O’Neal Compton is larger than life When O’Neal Compton was 26, he moved to New York City. A wayward Southern Baptist and medical school escapee from Sumter, South Carolina, he followed the bohemian call of Broadway dreamers, sure of his destiny as an actor. When he arrived, he was so broke that he rented his apartment in hourly shifts and split a 1971 pea green Volkswagen beetle with three friends, each paying $350. The sputtering old car racked up so many parking tickets that when it finally got booted, Compton just left it parked in the street and walked away You could say that is how Compton has jaunted through life, moving from one adventure to another, racking up big laughs and minor offenses, and never really cashing in before going whole hog with the next challenge. In fact, it’s hard to say whether his cyber-pseudonym “The Whole American Hog” refers to his roaring enthusiasm for whatever is in front of him or his wide-spanning status as an actor, filmmaker, musician, photographer, and political strategist. I arrive at his house north of downtown Charleston just after a thunderstorm. There is a soggy, peaceful stillness spreading from his grassy garden to the abandoned bridge down the street, across the open marsh. The Lowcountry serenity is a far cry from 1970s New York City tenement housing and the littered streets of L.A. where he built his acting career. Recovering from hip surgery, he answers the door in a wheelchair, nothing containing his robust smile and hospitality. Looking over the rims of round tortoise shell glasses, he asks “How ‘bout a margarita and sushi?” The walls are stacked with his own photography, framed in recovered wood using techniques he learned from his cabinet-maker father. Yellowed images of ancestors overlook the kitchen, a bookcase next to the door stands over-laden with antique political buttons, harmonicas, trinkets brought back from the Alps, a Darwin fish car decal, and a bone and metal contraption that will soon be his new hip. The collection serves as a reliquary of the winding roads and sharp turns Compton has taken in his life and career. Born in 1951 to a 13th generation Southern American family, he started working in his grandfather’s funeral business as a young teen. At a young age, he was exposed to nearly every tragedy in his tight-knit community. “I saw my three friends’ dead bodies right after a car crash when I was a kid,” Compton remembers. “I was so deeply effected by these early experiences that I turned to the arts as an outlet.”
Published on Sep 10, 2011
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