By Gerrit Goodwin/ campus news editor
Reminiscent of a movie mobster hangout somewhere in New York, Tony’s Pizza Pasta and Subs in Fort Worth is where Dennis O’Neill spends his time enjoying slices and shooting scenes of his webisode series Bail Out.
O’Neill, wearing a black leather jacket on top of a black button-up with black slacks, carries the swagger of a man from Brooklyn and looks like he could easily pass for Ray Liotta’s brother.
As he sits down, he throws around some impressions of Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro from Goodfellas, both of which are spot on, to break the tension and demonstrate some of his acting chops.
“I know I’m meant to do this,” he said. “Sometimes it seems like happenstance, but I think it was meant to be.”
O’Neill, a South Campus student, divides his time between achieving two dreams: completing his degree and trying to get his series picked up for production by a major television network.
Surprisingly, though, acting wasn’t always O’Neill’s dream. It was actually singing.
Growing up in Brooklyn, O’Neill and his older brothers used to watch Elvis sing whenever he came on television, and he knew early on he wanted to be an entertainer. As a child, he even sang for his church so he could feel closer to his dream.
But life was hard and the neighborhood was tough, so O’Neill was never short on opportunities to get distracted or into trouble.
“Everything a bad kid can do, I did,” he said. “I remember getting into a gang fight one day and getting my head split open when I got hit by a pipe. The guy and I eventually became good friends, and everyone started calling him Louie Pipe.
“The assistant principal at my high school used to tell me I wouldn’t make it to my senior year and that I wouldn’t make it in life. Well I did, and after about three months, I walked into the assistant principal’s office, flipped him the bird and dropped out.”
For the next 10 years, O’Neill worked a series of dead-end jobs — in factories, as a dishwasher and as a delivery driver — but at the same time, he moved to Long Island and met his best friend Jack Shelley and the two would find time to sing on street corners, in bands and at clubs, most notably Rodney Dangerfield’s in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Things took a turn for the better when O’Neill was approached by vocal teacher Frank Baker from Bennington College in Vermont. Frank, who had heard O’Neill sing, wanted him to join his students on a trip to Siena, Italy, to study opera, but O’Neill couldn’t afford the trip. Baker proposed that O’Neill sell his motorcycle for airfare and, in return, he would provide room and board. Because of Baker, O’Neill traded his motorcycle for five months in Siena.
“In my life, I’ve had many people who saw something in myself that I was never able to see, and it’s because of those people that pushed me that I got those chances,” he said.
Harriette Novick, a drama professor at Suffolk County Community College in Long Island, was one of those people. Shortly after returning from Italy, O’Neill began teaching ballroom dancing and attending Suffolk to get his high school diploma and college degree. It was because of an acting class he took as an elective that he met Novick.
“She wanted me to audition for the lead in Cabaret, but I had no interest in acting, so I said I would and then I figured I’d blow her off,” he said. “Well, she called me that night when I didn’t show up and said, ‘Either you get your blankety-blank down here or else I will make sure it is the worst year of your life.’”
O’Neill went to the audition and got the part, but it wasn’t until after opening night that he realized he had developed a new passion for acting.
He got his first major role in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull as a ballroom dancer and got to meet Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci. From there, he went on to work as a stunt double for Robin Williams in Survivors.
“I walked into the casting director’s office and remember not seeing a lot of people auditioning for the role,” he said. “When I went up, I quoted Williams from Mork and Mindy and said ‘Nanu, nanu.’ She told me I got the part.”
After working with Williams closely for four months, Williams offered him the same position as his stunt double in Moscow on the Hudson. However, shortly after the film, O’Neill put his acting career on hold to pursue a life in the church as an ordained minister.
Even in the ministry, O’Neill couldn’t cure his acting bug and tried to incorporate singing, acting and dancing when he could.
“When I was in the ministry, people said that acting was of the devil, and people in the church would tell me that I shouldn’t be acting,” he said. “But I felt that acting was my God-given gift and that it shouldn’t be squandered.”
O’Neill resolved to redouble his efforts with acting and in 1989 moved to Texas and opened the Dennis O’Neill School of Acting in Fort Worth.
“In one year, I traveled to Fort Worth six times,” he said. “I moved here because I had friends in the ministry, and the airport was centrally located. Over time, I fell in love with the city.”
During his time in Texas, his acting career began to flourish, receiving plenty of roles as a New York detective or mobster.
To date, O’Neill has had roles in 111 TV shows, 30 stage plays and 30 commercials, but it wasn’t until 2009 that he decided to venture off on his own and start the web series Bail Out.
“I was in New York in 2006 and told one of my producer friends about the idea, and they said that they loved it,” he said. “The reason I wanted to do the series was because I was tired of auditioning for roles and not getting them because I was the ‘new kid on the block.’ I didn’t want to wait for someone else to give me the job. I wanted to write my own ticket.”
Bail Out is the story of Jimmy O’Neill, a down-on-his-luck NYPD detective who, after a series of run-ins with the mob, decides to move to Fort Worth to assist his uncle’s failing bail bonds business by becoming a bounty hunter. The series follows Jimmy’s hijinks and faux pas along with several other NYPD officers as he is pursued by the mob.
Many of the show’s characters are borrowed from O’Neill’s own personal experiences and encounters, he said.
“Everybody has a name that means something personal to me,” he said. “Jimmy O’Neill’s character is based on my brother who died of congestive heart failure at a young age. A lot of the characteristics of my character are actually my brother’s.”
O’Neill said he also surrounded himself with a great cast of supporting characters that help bring the show to life. Notable actors in the cast include Marshall Teague from In Plain Sight, Burton Gilliam from Blazing Saddles and Anne Lockhart from Chicago Fire.
Bail Out currently has 17 webisodes in total with 10 available for free on its site bailouttv.com.
“You have to pursue and grab hold of the moments you are in and those that are ahead of you,” he said. “I wanted to be able to say that I did it all and have no regrets.”