This past Friday morning promised to be just another day at the office. But as I sat at my desk and turned on the computer, one of my co-workers asked me, "Did you hear that Ron O'Neal died?"
"No," I replied, trying to keep my cool and fighting back the tears. This was more than a case of an actor whose work I admired passing away. Ron O'Neal was my friend. Just that morning I had been thinking about how it had been too long since we last talked, and that I needed to give him a call.
I first met Ron back in 1996 after crashing a party for the premiere of Original Gangstas. I was on a mission to line up interviews for my documentary on blaxploitation films, and, as the star of the seminal Super Fly, Ron was on the top of my list. Everyone who was anyone in black Hollywood was there that night. But Ron was the life of the party, having rushed the stage to join the Dramatics as they sang "What You See Is What You Get."
Trained as a Shakespearean actor, O'Neal cut his teeth on the New York stage, winning an Obie for No Place to Be Somebody. His role in 1972's Super Fly propelled him into international stardom, earning him rave reviews and talk of an Oscar nomination. Released on DVD the day before he lost his long battle with cancer, Super Fly features O'Neal in a stunning performance as a cocaine dealer looking to leave his life of crime behind. But the actor's promising career never came to be, as the film was battered by a storm of controversy and O'Neal became typecast. Over the years, his career died a slow death, with the talented actor relegated to supporting roles in films like Red Dawn and guest appearances on shows like The Equalizer. Only 1977's Brothers and the 1984 TV-movie Sophisticated Gents feature O'Neal in roles of any merit.
"Frankly, I've not been pleased with most of what I've had to do," Ron confessed to me during his interview. "I have a considerable amount of experience, and what they've asked me to do has not demanded that much of me."
As we got to know each other better, I wrote a script for him that was meant to be his comeback role--a film that would show the world what he was capable of as an actor. At the same time, I encouraged him to write his autobiography. He had a pad of yellow legal paper filled with notes and stories about his life and career that he would read to me with so much passion, humor and sadness that I would be speechless.
None of the projects we talked about came to fruition. What's worse, he never had the opportunity to see my documentary, which was finally completed last month. But the most painful part of all of this is that I never got a chance to tell Ron O'Neal how much he meant to me.