JIMMY O’NEILL LEANS BACK ON THE sofa bed in his cramped studio apartment in Playa del Rey, Calif., and recalls a time 12 years ago when he took his son, Jim, now 21, to an amusement park. “I was afraid of roller coasters all my life,” he says, “but I figured, ‘I can’t be afraid in front of my kid.’ I’ll never forget the feeling when I got off. It was a wild ride—and it didn’t kill me. And that’s been my experience in life.
O’Neill’s wild ride peaked early. In the mid-’60s, he frugged and twisted his way to national fame as the host of Shindig, an ABC series that was part dance party, part cultural phenomenon. During the show’s brief but influential lifespan, O’Neill, now 51, helped introduce a generation to acts like Sonny and Cher, the Righteous Brothers and Leon Russell—all performed on the program—not to mention miniskirts, high-collar sport jackets and go-go dancers. “It was beyond wild,” recalls Little Richard, who appeared on the show’s pilot. “It was a toe-tapping, foot-stomping romper.”
For O’Neill, the romp ended when, after a series of disastrous format changes, the show was canceled in 1966. Unable to find steady work in showbiz, he began a downward journey that would take him through several careers, three marriages and years of drug and alcohol abuse. Today, though, he’s back on the air as a morning deejay playing Shindig-era rock on L.A. radio station KRLA, and Rhino Home Video has released four tapes of his vintage TV programs, with a dozen more due out by next year. “It almost seems like reincarnation,” says O’Neill.
Maybe that’s because he really has been here before. A native of Enid, Okla., O’Neill had come to L.A. to work as a deejay at KRLA, then in its infancy, in 1959, when he was just 19. A TV star by age 24, he says the pressure of playing Shindig’s clean-cut maestro first made him turn to alcohol. When his wife of 3½ years, songwriter Sharon (“Poor Little Fool”) Sheeley, left him the same month the show was canceled, the stress was too much. “It was a double whammy,” says O’Neill. “I just went crazy.” He is not exaggerating. One night shortly after the show’s demise, a drunken O’Neill tried to set Sheeley’s house on fire. When police and firefighters arrived, he says, they took pity on the obviously troubled former star and told him to go home and sleep it off. But, says O’Neill, “Since they weren’t going to let me burn the house down, I took a sledgehammer to it.” O’Neill was taken to a psychiatric hospital for observation but was quickly released without treatment.
At 26, he began drifting. In time he took short-lived radio jobs in Albuquerque, N.Mex., and Omaha, where he met and married Eve Johnson, the sister of actor Troy Donahue. The couple had a son, Jim, in 1971, but the marriage ended 10 years later—largely, O’Neill says, due to his drinking and depression.
Returning to L.A., where he began sharing an apartment with ex-brother-in-law Donahue, didn’t help. “We were both drinking a bit at the time,” says Donahue, himself a recovering alcoholic. “We each thought the other had a horrible problem and couldn’t agree who was sicker.” In the fall of 1981, a desperate and unemployed O’Neill wandered into the Pussycat Theater, an adult movie house in Santa Monica, and applied for work as an usher. “I wrote down my job history,” he remembers, “and the guy looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I realized I had hit bottom.”
The revelation prompted O’Neill to begin attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He finally gave up drinking later that year and spent the next decade selling stocks and cars and managing nightclubs. Two years ago a friend from AA convinced him to send his tapes and résumés to radio stations in L.A. His old employer KRLA was the first to respond, and O’Neill gladly accepted his current morning slot in January 1990.
O’Neill’s roller coaster ride is not quite over. In February he separated from his third wife, Renee, a medical secretary, after eight years of marriage (they have a daughter, Katy, 6). And he says he has trouble getting by on his radio salary. Still, the resurrection of his old show has provided an anchor in his life. “Shindig in its heyday was all about the joy of youth,” O’Neill says wistfully. “Watching it for the first time after all these years may make me feel older, but also much wiser.” The struggles of years past, he says, have led to a sort of inner peace. “AA forced me to face all my fears, and to my amazement they haven’t killed me. I have walked through every nightmare you can imagine and come out okay.”
CHARLES E. COHEN
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles