Ron O’Neal was best known for his iconic role in the 1972 blaxploitation breakthrough “Superfly.”
Ron O’Neal grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, to the parents of Eunice and Ernest O’Neal a former jazz musician who earned his living as a factory worker; Ernest died when Ron was 16 years old. Only six months later his brother, who worked as a truck driver, was killed in an accident. Following these tragedies his mother found a job in a hospital to sustain the family. He graduated from Glenville High School, then attended Ohio State University, and there became interested in acting after seeing the play Finian’s Rainbow.
O’Neal got his start in the mid-1950s at Karamu House, acting in productions of “Kiss Me Kate” and “Streetcar Named Desire.” In 1964, he went to New York, teaching acting classes at the Harlem Youth Arts Program and appearing in Off-Broadway plays.
In 1969, his theatrical breakthrough came in the Broadway play Ceremonies in Dark Old Men. In 1970, appearing in Charles Gordone’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play No Place to Be Somebody, he garnered even more attention, winning an Obie Award and several other prizes. From there, he moved on to cinema with two minor roles in Move (1970) and The Organization (1971), after which he was contacted by a friend from Cleveland, screenwriter Phillip Fenty, who suggested he star in an all-black film about a drug dealer. Although shot on a meager budget, the film, Super Fly (1972), went on to become a major hit at the box office.
The success of that film led to a sequel, Super Fly T.N.T. (1973), which O’Neal himself directed, and in which he reprised his role as Youngblood Priest. Nevertheless, the movie was a box office failure. Afterward, he was frequently typecast as pimp or drug dealer.
Ron O’Neal died in Los Angeles on January 14, 2004, after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer, on the same day Super Fly was released on DVD in the United States. The Wu-Tang Clan’s 2014 album A Better Tomorrow includes a song called “Ron O’Neal.”[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYZUWzv_FaY[/embedyt]