Paul ONeill holds a photo of himself and Cloris Leachman, taken in 1950. Photo by Danette Dooley/Special to The Telegram
Paul O'Neill wasn't expecting to see an old friend on New Year's Day when he got a call telling him to turn on the television.
There on the screen was Cloris Leachman, acting as grand marshal in the Tournament of Roses Parade.
"I hadn't seen or heard from her in years," said O'Neill, an author, actor and producer.
It got him thinking about the many stars he met during his early acting career.
O'Neill graduated from the National Academy of Theatre Arts in New York in 1948 and spent the next several years on stage in the United States and England.
He has a framed black-and-white photo of himself with Leachman, taken during the summer of 1950 at the Norwich Summer Theatre in Connecticut.
They starred together in a comedy called "The Second Man," written by Samuel Behrman. O'Neill played a waiter.
He says Leachman was vivacious and fun to work with.
The photo was snapped during a chat in a dressing room.
"This cameraman came in. He said, 'I'll get a picture of you two.' I said, 'Here, Cloris, come here and sit on my knee.' And that's the picture I have today and the memory of her," O'Neill said.
"I think her posing … sitting on my knee instead of in a solo photo, shows that she was very good-humoured and unaffected by the rave reviews she'd recently got as Celia in 'As You Like It' on Broadway with Katherine Hepburn."
Leachman may have been fun, but she was very professional on stage, O'Neill recalls.
"Having seen her on Broadway with Katherine Hepburn, I felt she was bound for stardom," he said. "My thoughts on meeting her were of admiration."
Leachman won a best supporting actress Oscar for "The Last Picture Show," and has won numerous Emmy awards.
She's best known for her role as Phyllis Lindstrom on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," though she gained new fans last year when, at age 82, she was a contestant on the popular television show "Dancing with the Stars."
O'Neill's photo collection sparks many memories.
One picture shows him starring alongside Andrea Blayne, his girlfriend at the time, and Eddie Albert.
"Andrea auditioned for the Norwich Summer Theatre. She got a job there. She came back to the apartment and told me about it and I thought, OK, I'm going to go and try, too," O'Neill recalls.
He was hired, as well. They'd spend evenings on stage in one play, and daytimes rehearsing for another.
Another photo shows O'Neill with Laraine Day, who played Nurse Mary Lamont in "Dr. Kildare."
O'Neill says while he met thousands of actors in his lifetime, only three of his very good friends went on to stardom.
"One is Florence Stanley (who played detective Phil Fish's wife, Bernice, on 'Barney Miller'). Another one was Rosemary Harris (veteran film and stage actor), who I knew in England. I had my 21st birthday at Rosemary's apartment. The third was Audrey Dalton. She did two or three movies then rose to stardom. Then she married a multi-millionaire and went to live in Texas."
O'Neill was born in St. John's. His father, James O'Neill, was a fishing merchant from Bay de Verde. When his father became ill in 1954, O'Neill put his acting career on hold and returned to Newfoundland.
"I was just getting known when I had to come home. My intention was to go to Stratford, but when Dad died, I had to stay," O'Neill says.
But he doesn't regret putting down permanent roots in Newfoundland.
He enjoyed a long and successful career with CBC, has written several books and has received numerous awards and honours, including being named to the Order of Canada, an honorary doctor of laws degree from Memorial University and an ACTRA Award of Excellence.
Still, there are days when he wonders how his life would have played out had he kept acting.
"Of course you think about that," he says, running his hand over the cover of one of his albums. "That's only natural."