Why did he allow his friend to torment him so? Sitting in his car, Ed knew there was no way around it this time. He may as well get it over with. The quicker he met the Brazilians, the quicker he could go home and forget it ever happened. He turned the key in the ignition and began his drive down to Torrance, Los Angeles. His destination was the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy.
The year is 1987.
Longtime friend, producer, and director John Milius (Apocalypse Now and The Wind and the Lion) had badgered Ed for years to meet the renowned Gracie Jiu-Jitsu family-whom John fondly referred to as "those guys from Brazil."
Ever vigilant, John carefully chipped away at Ed's blissful allegiance to boxing in the hopes of carving space for jiu-jitsu. The chance of success seemed bleak - Ed showed no interest in the "Bruce Lee stuff." The nuances of grappling confused him - why did they wear those ridiculous pajamas, for instance?
John, however, was relentless. He kept after Ed, and Ed kept putting it off.
Finally, a day came when Ed had to run some errand in Torrance, LA, which would bring him inconveniently close to the Gracie Academy. Exasperated by his friend's pestering, Ed agreed to at least go and see the gym. John even offered to drive Ed down himself-likely in order to make sure that Ed made good on his promise-but Ed would not allow it; the actor wanted to make sure he was free to escape the dreaded meeting should he feel the need to.
"By the time I got there, John was already in a class with Rorion Gracie," Ed recalled. "I was looking through the window and couldn't see anything that they were doing. I remember watching and they were just laying on top of each other. I thought it was bizarre."
"I remember watching and they were just laying on top of each other. I thought it was bizarre."
Once he finished on the mat, John, beaming from ear to ear, approached Ed and introduced him to Rorion, the son of Gracie jiu-jitsu's founder, Helio Gracie. They exchanged pleasantries and conversed sparsely about sports and movies. Ed remembers complimenting Rorion on his clean establishment. It was, after all, spotless.
Shortly thereafter, however, Ed revealed his intent to leave. He had a reasonable excuse: he wanted to avoid heavy traffic on the way home.
Rorion was having none of it.
It would be another five years before Rorion would help found the Ultimate Fighting Championships - the tournament that would later become the base for modern mixed martial arts. Although distant from the spotlight, he oozed charisma, and he marinated Ed in his personality. This had, in the past, proven to be an effective tactic to use on actors-in fact, Rorion had recently employed it on Mel Gibson when he was teaching the A-lister some basic jiu-jitsu for the film Lethal Weapon.
It did not take long for Rorion to find Ed's weakness. The Gracie saw a headstrong actor with little respect for the sport in front of him. The solution was simple: a challenge.
Rorion: Let me give you one free class. It is only going to take fifteen minutes.
Ed: Jesus Christ.
Ed was not happy about it. He had to put on a gi - a uniform that consisted of a heavy cotton jacket and trousers with a belt worn over it to signify the rank of the practitioner and keep the uniform intact. He still thought it was a pair of glorified pajamas.
After being outfitted, Rorion asked Ed to lie on his back. He explained that Rorion was about to sit on his chest and stomach - the mount position - with one leg on each side of him. As explanation, Rorion simply stated: "I just want you to get me off of you. Do you think you could do that?"
6'1" and 225-pounds at the time, Ed towered over Rorion, who was a lean 175-pounder. The actor thought the task was simple enough.
Ed: If my life depended on it, I could probably get you off of me. I don't know what would happen after that.
Rorion: That is all I want you to do. Just do that and get me off you. Do whatever you want-whatever you need to do if your life depended on it.
Ed allowed Gracie to climb onto him. Then, he bucked his hips, exploded off the ground...and found himself exactly where he started. He twisted and struggled under the smaller man, but it was hopeless-Rorion was not going anywhere.
Ed: God damn it.
He was exhausted within ten seconds. He didn't even notice Gracie leap off of him and lay on his back.
Rorion: Breathe and relax. Now, I want you to sit on top of me the same way I did to you.
Ed obliged. At this point, he could not refuse. He had already been embarrassed once and needed to make this one count.
