Jennifer O'Neill
In 2002

She is a wife, a mother, a composer, a model, an actress, a writer, a producer, an equestrienne, an advocate and much more to the people who know the woman. But most of all ...

She is a SURVIVOR! Over the course of fifty plus years, Jennifer O'Neill has broken her back and neck in a horsing accident similar to the one that crippled Christopher Reeve. She accidentally shot herself in the abdomen. She entered into more marriages than Elizabeth Taylor. She weathered the shooting death of friend Jon-Erik Hexum even though the press tried to say that her co-star in "Cover Up" was playing a private game of Russian Roulette when he wasn't.

Along the rocky road, O'Neill starred with the legendary John Wayne in "Rio Lobo". She made young men swoon when she was only twenty-two by delivering a beautiful performance in "Summer of '42" as an older woman trying to get over a lost love. And the talented model was the spokeperson for Cover Girl longer than any other person in that high-profile position.

It's easy to understand why my talk with O'Neill could not be done in a short period of time. Because the lovely lady is now enjoying life as a born-again Christian, it was necessary to break our interview into two sections -- Career and Spiritual. Enjoy both. Her life is an open book now. We can all learn from listening to this wonderful woman!

The Jennifer O'Neill Career Interview with Tony Bray

The only two films that deal with coming-of-age love my wife and I both enjoy is "Summer of '42" and "Stealing Home" with Jodie Foster and Billy McNamara.

They are very similar. I feel like "Stealing Home" was stolen from "Summer of '42". It's a nice film. I like it a lot.
Was it hard to get cast as an older woman in "42"?
My main agent, Jerry Steiner, really went to the mat to get me the movie. I've never had such a good agent who tried so hard for something he believed in. They weren't even seeing anyone under 30 years old for the "older woman" initially. I was only 22 years old. Jerry really pursued this. He told them that there was a huge difference between 16 year old boys and Jennifer, who's the mother of a four year old.

I don't think it was the agency's plan. They wanted to move me into a bigger movie and "Summer of '42" was considered a small film. I did my part for scale, taking a salary cut, even though it was only my third feature. I went from a very large budget in a John Wayne film to a very small budget for "Summer of '42". The people at the agency weren't jumping up and down, but my particular personal agent at the agency was. He is mainly responsible for me getting that part.

Was there something special in the script that drove you to that project?
It was just wonderfully written. Herman Raucher's timing, and sensibilities to the picture - the humor mixed with the subject matter. With Robert Mulligan at the helm, the brilliant director of "To Kill a Mockingbird", it was certainly something to take a chance on.
Your "age" in the film was highlighted by such beautiful cinematography.
There is a big difference between a 22 year old and a 16 year old.

I remember working with the great cinematographer Bob Surtees. He taught me something that many a cinematographer has heard from me since. Very few cinematographers, other than the Europeans, know how to light women like they used to in the old days.

Surtees used to have a lot of sun screen on his nose. He kind of looked like a clown. He said, "Jen, I'm not going to be lighting you as well as I could. I don't think it's the style of the movie or the character, but let me take you through your key light points across the parameter in front of you and show you that as I move it in increments with the kind of face that you have, I can age you five years a slap."

It was fascinating. I watched him do it in some of the scenes -- where my husband dies, the dancing scenes. He enhanced the scenes that way, which is really an art.

In that particular film it is obvious that a master was working at the lighting.
Oh, absolutely. The summer was supposed to have taken place in Cape Cod. It certainly looked like that, although we shot it in northern California. But just the ambience, the sense of it all, every aspect of it. It was impeccably cast, had a terrific crew, wonderful sound and incredible score.
It was an Oscar-winning score.
I was honored to give Michel Legrand his Oscar for the theme song.
Can we talk about John Wayne?
John Wayne was a consummate gentleman. Bigger than life.
How old were you when you worked with him?
That had to be intimidating.
He made it easy. It's always intimidating to meet an icon. There are actors who are great actors, for instance Pacino and DeNiro. Then there are personality stars, which of course he was one. He was always John Wayne to me, in whatever he was playing.

I had assumed that he would act like a big star in terms of calling the shots and perhaps being late on the set. You know, just being difficult. He was none of the above. He was always on time, if not early. He was absolutely terrific with the younger actors. He took us all under his wing. He gave us advice. He really cared.

You could talk to him about anything except politics and religion. He loved to play cards. He was just delightful, a wonderful guy. It was a terrific time for him. We were in the middle of shooting our picture, "Rio Lobo", when he won his Academy Award for "True Grit". That was extremely fulfilling for him.

