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DESPITE HIS FAME, O’NEILL IS SERIOUS ACTOR

SHARE DESPITE HIS FAME, O’NEILL IS SERIOUS ACTOR

Al Bundy's feet smell so bad that when he takes off his shoes, birds fall from the sky.

Al Bundy is so cheap that on the hottest day of the year, he takes his sweltering family and their lawn chairs to camp out at the supermarket.Al Bundy is so inattentive that he was watching television when he and wife Peg conceived their two children.

Is it any wonder that Ed O'Neill, the serious-minded actor who plays the goofball patriarch of Fox's "Married . . . With Children," likes to put as much distance as possible between himself and his character?

"I never think of him as me," says the actor, 44. "Even with my wife, we never talk about it. I never imitate Al. We never discuss it. It's like another thing."

As father figures go, the unredeemably crass Bundy, the shoe salesman who rarely fits in, is the flip side of Robert Young's straight-arrow Jim Anderson on "Father Knows Best."

This time around, father knows nothing. Just watch how he mangles family dynamics with Peg (Katey Sagal), the self-absorbed wife he dubs "the red beast"; Kelly, (Christina Applegate), his imbecile sexpot daughter; and Bud, (David Faustino), his crafty, smart-aleck son.

While Bundy is the pappy paragon of puzzlement, the actor is thoughtful, soft-spoken, even charming. He began an interview by showing off a 1936 Rolex he had just purchased, and concluded by recommending the book he was reading: "The Education of Little Tree," the true story of a Cherokee boy growing up in the 1930s.

O'Neill is hardly a stranger to South Florida. Twenty years ago, he worked as a bellhop for six months at the Galt Ocean Mile Hotel in Fort Lauderdale. He still visits to see his brother, who lives in Hollywood, Fla.

On this visit, he also sat down for an interview to reflect on the quirks of the acting profession; his forthcoming summer movie "Dutch," written and produced by John Hughes ("Home Alone"); the strange nature of awards; and the future of "Married . . . With Children," which ended its fifth season Sunday. The sitcom ranked No. 51 last season, a respectable showing against the three major networks' blockbuster Sunday movies, and will return for a sixth in the fall.

"After next year, I think I'll be looking to get out," O'Neill said. "After you get over 100 episodes, it's tough for the writers."

It can be tough on the actors, too. Unshaven and clad in blue shirt and blue jeans, the actor was obviously exhausted. For five weeks, he worked every day on "Dutch," the sitcom, or sometimes both. "This ended a couple of weeks ago, almost with the end of me," he joked.

"Married," often lambasted as tasteless by critics, has on occasion offended O'Neill as well. He doesn't like bathroom humor, and he sometimes wishes he had told the writers they'd gone too far.

Yet the show's unsentimental approach has produced fanatical loyalty in some viewers. "It's a relief for the audience," O'Neill said. "We're not trying to teach them anything. They never know what the hell we're going to do."

The sitcom rudely tackles everything from the hassles of menstruation (three women characters had their periods on a camping trip) to young Bud's successful efforts to engineer a sexual encounter (he bribed a girl with concert tickets) to Al's revulsion at sleeping with Peg (a long-running terror).

In one of O'Neill's favorite episodes, Al boosted Peg's shaky confidence in her sexual appeal . . . by pretending to be a peeping Tom.

"The thing I find uplifting about it, in some horrible way, is that all of us, in a marriage, must settle for less than our minds tell us we want," said O'Neill, who is separated from his wife. "There may be a couple of freaks who are totally satisfied with their partner. But most of us aren't. So Al, who is even less satisfied than most, has to constantly settle for less. A lot of people who watch that say it's horrible: `Why should you have to live like that?' Well, you DO live like that, probably."

O'Neill dismisses the notion that the Bundys are the model dysfunctional family.

"The children are not afraid to talk to the parents about anything," he said. "They are all twisted, but there is a certain affection."

"Married," never a favorite with critics or the television industry, is perennially bypassed in the Emmy nominations. The conservative awards process amuses O'Neill. Too often, he said, the awards honor comedies that are noble but not particularly funny. "They appeal to what people think is the right way to go."

He doesn't fret about typecasting. "I'm sure I should be (concerned), but it doesn't keep me up at night," he said. "Because the way my career has gone, I've never had the luxury of worrying about typecasting . . . I have to have the job. I need the job. You only worry about banking the money and paying the rent."

Still, he wants to break free from Bundy. Earlier this season, in the ABC drama "The Whereabouts of Jenny," he played a loving dad trying to find his daughter, hidden with her mom in the feds' witness protection program. But his unbilled cameo role as a prosecuting attorney in the theatrical movie "Flight of the Intruder" was a disaster. He was cut after preview audiences howled at him.

"People had no idea I was in it," he said. "As soon as they see me, it's Al Bundy in the Army. They crack up. The setup was insane."

He has no such fears about "Dutch," to be released this summer. The actor has the title role and star billing, bolstered by the talent and box-office savvy of scriptwriter Hughes and director Peter Faiman ("`Crocodile' Dundee"). In "Dutch," O'Neill plays a trucker-turned-millionaire who's romancing an affluent divorcee (JoBeth Williams). After her bratty 13-year-old son (Ethan Randall) refuses to come home from boarding school for Thanksgiving - the boy blames Mom for his parents' breakup - Dutch goes to fetch him.

"It's what every actor likes to do, and that is develop a real character who has more than one or two sides," he said. "Al is more of a cartoon."

A native of Youngstown, Ohio, O'Neill performed in high school plays but didn't choose an acting career until he was 30. After playing defensive positions for Ohio University and Youngstown State, he tried out for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"I went through the motions and was cut, and was fairly upset about it for a while," he said. "Then I realized it was the best thing. I didn't want to be scarred up."

He went to New York when he was 30, began landing roles on stage, in film ("The Dogs of War," "Cruising"), on a soap opera ("Another World") and in television (as an FBI agent in a "Miami Vice" episode).

For connoisseurs of "Married . . . With Children," it may come as a surprise that O'Neill believes his best acting came as Lennie in a stage production of "Of Mice and Men."

"I've read everything you can on acting," he said. "And I've gone to Lincoln Center library and listened to tapes of Barrymore. And Shaw reading Shaw. I want to do more, because then I can talk about it. You can't really talk about Shakespeare and then say you do Al Bundy."