Rorion: Do you think you can hold me down for four seconds?
Surprised by the short duration, Ed scoffed at the suggestion. Of course, he could!
Rorion: That is all you have to do. That will be the end of the lesson. Just hold me down.
Having sensed no foul play at hand, Ed grabbed Rorion's shoulders and hunkered down, confident that he would succeed in pinning the Brazilian.
Rorion: You ready?
Sweep, roll, and mount - all it took was two seconds for Ed to find himself staring at the ceiling once again.
Ed: You've got to be kidding me.
Ed had the look of a man who had just been the recipient of a smack across the face. His befuddled mind was swarming; how did this aging Brazilian - fifty pounds lighter - toy with him in such a way? Ed was astounded-and he was intrigued. Suddenly, the pajamas no longer troubled his thoughts, and he needed some answers.
Rorion: That is what we do. That is what we teach here.
Ed: I've got to learn this. Let me make an appointment. I'm going to come back.
And he did.
Years later, as he continued to develop his understanding of the martial art, Ed realized that he had been hoodwinked by one of the oldest tricks in the book.
"(The Gracies) have an expression: ‘That is how we sell our fish.' Their test was kind of rigged. If you watch them, they do certain things that make you play right into their tactics. They pull you right close to them so that you are one with them, and then they block your foot, block your arm and then you're gone.
"It is physics, yet you don't see it coming."
There was a lot that Ed didn't see coming in his life. And in many ways, his jiu-jitsu trajectory mirrored his acting career-beginning with hesitancy, but eventually becoming a source of deep personal satisfaction. In both forums, the initial struggle only added to the ensuing gratification.
* * *
That same year, 1987, Ed had just settled into what would soon become his first major role on screen, and possibly his most iconic to date: Al Bundy on Married...with Children.
The part signaled the end of a tempestuous time in Ed's life — two decades of turbulent times, to be exact.Ed O'Neill in 1987 with his Married...With Children co-star Katey Sagal. (Getty Images)
It was his big break - sure, there were some earlier roles in Hollywood, but the disgruntled shoe salesman who peaked in high school and watched life pass him by in a trail of shattered dreams, approaching life's troubles with a disturbingly blasé mannerism, was an instant hit.
The part signaled the end of a tempestuous time in Ed's life — two decades of turbulent times, to be exact. He experienced many highs and even greater lows. He watched his NFL aspirations crumble; he worked aimless blue-collar jobs in cities he did not call home; he clawed and scraped his way into Hollywood, taking on all challenges and grateful for all opportunities.
It was here along the way that Ed picked up a hobby. It was, at the time, one of the lesser-known martial arts, a form of self-defense popular in Brazil. He did so quite reluctantly - the Buckeye State boxing purist in him resisted the pull of the gentler combat sport. How could he have known, when he first walked into that gym in Torrance, L.A., that he was about to embark on a decades-long educational voyage that would go hand-in-hand with his maturing acting career?
In hindsight, the parallels between Ed's athletic hobby and his struggles as a performer are abundant. Years of purposeless jobs fanned the fires of Ed's ambition, inciting him to bigger and better professional pursuits; years of hopelessly amateurish displays and humbling martial arts sessions brought with them a profound commitment to improving.
Thus, the concurrence of the launch of his acting career and his undertaking of a new combat sport represented the beginning of a spiritual odyssey for Ed, one that would see him weather stormy tides and years of tribulations, and arrive, eventually, at a place of great personal and professional satisfaction-complete with acting accolades, and a Gracie-inscribed black belt.
A nun devotes her life to the service of God under vows of selflessness, modesty, and obedience - unlikely character traits for someone with a pivotal influence on an actor's career.
Founded in 1905 as part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, Ursuline High School was known for its prominent education system and impressive athletic accomplishments. It was, for four years, the home of a young Ed O'Neill. He excelled at football and displayed a keen interest in history, but it was the former that secured him a sports scholarship to Ohio University in Athens.
Life was quietly moving along, just as expected.
