Alabama's Own Michael O’Neill Planted Victory Garden and Priceless Memories with Daughters During Quarantine

“I had a wonderful time being with my daughters as adults, seeing the citizens they’ve become.”

Michael O'Neill Council of Dads - Season 1
Photo: Jeff Lipsky/NBC

As the hard-nosed Richard Barkley of the FDA, he went head to head against Matthew McConaughey’s equally as determined Ron Woodroof in the multi-Academy Award winning film, Dallas Buyers Club. As Secret Service Agent Ron Butterfield he faithfully protected Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett on NBC’s The West Wing, memorably declaring, “I would never let you not let me protect the President.” And most recently, he has returned to NBC as the endearing elder of the Council of Dads, Larry, giving fatherhood a second shot.

For over three decades, Montgomery, Alabama native, Michael O’Neill has been a familiar face on both film and television screens, with his wise eyes, signature mustache and warm, instantly recognizable, and often comforting timbre—with just a hint of a Southern drawl. But in this time of extreme uncertainty, where is O’Neill turning for comfort? Well, the answer is he’s turning to his roots—literally.

When Michael O’Neill and his wife Mary decided to move their family from Los Angeles to Birmingham, it was, in part, to raise their three daughters away from the bright, distracting lights of Hollywood. But for O’Neill, it was also a homecoming, having grown up just up the road in Montgomery. “My dad was 87 and my wife said, if you want to spend time with your dad, you’d better do it now. And I’m glad we did, because he passed a year and a half later,” O’Neill shared with Southern Living in a recent phone call. When the O’Neills made this move in 2011, their eldest Ella was 13 and twins Annie and Molly were 12. All three girls had been homeschooled in LA. “We realized two things. One, we’d reached the age of our efficiency with that, and the other thing was they had really reached a point where they wanted a brick and mortar experience in school,” he shared. Birmingham was near enough to his father, had good schools for the girls, and was the city where his best friend lived. It seemed glaringly obvious that all roads were pointing the Auburn grad back to Alabama.

At the time, the TV and film industry was changing too, with more and more productions happening away from Hollywood. “So what that meant was, that as an actor, I was going to be on the road,” he said. It no longer mattered where he made his family home. “I was gone a lot. And that was the most difficult aspect for me because I liked coming home at night and having my children at the front door. But it was the nature of the beast. We became migrant workers, which we continue to be, quite frankly. We go where the work is.”

All three daughters have now flown the coop. Ella followed her dad to Auburn and graduated last year, while Annie and Molly are now in college—one in California and the other in Memphis. O’Neill has been busy much of this year filming Council of Dads entirely on location in Savannah, Georgia. The family was busy and spread out all across the country. And then, all of the sudden, the whole world came to a screeching halt as Covid-19 swept the globe. At the time the U.S. began to react and shutter businesses and schools, O’Neill was in LA for work. Not wanting to chance a cross-country flight, daughter Annie, an organic agriculture student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, drove down to pick up her dad and the two hit the road towards home. Annie’s twin sister Molly came home from Rhodes to join mom, dad, and older sister Ella as they all quarantined together in their home in the Mountain Brook neighborhood of Birmingham.

“We quarantined together here, which really did feel like stolen time, getting to be with them because it doesn’t happen much. And I had a wonderful time being with my daughters as adults, seeing the citizens they’ve become,” the proud dad stated. Right away O’Neill wanted to come up with a constructive way for the family to spend that anxious, uncertain time and he was inspired, in part, by daughter Annie’s agricultural pursuits. “I thought, what can we do to keep us engaged both physically but also mentally during this period of time.” They decided on a victory garden. He and a few friends built several raised beds while Annie got to planting. They planted radishes, beets, cucumbers, strawberries, and squash, to name a few. “It feels good that there is a direct correlation between what we’re working on out there and what we’re eating in the kitchen,” O’Neill said. He took to Twitter to share a video of the fruits of his family’s labor.

This physical, mental, tangible challenge of creating a garden served to truly ground the whole family in an incredibly unsettling time. And it wasn’t long before the love of gardening spread from father and daughter to the rest of the family. “And the sweetest part of it for me {was} Annie went back to school and Molly had to look after the garden. And now she’s turned into a gardener… So I’m a pretty happy old man, just out there with a spade in the ground, figuring out what I want to plant next and what to harvest.”

Michael and Molly O'Neill

O’Neill also reflected on finding the light in this dark period in our country. “What a lot of the underlying benefit of this is re-finding family. And the time we spend with them in a focused way. Not a distracted way. Running to the next thing. Just sitting down and having meals together,” he said. The seasoned actor has also been delighted to discover new ways of getting his job done. Although the cast and crew of Council of Dads was able to shoot ten episodes, a complete season, before the shutdown, there was still work to be done. Voice-over work or ADR is usually done in a studio after the filming has wrapped but O’Neill had to adapt and conducted his ADR from his wife’s closet. “It’s amazing because it makes people collaborate more because the nature of the collaboration has more intention, I think.”

If you have not yet seen Council of Dads, you still have time. What was to be the season finale will air Thursday at 8PM EST/ 7PM CST, but shortly after our call, O’Neill rang again to share that NBC had opted to not renew the series. The shock and disappointment were raw and obvious in his voice and we too, are incredibly saddened to hear this news. “I don’t believe I’ve ever had as deep an affection for a group of actors in 35 years,” he said as he shared the sad news.

He also loved playing the role of Larry. “I love what they’ve given me in terms of a guy whose lost his first family to alcohol. And is doing his dead-level best to show up. Even though he’s not sure he has the skills to do it. There’s nothing in his background that says yeah, Larry’s gonna be successful as a member of the council of dads. In his own life he failed miserably at it. But he’s given a chance as a flawed person and a guy who struggled with his demons to show up for a family that needs to be shown up for and that was a great gift as a character, at this tender age to be able to embrace this one, that’s a bit of a God send.” In our humble opinion, for this talented character actor, this might be the very best character he has played. His portrayal of this weathered and complex man was truly authentic. Larry presented a cautionary wisdom for the rest of the family and yet his goodness broke through the screen and made this editor reach for the phone and call my own dad.

Despite the cancellation, you can still stream the entire first season of Council of Dads here.

We hope this wonderful show that shines such a bright light on the city of Savannah, Georgia will find new life with another network or streaming outlet.

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