Rising to fame as American family man Al Bundy on the lowbrow sitcom Married...With Children, actor Ed O' Neill was the physical embodiment of almost every stereotype leveled at lower-middle-class husbands and fathers. Although many sneered at the bathroom humor and questionable taste of the series (O'Neill himself admitted that he thought the show would be canceled after a mere six episodes), his perfection in the role was undeniably effective -- so much so that it was difficult for him to avoid typecasting despite the versatility he displayed in such features as Prefontaine and The Spanish Prisoner (both 1997). Following graduation from Ursuline High School, the Youngstown, OH, native worked a series of odd jobs before studying theater and history at Ohio University College and, eventually, Youngstown State University. A talented football player, O'Neill was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969, though was cut from the team shortly thereafter. His early stage auditions weren't much more encouraging, and between minor theater roles, the acting hopeful returned to his former high school to teach social studies. He continued to dream of becoming an actor, however, so moved to New York in 1977 and studied at the famed Circle in the Square. An early break came when O'Neill, an understudy for the lead role in the Broadway play Knockout, was asked to take the stage when the original actor abandoned the production.
Although O'Neill had appeared in a brief (one-line), uncredited role in 1972's Deliverance, he had his first real part as a police detective in the Al Pacino thriller Cruising in 1980. As the decade progressed, O'Neill found steady work in made-for-TV features and occasional television guest appearances. In 1986, his performance in the title role in Popeye Doyle (a real-life character memorably portrayed by Gene Hackman in The French Connection) showed him to be a confident and effective lead. During a stage performance as Lenny in Of Mice and Men in Hartford, CT, an executive from FOX happened to be in the audience. After showing the script of Married...With Children to his wife, O'Neill knew that it was not an opportunity to let pass. He landed the role with ease, and his portrayal of the bumbling Al Bundy not only formed the backbone of the series, but created a caricature of American family life which would only be matched by the likes of Homer Simpson. O'Neill appeared in several feature films during the show's ten-year run, including Dutch (1991), Wayne's World (1992), Blue Chips, and Little Giants (both 1994). As the series drew to a close in 1997, the actor began to venture outside the confines of the Bundy family living room in such unexpectedly dramatic turns as The Spanish Prisoner and The Bone Collector. O'Neill later returned to the small screen in Big Apple (2001) and a 2003 remake of Dragnet, playing policemen in both series.
He appeared in the David Mamet thriller Spartan in 2004, and worked with the director again on 2008's Redbelt. He was on the short-lived HBO series John From Cincinnati in 2007. However, in 2009 he scored a major career boost as the patriarch in the ABC sitcom Modern Family. His work on the show earned him an Emmy nomination, something that never happened during his days as Al Bundy.