Best Ed O’Neill Performances, Ranked

best ed o’neill performances, ranked

Ed O’Neill is an American actor who began his movie and TV career in 1980. Before he became an actor, O’Neill enjoyed a brief stint in the NFL as a free-agent defensive lineman signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969. However, due to the talented defensive roster led by “Mean Joe” Greene, O’Neill was cut by the team in training camp.

Although he has amassed 70 credits thus far in his career, O’Neill is most recognized for his outstanding performances as Al Bundy on Married… with Children and Jay Pritchett on Modern Family, two iconic characters that he each portrayed for a decade apiece. Now set to take on the role of Donald Sterling in the upcoming TV series The Sterling Affairs, now is a perfect time to give praise to Ed O’Neill’s best movie and TV performances.

Wreck-it-Ralph Franchise

While his role as Hank in Finding Dory is worth mentioning, O’Neill plays more against type as Mr. Stan Litwak in Wreck-It Ralph and Ralph Breaks the Internet. Both movies concern Ralph’s existential quandary as a video-game villain who wants to become a good guy. Stan is the kind arcade manager whose role increases in the beloved animated sequel.

While O’Neill normally plays intense, grumpy, and sardonic characters, Stan Litwak gives him an opportunity to go against the grain and deliver and much sweeter and lovable performance. Whether helping Penelope feel better or constantly making hilarious references to his Nana, O’Neill plays Stan with earnest benevolence fans aren’t used to seeing from him.

Blue Chips (1994)

William Friedkin’s underrated sports drama Blue Chips follows college basketball coach Pete Bell (Nick Nolte), a proud winner who succumbs to the pressure of a losing record and agrees to partake in a point-shaving scandal. O’Neill shines as Ed, a sports reporter who suspects something is afoul with Pete’s program and repeatedly presses the coach with hard-hitting questions.

Despite being a small role, O’Neill delivers an unforgettable turn as an aggressive reporter willing to stand up to the hot-tempered Bell and uncover a vast conspiracy. It’s no easy task to play opposite Nick Nolte, yet O’Neill often steals the thunder from the notorious tough guy. O’Neill often plays working-class blue-collar types, but here he plays an intuitive white-collar professional with no less convincing results.

Sun Dogs (2017)

Sun Dogs is an acclaimed indie dramedy from first-time director Jennifer Morrison. The story concerns Ned (Michael Angarano), a man born with brain damage who lives with his mother Rose (Allison Janney) and step-father Bob (O’Neill) and wants to become a Marine. Bob is saddled with a back injury that prevents him from working and tries to win a legal battle against his employers.

In addition to going toe-to-toe with Oscar-winner Allison Janney, O’Neill shines in a Thanksgiving scene in which Ned arrives with Tally, a sex worker who Bob once solicited. The level of anger, embarrassment, and awkward humor Bob shows in the scene proves why O’Neill is such a talented actor. However, it’s the sobering parental advice Bob gives to Ned in the end that packs such an emotional wallop and gives Bob a well-earned character arc.

John from Cincinnati (2007)

Created by David Milch, John from Cincinnati is one of HBO’s most underrated TV shows. The multi-narrative drama follows the dysfunctional Yost family in coastal California where they encounter a mysterious drifter in town who may have supernatural abilities. Despite the misguided effort by Milch, O’Neill gives a knockout performance as a disturbed man named Bill Jacks.

Bill Jacks is a friend of the Yost family and a retired police officer. With nothing but time on his hands, Bill spends most of his days talking to the birds he keeps in cages inside his house. Bill obsesses over Butch Yost leaving his son Sean to live with his grandparents and tries to rectify the situation.

O’Neill plays the role with an unforgettable sense of tragic comedy that underscores his versatile acting, as viewers can sense a deep despair in Bill’s life that he painfully tries to subdue in all the wrong ways.

Dragnet (2003-2004)

After several movies and TV versions, Dick Wolf rebooted the popular detective series Dragnet in 2003. Also known as L.A. Dragnet, the series starred O’Neill as Detective Joe Friday, an iconic fictional character created by Jack Webb in the 1940s. O’Neill gave a superb dramatic performance as Friday for two seasons and 22 episodes, all but making viewers completely forget about his popular sitcom characters.

One of the most impressive aspects of O’Neill’s performance as Friday is the chemistry he has with his detective partner, Frank Smith (Ethan Embry). O’Neill and Embry starred in Dutch 20 years earlier, and they immediately pick up an effortless on-screen rapport that carries the TV show. Even more impressive is the way in which O’Neill puts his own spin on Friday rather than merely mimicking past performers who played the character so convincingly.

