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'Modern Family' star Ed O'Neill narrowly avoided life of organized crime


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Instead of playing the stern yet soft patriarch of Jay Pritchett in "Modern Family," or the struggling yet determined Al Bundy in "Married… With Children," actor Ed O'Neill could have found himself playing the real-life role of a mobster. 

The accomplished actor sat down with his former co-star Jesse Tyler Ferguson for a meal and an explanation of his trajectory into stardom. Signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969, O'Neill thought football would be his career before he was cut by the team.

At the time, O'Neill had no income and almost turned to a life of crime. "The only thing that I had that I could have done, and thank god that I didn't, was organized crime. I had friends in organized crime," he told Ferguson on his podcast "Dinner's On Me."


"I had friends whose fathers were in organized crime. Most of them, actually, were not mafia-made guys. There weren't that many made guys in Youngstown," he said of the Ohio city where he was raised. "But it was a lot of gangsters in Youngstown. All associated with these made guys. A lot of these guys were called associates," he explained. 

O'Neill remembers being in his early 20s and receiving a phone call from his longtime friend Jim, who he had known since grade school. "He called me and said ‘Hey take a ride with me. I want to talk to you,'" he remembered. "We’re driving and he said, ‘How you doing? You know, you, you got cut, you got no money.' I said, ‘No, I’m broke. You know, I don’t know what I’m going to do.'"

The friends took a detour, stopping at a "fancy" restaurant that O'Neill says he "would never go" to, where Jim inquired about a certain individual.


"He started talking to the bartender. I'm right next to him. I'm 23 years old, I'm right off the Steelers, I'm in great shape. He says, ‘I’m looking for this kid, his name is whatever, Demko, his name is Jimmy Demko, do you know him?’ And the [bartender] says, ‘No, it doesn’t ring a bell.'" 

O'Neill's pal continued to describe who he was looking for, before resorting to bribery. "He gives him $20, and he says, ‘Look, he’s an old friend of mine, I haven’t seen him in years, you know, I’m looking to reconnect, but I’d like to surprise him. So if he comes in again, this is my – you can call this number. You can reach me,'" O'Neill recalled his friend saying.


"We left and he said, ‘You can do this kind of stuff for me, you know, I’ll protect you, I’ll give you easy stuff. Just you collect here. You do that. You run, you drop something off here and there. You know, you may have to lean on a guy. You’re good at that. You can make some good money,'" he suggested. "I said, ‘Let me think about it, Jim. 'Cause I’m - I don’t know. I might be leaving town to pursue this acting thing,'" he said. "I went home, and I was thinking about it. What else am I going to do?"

However, unbeknownst to O'Neill, his dad was paying close attention and would later pull him aside to question him. "He said, ‘I saw you take a ride with Jimmy … I just want to ask you a question. Can you do time?'" 

O'Neill mustered a "no," but his father had more to add. "He said, ‘You couldn’t do time. You’d have a hard time being in jail, right?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t think I could do time.’ He said, ‘OK.'" 

O'Neill then made a life-altering decision, and called his friend up. "I thanked him, and I said, 'I'm going to New York.'"

His big break would come in 1987 after landing the sitcom "Married… With Children," although his first acting role was in 1980. O'Neill was nominated for an Emmy Award three time for his role as Pritchett on "Modern Family."

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