On this day in 2004, actor Ron O’Neal died of pancreatic cancer. He was 66 years old.
O’Neal is best remembered for the lead role in 1972’s “Superfly,” the story of a drug dealer who wants out of the business and will take out any member of the syndicate who stands in his way. It is the role he should be associated with, as the film is an iconic piece of an American cinema thanks to O’Neal’s performance and a Curtis Mayfield score to match the movie’s star.
This career-making role would turn out to be career-defining as well. “The experience left me upset,” he said in a 1979 interview with The Times. “Controversy served to obscure my performance, which was not an easy thing to pull off. Outside New York, people assumed I really was a hustler. ‘Superfly‘ took me from relative obscurity, but I haven’t been offered that many roles since.”
O’Neal turned down offers to appear in blaxploitation flick spoof “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka,” and “The Return of Superfly,” but performed in numerous television series including The Equalizer, A Different World and Hill Street Blues and would appear in supporting roles in many films in the 1980s and 90s. His role in the World War III actioner “Red Dawn,” had him playing a Cuban colonel assisting in a Soviet-led communist invasion of the United States. His performance had him speaking only Russian and Spanish and consisted of facial expressions showing the ambivalence of a commander trying to do his duty but coping with the fact that he is killing civilians. O’Neal revealed in a video interview that his voice was dubbed by a Cuban actor. The fact that it is difficult to tell is a testament to his talent.
Ironically, O’Neal passed away on the same day that “Superfly” was released on DVD. If you haven’t rented it, you should, for it is an amazing performance from the actor, even if it did typecast him.