O'Neill, James

(1846-1920)
   Born in County Kilkenny, Ireland, the great actor was brought to America as a child by his family, who settled in Buffalo, New York. His labors in childhood did little to alleviate the family's miserable poverty and constant hunger, but formed his own lifelong habit of penny-pinching. His career began by accident in 1865 when he was paid to go on as an extra in Cincinnati and discovered his inclination. Blessed with a good voice and attractive appearance, he worked hard to learn the craft. By 1870 he obtained a leading man engagement with a Cleveland stock company. In 1872, he became leading man at McVicker's Theatre in Chicago. For a month during his two seasons there, he alternated the roles of Othello and Iago with Edwin Booth, and he long regarded that as a highlight of his career. In 1877, he married Mary Ellen "Ella" Quinlan; their two surviving sons were James O'Neill Jr. and the playwright eugene O'Neill.
   James O'Neill first played the title role in The Count of Monte Cristo in 1883, and its popularity was such that O'Neill became closely identified with it. O'Neill saw himself as a Shakespearean actor, but audiences wanted him only as Edmond Dantes in the melodrama. He eventually felt trapped in the role he played over 6,000 times, and although it served him well financially, it frustrated him artistically. The problem this caused for his family is a subject of his son's play Long Day's Journey into Night,* in which the character of James Tyrone represents James O'Neill.

The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. .

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