Skip directly to content

Michael O'Neill

Caroline Greer, Auburn University
Michael O'Neill
Michael O'Neill is a film and television character actor who often portrays law enforcement and police officers, military figures, and medical professionals. He is known for his roles in such movies as Dallas Buyers Club, J. Edgar, Seabiscuit, Transformers, and Traffic and in numerous television series.
O'Neill was born on May 29, 1951, in Montgomery, Montgomery County, into a farming family. He attended Capitol Heights Junior High and Robert E. Lee High School, graduating in 1969. O'Neill then attended Auburn University in Auburn, Lee County, being the first person in his family to go to college. He has stated that he knew he wanted to attend Auburn ever since he was a child, when his father took him to a football game in 1958. At Auburn, O'Neill majored in economics, was inducted into the Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity, and was part of the Student Government Association. He graduated in 1974. O'Neill had no plans to pursue acting, and his only ties to acting while in college were attending many theater performances on campus, though he never auditioned. He gave a recorded address at an international convention for his fraternity and alumni in the entertainment industry. The audience included actor Will Geer, who played the grandfather on The Waltons and who later contacted O'Neill to suggest that he pursue acting. O'Neill was quickly convinced to come to California and moved there ten days after the call. In Los Angeles, O'Neill trained under Geer and his daughter Ellen Geer at the Theatricum Botanicum, an outdoor theatrical venue. He later moved to New York to pursue acting full-time.
He has appeared in more than 100 television and motion picture film roles. Some of his most high-profile credits include such well-known shows as The X-Files, Roswell, Ally McBeal, ER, Numb3rs, Sons of Anarchy, and The West Wing, which gave him his longest-running role. Between 1996 and 2006, O'Neill portrayed Special Agent Ron Butterfield, the head of President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet's Secret Service detail, on The West Wing. In 2001, he portrayed Richard Walsh on 24. Between 2006 and 2007, he played Sergeant Major Ron Cheals on The Unit. From 2010 until 2012, he played former NCIS special agent Riley McCallister on NCIS. In 2012, he played Mayor Ted Bennett in Vegas and as prosecutor and state senator Roland Foulkes on the legal drama Rectify from 2013 to 2015. In 2014, O'Neill portrayed Nick Ford on Bates Motel and Alan Sparks in 12 episodes on Extant. One of his most recognized television roles, however, was four episodes in season 6 of Grey's Anatomy (2010), including the two-part season finale. O'Neill played distraught widower Gary Clark, who blames doctors at the hospital for his wife's death and shows up at the hospital with a pistol, with dire consequences. His television acting career has continued to flourish.
On the big screen, O'Neill has appeared in three films that were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture. He was part of a star-studded ensemble cast in Traffic (2000), in which he portrayed the lawyer Rodman. In Seabiscuit (2003) he portrayed the father of the main character, jockey "Red" Pollard, played by Tobey Maguire. He portrayed Richard Barkley in Dallas Buyers Club (2013) starring Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner. Other notable movies in which O'Neill appeared include Transformers (2007) and Green Zone (2010), starring Matt Damon.
In 2011, O'Neill returned to Alabama, settling in the Birmingham area to be closer to his elderly father. He is married to Mary O'Keefe O'Neill, with whom he has three daughters. O'Neill splits his time between Birmingham and Los Angeles. Mary is a native New Yorker who lived in California prior to moving to Alabama with O'Neill. She is an attorney and works for the firm Ogletree Deakins in Birmingham. She also volunteers with Jefferson County Court Appointed Special Advocates to help abused and neglected children and the Alabama Lawyers Assistance Program that helps members of the legal community with mental health and substance abuse issues. Michael is also involved in community outreach, and has served on the board of the Hollywood branch of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and has participated in the SAG-AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) Foundation's BookPALS reading program for elementary school children. In Birmingham, he has been involved in Teach for America, Habitat for Humanity, and Focus on Recovery. In December 2019, O'Neill returned to Auburn University to give the fall commencement address, entitled "The Unexpected"; his oldest daughter graduated in the subsequent ceremony.
Published:  April 29, 2020   |   Last updated:  April 29, 2020