Then, the twist of fate, ever so subtle: a nun at Ursuline decided to place Ed in the high school's annual play. His participation in Ursuline's oratorical competitive program mandated his inclusion in the production.
He lost touch with acting once the prospect of becoming a linebacker in the NFL became a realistic option.
Ed didn't make much of it at the time; almost everything was mandatory at school.
For the remainder of his high school years, he undertook a handful of theatrical roles, but lost touch with acting once the prospect of becoming a linebacker in the NFL became a realistic option. Sporting success was always his main objective.
However, Ed was dealt a desolate hand. After clawing his way onto the Pittsburgh Steelers - a 15th round draft pick - he was cut during training camp and never saw the field.
The dream was shattered. Ed packed his belongings and moved to Florida.
He spent the next two years in sporadic unemployment. Trucking, bell hopping, and other sundry work occupied his time. He had yet to have his eureka moment.
Then it happened.
"I was out with a couple of friends one night in a park - picnic with a blanket, you know. There was one of those outdoor plays going on in the background. We were just sitting out there drinking wine with dates.
"It wasn't a very good production; I remember saying something like ‘I can do that better than those guys.'"
Soon afterward, Ed returned to Youngstown, having found work as a substitute teacher at his old high school. The year was 1972, and life had seemingly brought him around full circle. He was crestfallen. However, the play had sparked a newfound interest in his old hobby, and at that moment, he had nothing to lose.
One day, Ed noticed an ad in the local newspaper for The Rainmaker at the Youngstown Playhouse. Showing the stubborn confidence that would later be a trademark of his roles on screen, Ed thought ‘I can do this,' gathered himself, and went to the audition.
"I went out and auditioned and I was terrible. I think I was trying to imitate Burt Lancaster - it was horrible."
Horrible may have been an exaggeration, but Ed still didn't get the part. Several months later, he noticed an ad for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - pre-Jack Nicholson. He had read the book and thought the role of Randle Patrick McMurphy, the rabble-rouser who rallied patients in a mental institute against their tyrannical head nurse, was perfect for him.
"I went out to audition, and again, I was terrible."
This time, though, the audition reaped small rewards. The director, while not impressed enough to offer Ed a role in his play, decided he was fit enough to play a spear-carrier in a small production of Antigone. There were no lines in the role, but Ed remembered feeling a sense of contentment while on stage.
"I don't know; I liked it."
It was there that he decided acting was going to be his calling.
"Eventually, that led me to go to New York and that's how I really got started."
It took ten years for Ed to stumble, somewhat reluctantly, into his big break. Much happened between 1977, the year he moved to New York with less than $2,000 in his bank account, and 1986, when he got the call from his agent to audition for a "horrible" show.
At the time, Ed was out in Los Angeles; he went there every once in a while to audition for roles or to shoot pilots for series. By now, he was already a married man and had appeared in several respectable roles on screen. The golden globe nominations, however, were yet to roll in.
"It's a horrible show, but it's kind of funny. They're interested in seeing you for this role."Ed O'Neill as Al Bundy on the set of Married...With Children. (Getty Images)
He could not remember the name of the pilot he was in L.A. to film, but he did recall his agent's choice words when they discussed the audition.
"Listen, there is this show that is going to be done on a new network called the FOX Network. It's a horrible show, but it's kind of funny. They're interested in seeing you for this role.'"
That seemed a little strange. Why audition for something if it was so horrible?
"Well, it's going to get done. They're going to do six (seasons) of them. You might find it amusing."
Ed agreed, and asked for the script to be sent over to where he was staying, which happened to be a ten-minute walk from the studio. He read it over. It was very short, but kind of funny.
"So I went over and met the two producers of the show, and I had my bag with me; my handball bag. You know, when you play handball you carry a lot of gloves because you've got to keep them dry. So I had several pairs of gloves hanging out the bag to let them dry - they thought that was funny."
The producers, clearly amused by the actor's garb, asked Ed to read for the part. That took him by surprise; he had only read the script over once, rather hastily, and hadn't considered how he would approach the role.
