Obie and Drama Desk winner Ron O’Neal, who starred in 1972’s blaxploitation hit pic “Superfly,” died Wednesday, Jan. 14, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after a long battle with cancer. He was 66 and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2000.
Utica, N.Y., native grew up in Cleveland, attended Ohio State U., then was exposed to a play at Karamu House, a nonprofessional company that had presented plays with interracial casts since 1913. He landed a part in the chorus of a musical at the theater and remained with the company for six years, starring in “A Raisin in the Sun” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” while painting houses to make ends meet.
In the mid-1960s, he taught acting in Harlem and performed in summer stock and Off Broadway, then starred in the Joseph Papp Public Theater production of “No Place to Be Somebody.” His work won him Obie, Clarence Derwent, Drama Desk and Theater World awards.
But his big fame came in director Gordon Parks Jr.’s “Superfly.” O’Neal played a cocaine dealer who beats the system. The film was accused by many of glorifying drug pushers and the drug lifestyle, but O’Neal’s wife, Audrey Pool O’Neal, told the L.A. Times: “The whole point of his character was to get out of that life. He felt somehow that that point was a little missed in all the hoopla surrounding it.”
The film spawned “Superfly T.N.T.,” the 1973 sequel that he starred in and directed. Other post-“Superfly” films were 1975 Western “The Master Gunfighter,” 1979 thriller “When a Stranger Calls” and that year’s Chuck Norris film “A Force of One.”
On TV, he appeared in miniseries and was a regular in 1982-83’s series “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” and late-1980s series “The Equalizer.” Onstage he played Othello at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada.
In 1996, he and fellow blaxploitation stars Pam Grier, Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and Richard Roundtree appeared in the “Original Gangstas” pic.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by a sister.
Funeral services will be private.