Shooting "Rio Lobo" was also extraordinary because I was being directed by Howard Hawks. He was not at the top of his game necessarily in this one. He was a little on the senile side. I don't mean that by disrespect. He just wasn't on the top of his game - he sort of lived in another world. The people who visited the set were an experience in themselves. John Ford dropped by. Robert Mitchum too.

Did the studio system exist then?
It was at the very end. Howard Hawks wanted to have a multiple picture deal with me, i.e. the old studio contract. He said he was going to make me a "Hawk's Girl" like Lauren Bacall. He wanted a "loan-out" clause in it. It was of grave concern to me. It meant that he could take my contract and give it to anybody he wanted to.

I remember he got very furious with me. He would call me up to have lunch with him to discuss the contract. My agents advised me to just play dumb and let them handle it. None of us wanted the "loan-out" clause. He could have put me in a "Beach Blanket Bingo" movie if he felt like it! Finally, he just lost his temper with me.

When we got back on the set he blew up at me in front of everybody. He said that I was acting like I didn't know what was going on. He said that I was an extremely bright young lady and he didn't know why I was not signing his contract because he was going to make me a star! He threatening to blackball me from the business. It was kind of scary! I was humiliated in front of everyone!

He even spelled my name wrong on the movie poster. I believe he thought he was living in another era. He was not able to blackball me from the business.

In the old days, there were pros and cons to either side. If you were earmarked by the studio to become a star, you were sure to become a star. They would put you with the best writers and the best directors. Of course, in the studio days they owned you.

When I was fifteen or sixteen I was taken out by Paramount Pictures to do screen tests. I tested with James Caan in a scene that he was doing in "Redline 7000". Then we all went out with Francis Ford Coppola - who was a real kick. Coppola liked to act like an oboe. He would start speaking normal and then start speaking like an oboe! I was offered that contract and turned it down because I had met my future husband. I would rather have gotten married than have a Hollywood contract. So I just missed that whole process.

It didn't turn out bad for you! Maybe the marriage. There's been a few problems in that area.
I write about that subject in my autobiography, "Surviving Myself". Especially in the days when "free love" was abounding. I had this life that looked great on the outside, but on the inside I had a hole in my heart. I had low self-esteem. All I had ever wanted to do was be married, have kids and be adored like my dad adored my mother.

A lot of people got lost in Hollywood while trying to become a star. They lost themselves. Hollywood never did own me that way. The tail never did wag the dog. My nemesis - my downfall, if you will - was relationships, and trying to fulfill them.

I came to Christ when I was thirty-eight. That transformed my life. I accepted God's love. Other people can't fill you up. When a person goes into a relationship emotionally needy, they are not going to have discernment in choosing people. If they don't like themselves they are probably not going to surround themselves with people who care for them either. That begins the cycle of co-dependent relationships. If you go into a relationship expecting someone else to fill you up, you're doomed right off.

I sent Elizabeth Taylor my book. We had a good laugh together. We decided we were very similar. We both had many marriages - we didn't date, we married! And we're awfully hard to kill! I've almost died three times, including being shot.

That is an amazing part of your life. Maybe one day they'll make a movie about you.
I had a deal to make the movie when the book came out. I ended up passing on it because Hollywood - the studios or the networks - wanted to have rights. I can understand that. They don't want to have to spend money on a movie and then be totally at the beck-and-call of the individual who may want to fashion it in a certain way.

I was worried that they wanted the rights so they could fictionalize my book. My life does not need to be fictionalized! I was concerned that the Hollywood machine would only take the obvious marks that would give them high ratings - the sexual abuse of my daughter, the near death experiences, being shot - all those things that are very dramatic. They would not balance into it the true story that I wrote about, so I passed on it.

E! "True Hollywood Stories" is running a piece about my life. They said that they were going to do it whether I cooperated or not. I tried to cooperate. I worked very hard at trying to get them to keep some sort of balance of the real reason I wrote the book. The people who looked at it said it was there. It was a big struggle to get them to include the real reason I wrote the book!

E! is a bit tabloid. They have things in their piece that are just flat out wrong. In mine, after doing almost thirty movies, etc., all they talked about was who I married, when I almost died and the sexual abuse of my daughter. At the very end they tacked on the fact that I found God!

End of The Jennifer O'Neill Career Interview

Don't forget to check out the Spiritual Interview with Jennifer.

Before leaving this interview page, I'd like to suggest that you visit Jennifer's Official Site for more information on her career and current work.

Other links of importance to her include Donna DeSoto's Save Baby Site and Media Fellowship International.

© 2002 Tony Bray/TVNow