Moreover, after playing many cops and detectives in bit roles, Dragnet gave O’Neill over 20 hours of material to really sink his teeth into and develop the character.

Wayne’s World 1 & 2

It’s no easy feat to appear in a scene or two and steal the show away from comedic movie superstars. Yet, O’Neill did just that as Glen in the two acclaimed ’90s Wayne’s World comedies. Glen is the unhinged manager at Stan Makita’s Donuts who works at the shop “24 hours a day” and often makes dark and disturbing statements about death, including how he once killed a person in a heated crime of passion.

In his brief appearances as Glen, O’Neill manages to convey the character’s gradual descent into madness through his eyes, facial expressions, slumping body, and overall physical comportment. Although the dark comedy is played for laughs, viewers can sense a real level of menace brewing beneath Glen’s psyche, with O’Neill upstaging Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. As such, O’Neill was invited back to play Glen again in Wayne’s World 2.

Little Giants

Little Giants is a popular football family movie that most children of the ’90s are sure to remember fondly. Set in small-town Ohio, the plot concerns Danny (Rick Moranis) and Kevin O’Shea (O’Neill), two brothers who couldn’t be more dissimilar. Kevin is the coach of the most talented Pee-wee football team in town, leaving Danny to recruit a ragtag band of misfits to compete against him for the championship title.

Beyond admirably holding his own against Moranis the entire time, O’Neill brings a level of terror and intimidation to Kevin that cannot be denied. He’s an imposing force and a backyard bully who needs to be taught a lesson in humility, and O’Neill’s performance is so strong that viewers actually root against him as the film unfolds. Of course, with his own history as a football player, O’Neill also lends undeniable authenticity to Kevin’s coach speak.

Dutch (1991)

Made during the height of his Married… with Children run, Dutch marks one of O’Neill’s only starring movie roles. Written by John Hughes, Dutch is a wonderful father-son-like road movie that follows Doyle Standish (Ethan Embry), a mean, snobby rich kid who is forced to drive home from prep school with Dutch, his mother’s grounded blue-collar boyfriend.

Thanks to Hughes’ hilarious script that gives Dutch a well-rounded arc, O’Neill completely disappears into the title role and remains credible throughout. O’Neill excels at playing down-to-earth working-class characters, and Dutch not only allows O’Neill to strike huge laughs by poking fun at the wealthy lifestyle Standish inhabits but there’s also a touching emotional core to the character that pays off in the end. The way Dutch stoops to Doyle’s own petty level to teach him a lesson in maturity is played perfectly by O’Neill.

Married… with Children (1987-1997)

O’Neill may always be synonymous with Al Bundy, the unsatisfied curmudgeon who led the way on Married… with Children for 10 years and 260 episodes. Despite being a miserable working-class misanthrope who lives a deeply unhappy life as a shoe salesman and expresses nothing but hatred for his wife Peg and children Bud and Kelly, O’Neill managed to make Al far more relatable than a typical sitcom caricature thanks to his hilarious performance.

Playing Al Bundy for a decade in the hit family sitcom not only launched O’Neill’s acting career and turned him into a popular household name, but the sheer amount of episodic work he put in allowed him to expand his acting range, sharpen his acting tools and become a much better actor by the time the show was unceremoniously canceled.

As such, O’Neill earned two Golden Globe nominations for his all-time iconic role as Al Bundy, a recognizable everyman who made viewers laugh at his existential pain.

Modern Family (2009-2020)

While O’Neill may always be known as Al Bundy, the performance he gave as Jay Pritchett on Modern Family required a lot more versatility. Jay is the patriarch of the Pritchett family and the wealthy owner of a closet company. Over the course of 11 seasons and 250 episodes, O’Neill participated in several rich storylines as Jay that allowed him to showcase the full range of his acting talents.

Whether trading sarcastic barbs with his wife Gloria, dealing with his son Mitchell’s sexual orientation with compassion, or constantly antagonizing his son-in-law Phil with a smile on his face, O’Neill was able to embody Jay with incredibly convincing results. The way O’Neill was able to make fans forget about Al Bundy is truly remarkable.

As such, it’s no wonder why O’Neill scored three consecutive Primetime Emmy Award nominations for his outstanding turn as Jay Pritchett.

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