This may have worked to his benefit, as one can never guess when inspiration may strike. For Ed, his unforeseen audition was the brush that inked the stroke of genius.
"The character reminded me of one of my uncles, who was not a shoe salesman. He was actually a seventh district appeals court judge. He had that sort of self-deprecating sense of humor; nothing is going right, and nothing is gonna go right.
"So I read it that way, basically just thinking of my uncle Joe. They hadn't heard that type of approach. All the actors that they had seen prior to me, most of them read it more like Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners; more or less just yelling and being mad. I just read it like, ‘oh well, what else is new?'"
He got the part. An unforgettable TV icon was born through the cynical humor of an appeals court judge.
"[Joe] was a very bright guy; he was a very funny guy. Let me give you an example: If he came home from work - my aunt's nickname was ‘Curly' - he'd say, ‘hey, Curly. I ran over your dog today in the driveway; it's dead.'
"Then he would say, ‘What's for dinner?' What else was new?"
* * *
Married...with Children became an essential part of American television and remained so for its entire eleven-year run. It was one of the longest running sitcoms to date.
"We did over 266 (episodes); that's a lot of episodes. I think I was the only actor on the show that was in every single episode."
Two-hundred sixty-six episodes are a difficult undertaking for any accomplished performer, but it was particularly punishing for Ed, who was the star and the main attraction of the show. It was his responsibility to provide the fun and laughter - the ‘big comedy.'
"I always liked the ones where I was paying bills or getting upset with the spending that was going on around me that I wasn't aware of."
The character of Al Bundy earned Ed numerous Golden Globe nominations and made him a household name for thousands of American viewers. The later syndication of the show made Ed into an international star.
And like fine wine, Bundy got better with age - Ed calls it a "maturation process." As the writers got to know the cast personally, the characters began to shift subtly until they became exaggerated versions of the actors playing the roles.
"I have a history of playing football, so they used that for the ‘I scored four touchdowns in one game' (quote); I never scored four touchdowns in one game (laughs). They used my football playing and limited it to just high school because otherwise it would be a happier story.
"In other words, I peaked at 18 years old, and everything went downhill from there."
While Al Bundy was quickly becoming larger-than-life, Ed O'Neill, actor, father, was tapping into a more balanced side of himself on the jiu-jitsu mat.
While Al Bundy was quickly becoming larger-than-life, Ed O'Neill was tapping into a more balanced side of himself on the jiu-jitsu mat.Ed O'Neill with his wife, Catherine Rusoff, at the 1992 Golden Globe Awards. (Getty Images)
Ed's growing fondness for jiu-jitsu was like nothing he had ever before experienced. It stripped him of his pride, ego, and stubborn confidence. It forced him to hone his reflexes and proceed with caution - traits he would implement in his personal and professional life. Ever since that pivotal day with Rorion and John, Ed had been developing into a gracious man, ready to absorb a wealth of grappling knowledge.
"I was humbled on that first day. It changes you."
While already more than 40 years old at the time, Ed was keen to learn the basics as quickly as possible. He started taking classes, both regular ones in the academy, and private sessions. The solo sessions, he recalled, were particularly enjoyable.
"I roll with Rorion, and we have some very good sessions; we roll hard with each other. That was a lot of fun."
Once he picked up the basics, Ed began to understand the harmony that was at the core of the gentle art. It was an internal struggle as much as it was an outward grapple. The mental and physical effort required one to focus one's energy on advancing position and calculating potential moves and countermoves was only the tip of the iceberg.
"You don't have to be big, strong or the greatest athlete to do it. You can use certain principles to maximum effect."
Physical strength and size had little to do with one's results in the sport. It was a chess match of sorts - one that required mental fortitude, and control over one's fear, panic and anxiety.
"It is an energy-conserving system. I had to learn to relax - not to be so tense - and had to learn to breathe. I also had to learn not to panic when someone gets on top of me. Some of it is trying to find the right balance.
"There are so many things to keep in mind; your reach, your physical condition, your mind, how athletic you are as opposed to your opponent. There are so many things you have to gauge."
