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Against the Grain: Black Film Pioneers: Part X: Frederick O'Neal

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Added: 11/11/2013

NOTE: When available, the images in the article below link to a larger version of the image. Some of these images were supplied by the author, some come from the the Hershenson/Allen Archive, and some come from's Auction History.

"Most people say "Frederick who?" when they hear O'Neal's name. Fans of early TV will recognize his face, but few have heard of his off-screen accomplishments, not just on behalf of other Black actors but for everyone in the profession.

He was born in 1905 in Mississippi and named for the great American social activist and statesman Frederick Douglas. O'Neal was stage-struck as a child and began putting on neighborhood theatricals as a St. Louis teenager and later formed the Aldridge Players in 1927 (in honor of the first Black actor to have played Othello). He made his New York stage debut in 1936, his film debut in 1949 in Elia Kazan's PINKY and was a busy performer on television in the 50s and 60s.

However it was off-stage where he made his greatest impact. He was active in facilitating the role of theater in the Black community in both the U.S. and Britain.

He co-founded many theater companies, most importantly the American Negro Theater (ANT) as a community playhouse in Harlem's Schomburg Center Library in 1940, producing 19 plays before closing in 1949. By 1942 under O'Neal's leadership it also became a Harlem version of the Actors' Studio producing such illustrious alumni as Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Earl Hyman, Isabel Sanford, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee.

ANT's most prestigious production, ANNA LUCASTA, became its downfall. Phillip Yordan's original version centered around a Polish family, but after becoming frustrated with trying to find a theatrical company willing to produce it, he changed the ethnicity to black and O'Neal took it on to rave reviews. After five weeks it moved to Broadway and O'Neal won a New York Drama Critics Award among other awards for his performance. Because of ANNA LUCASTA's success, ANT became less a community playhouse and more a stepping stone for Broadway. The company made history by producing the first Black radio series in the waning days of the medium.

Among his other numerous accomplishments O'Neal founded the British Negro Theater and in 1964 became the first African-American to be elected president of Actors' Equity, a post he held for nine years, working tirelessly for the improvement of opportunities for Black performers and working conditions for all actors.

(Below left: O'Neal's prestige was such that it led to this 1961 magazine endorsement.; Below right: O'Neal with Lyndon B. Johnson.)

He was named Equity President Emeritus after he retired. He was also Vice-President of the AFL-CIO and a member of their executive council. He was president of the Negro Actors' League and has been honored by the Urban League, Black Heritage Organization and was NAACP Man of the Year in 1979 among other awards.

O'Neal had as much clout as any actor during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and he was tireless in using his influence to better the lot of his fellow thespians.

Among O'Neal's film credits are NO WAY OUT and SOMETHING OF VALUE (both with former student Poitier), ANNA LUCASTA (recreating his ANT role), TAKE A GIANT STEP (co-starring former pupil Ruby Dee), and COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (directed by former pupil Ossie Davis). He also acted in the TV versions of THE KILLERS and THE GREEN PASTURES and was a regular on the police-comedy show CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU?

Frederick O'Neal died in 1992 after a long illness, a much beloved figure.

(Postscript concerning O'Neal's role in PINKY (seen in the lobby card at right): To those of you like myself, who collect John Ford, you are probably aware that he was to direct PINKY. He was on the job for a week, but he did not get along with Ethel Waters, who was a difficult actress. Ford would never ever have been fired, given his history at Fox, but he gallantly asked Darryl Zanuck to be relieved given Ford's own abrasive personality. He definitely completed the outdoor confrontation scene between Nina Mae McKinny and Jeanne Crain with Frederick O'Neal and later the racist cops played by Robert Osterloh and Arthur Hunnicut. Elia Kazan has been quoted as saying that all of Ford's footage was scrapped by him. I can understand why he would say that, but there are credible sources that question whether or not this scene was re-shot. Who can improve on John Ford, even Elia Kazan? If you're a Ford collector, you want this scene card. Although Waters deserved an Oscar, she was in competition with Ethel Barrymore for Best Supporting Actress and unfortunately they split the vote, which allowed Mercedes McCambridge to win.)"
-Gabe Taverney

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