The world remembers actor Ron O’Neal as Youngblood Priest, a.k.a. “Superfly,” the title character of the 1972 blaxploitation film that brought him fleeting wealth and fame, but he was more than that. His abiding passions were opera (he had a superb voice), theater, and the social and political absurdities of American life. Raised in poverty in Cleveland, at 19 he joined that city’s legendary theater, the Karamu House — launching pad for Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Robert Guillaume and many others — and distinguished himself in roles from Tennessee Williams to musical comedy.
In 1967 O’Neal moved to New York, where he taught drama in Harlem and won critical acclaim in productions on Broadway and off, including a well-regarded Othello in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. In 1970, he was called the best new actor of the season for the role he created in the Pulitzer-winning play No Place To Be Somebody, garnering the Obie and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.
O’Neal and his friend Phil Fenty wrote Superfly and raised the $58,000 to finance the film themselves. For a time, it was the top box office draw in the nation, besting even The Godfather. But O’Neal’s silken portrayal of the Harlem coke dealer Priest also brought a bitter rebuke from both the mainstream and African-American press. In an interview with the Weekly in 1988, O’Neal protested, “I am not the character known as Priest in Superfly; I am the actor who made him come alive through my craft. But the press thought I was some nigger off the street who made a movie about his own dissolute life. I never used drugs in those days. And my film was about a dealer who quit selling drugs and got out of that system. Still, the negative press soured my career and, eventually, it soured me.”
Over the following three decades, O’Neal won only sporadic roles in movies and television. He survived drug addiction, a stabbing, poverty and occasional homelessness. Rediscovered by the hip-hop generation in the 1990s, he remarried and had reclaimed his optimism when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2000. On January 13, the day before he died at Cedars-Sinai, a special edition DVD of Superfly was released. He was 66.