Now 68 years old and a black belt, Ed has cut his classes down to once a week. He prefers to spend that time in private lessons, given the difficulty of finding suitable training partners.
"Over the years, I had my share of injuries, but a lot of them were related to football injuries; nagging knees and shoulders. It is difficult."
Much, in the same way, as his acting trajectory, Ed's growth in jiu-jitsu was a lengthy and paced marathon, not a sprint to the finish line.
"There are so many things involved with learning jiu-jitsu. It is ongoing - you never master everything."
A similar philosophy could be applied to Ed's acting - while he knew he was comfortable doing situational comedy, even in the midst of Married...With Children's heyday, Ed knew that he wanted to transcend Al Bundy, and try his hand at roles that were outside of his comfort zone.
Ed stayed busy when not filming Married...with Children, taking on roles in Dutch (1991), Wayne's World (1992), Blue Chips (1994) and Little Giants (1994), amongst others. Ed even had a serious role the Denzel Washington thriller The Bone Collector in 1999, though this was not enough to turn his attention entirely to cinema.
Either way, once the acclaimed show that had established his acting career came to an end and the celebrated shoe salesman was put to bed, Ed decided he was no longer interested in sitcoms, and began to take on parts of a markedly different nature.
Notably, Ed took on the role of the Governor of Pennsylvania, Erick Baker, in the award-winning show The West Wing. His role lasted a total of four episodes but was remembered fondly by fans of the show.
"I enjoyed playing that. It was a good role."
After 2004, Ed was featured in three movies and eleven shows, including the critically acclaimed Modern Family - a program that he was, once again, hesitant to consider.
"I was really not interested in another half hour (sitcom). I'd done Married...with Children for eleven years."
Ed did not fancy the part at first. When he went to meet creators Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan for the first time in 2007, the script they presented him with appeared to be nothing special at all.
"You had your gay couple, a more conservative guy with a younger wife and the yuppie couple. I thought, ‘well, this is another sitcom.'"
Then came the selling point: there was no live audience. It was just two cameras filming a pseudo-documentary style program.
"I don't like live audiences for sitcoms like we had on Married...with Children. It is distracting."
Despite this difference, however, he still wasn't interested.
Before leaving his meeting with Lloyd and Levitan, Ed, out of sheer courtesy, suggested that they send over a copy of the script once it was done.
"In Hollywood, they have this thing - it's so silly; it's called a courtesy meeting. My manager suggested that I meet the producers of the show, but I thought, ‘I don't know what the point would be. I wouldn't mind meeting them but only if you tell them that I'm not interested in doing another half hour.'
"But I guess that the reason, that they do have these meetings, is because I eventually did it!"
One year later, Ed found that copy at his doorstep. It took him a while to decipher its contents. He had forgotten about the show, for the most part.
He read it, again. God damn it. He may have to take this part.
"I didn't even know what it was. They had changed the title from American Family or something. It was different."
Despite his initial disinterest, he read the script. Damn, he thought-it was pretty good.
He read it, again. God damn it. He may have to take this part.
"I called my manager and told him that I may have to do this pilot. He said I was too late and that they had cast Craig T. Nelson for the part. Nelson had a long history with ABC with Coach and whatnot.
"I was, in a way, a little relieved."
However, about a week later, the manager called Ed back; they couldn't make the deal with Craig T. Nelson. The part was his, if he wanted it.
After weighing his options, he decided to do the pilot. The show was an ensemble of main characters with a shared workload, so it was not as demanding as his previous stint on a sitcom.
"I was sort of drawn to ensembles and spreading out the work. I think it becomes more interesting. In other shows, the star has to carry the load, and it becomes, I find, boring easier. Everybody on any show has a certain job to do. There is a sort of blueprint to not breach character. When I did Bundy, I was sort of the driver; I drove most of the scenes. There was a lot of big acting and loud comedy; a lot of stunts and falls. My part on Modern Family revolves around me, so that I'm reacting more to what is going on around me. I like to do that type of acting.
"So, for me, this was the perfect job."