. His character is a key part of the story … and is a guy whose life used to be out of control.
“Larry lost his first family due to alcoholism,” O’Neill said. “Now he has a chance to help.”
The series is based loosely on the real life of author Bruce Feiler. Facing a rare form of cancer, Feiler asked friends to become a “council of dads” to his children, if he died.
That’s fictionalized here, with two key changes: The real-life Bruce picked six friends; the fictional Scott picked three. Bruce didn’t die; Scott did.
That happened in the opener, which aired March 24, after the “This Is Us” season-finale. Now that opener reruns at 9:02 p.m. Thursday (April 30), leading into the second episode at 10.
Both bring what “This Is Us” offers – optimism about the human condition. “We live in an incredibly divided, heartbreaking, terrifying, isolated time …. We’re tired of the bleakness,” said Sarah Wayne Callies, who plays Scott’s widow.
You hear that a lot now – but she was talking to the Television Critics Association in January, before the latest dose of heartbreak and isolation began.
In an interview later that day. O’Neill echoed that. He’s played lots of cold authority figures, but he comes across as a warm guy who’s had a little help from friends and strangers.
O’Neill grew up in Montgomery, Ala., got an Auburn business degree, even applied to Harvard’s MBA program. Then came the detour:
He gave a fraternity talk that was shown to prominent Lamda Alpha Chi people around the country. One was Will Geer, best known as the “Waltons” grandfather. As O’Neill recalls it: “He called and said, ‘Son, you ought to try acting before the corporate structure snaps you up.’”
O’Neill – whose only acting experience was playing a leaf in 1st grade – had his doubts. He asked “one of the most no-nonsense men I’ve ever meant. He said, ‘You know you have to go, don’t you?’”
In California, O’Neill studied under Geer and his daughter, actor-director Ellen Geer. Then he tried New York. “I was wooden; I would act in plays I shouldn’t have been in.”
He worked as a carpenter, a construction worker, a bicycle messenger, a bartender, “a lot of odd jobs.” But New York gradually worked for two reasons: He met his wife Mary (a younger sister of actor Michael O’Keefe); he also gradually became a real actor.
Then came a chance to do “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” with Robert Redford directing. Except he’d belatedly become a dad in his mid-40s, with three daughters – newborn twins and an18-month-old.
“I had to go away for four months,” O’Neill recalled. “And a woman with Stage Four cancer came to my home every night and helped my wife bathe those babies.”
That’s one reason he feels “Council of Dads” is believable. People really do help each other, he said. “We had a community of people who were incredibly generous to us.”
He’s also played the flip side: Back in 2010, “Grey’s Anatomy” wanted him to play “a horrifying, brutal man. Shonda (producer Shonda Rhimes) called me at home. I said, ‘I don’t think I can do it.’”
She said he could; he did four episodes, ending with a horrific shooting spree that upset viewers.
O’Neill is used to that, too. In “Rectify,” he played the ex-prosecutor, trying to preserve a shaky conviction. “I got hate mail for that.”
Now he’s in the relative comfort of playing a good guy, making amends for a bad life. He plays someone who is strong, solid, authoritative … and, of course, has a mustache.