My restaurants have had longer runs than some of my plays,” says actor-restaurateur Patrick O’Neal. Which is probably why the 50-year-old O’Neal keeps opening new eateries. He has six pubs and restaurants in Manhattan, a seventh just born in L.A. and another bun in the oven in Beverly Hills.
No. 7, coyly called StrEATcar, is a veritable movable feast. A mobile aluminum van, it is currently parked across from the Cedars of Sinai Hospital. StrEATcar’s other feature is an all-vegetarian menu, not only because that is trendy on the Coast but because proprietor O’Neal is himself a convert.
Patrick—whose credits include The Stepford Wives and the last Columbo TV special—got turned on to vegetarianism seven years ago when he realized he was hooked on both alcohol and tranquilizers. Turning off involved an eclectic combination of cure-alls, including est and TM. “I take what works for me,” O’Neal explains as he girds to kick his remaining vices: coffee and cigarettes. (Ironically, he’s now being sued by Pabst Breweries for publicly declaring his alcoholism after shooting two TV spots.)
Even before that legal hassle, O’Neal for several years had been grossing more in food than showbiz, though his agent keeps him busy. Next month on NBC he will play a vicious police commissioner in a four-hour, two-night feature, To Kill a Cop. Patrick is now shooting a series of televised short stories for syndication and fantasizes half facetiously about remaking the movie House of Strangers. Anthony Quinn will be the father; Patrick himself, Jason Robards, Peter Lawford and James Coburn the sons. Why? “Because,” grins O’Neal, “they are the actors I’m always mistaken for.”
Patrick O’Neal has no restaurants in his background (his father, Coke Wisdom O’Neal, was a Florida Ford dealer), but he became starstruck as a boy in Ocala. Neighboring Silver Springs was the location for the early Tarzan movies as well as The Yearling, and Patrick worked as a grip and stand-in for Gregory Peck. After graduating from the University of Florida at 20 and completing a tour in the Air Force, O’Neal bee-lined for Hollywood—and B movie bits. There he also met his wife-to-be, actress Cynthia Baxter. The two rushed into marriage when O’Neal was dispatched for a year-long TV series in London, where Cynthia blossomed as a top model.
Back in New York, O’Neal prepped at the Actors Studio until he rode a winner onto Broadway as the lapsed priest in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana (Richard Burton beat him out for the movie part). Two years later, in 1963, Patrick decided with his younger brother, Michael, and a friend to try the restaurant business. Their maiden effort, across from the Lincoln Center site, was named for O’Neal’s then current play, The Ginger Man. Oenophile pal Burgess Meredith drew up the wine list, and gourmet cook Dione Lucas supervised the kitchen. Wife Cynthia, who, Patrick notes, “would like to wainscot the world,” was drafted to do the decor. “None of us knew very much,” Patrick admits. “We had every opportunity to make every possible mistake.”
Yet despite the horrendous mortality rate in the trade, the place survived, thanks to the support of fellow actors and its “discovery” by New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne. Building on that, the O’Neal brothers and backers followed up with half a dozen other joints, with only one thud in the drum-roll of success, a seafood house called Aunt Fish that is about to undergo a sea change.
Next on O’Neal’s bill of fare is a second Ginger Man, to open in Beverly Hills this St. Patrick’s Day. One good omen is that O’Neal’s partner this time shares Patrick’s experience (or inexperience). He’s Carroll O’Connor and plans to tend bar and, on occasion, pound the ivories. Those will be the days.