American Experience (1988– )
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Eugene O'Neill: A Documentary Film 

The life and career of American playwright Eugene O'Neill.


Ric Burns


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Episode credited cast:
Robert Brustein Robert Brustein ... Himself
Zoe Caldwell ... Herself / Mary Tyrone
Arthur Gelb Arthur Gelb ... Himself
Barbara Gelb Barbara Gelb ... Herself
John Guare ... Himself
Tony Kushner ... Himself
Robert Sean Leonard ... Himself / Edmund Tyrone
Sidney Lumet ... Himself
Liam Neeson ... Himself / James Tyrone Jr.
Al Pacino ... Himself / Hickey
Christopher Plummer ... Narrator / James Tyrone
Robert Redford ... Don Parritt (archive footage)
Vanessa Redgrave ... Herself / Mary Tyrone
Lloyd Richards Lloyd Richards ... Himself
Natasha Richardson ... Herself


Eugene O'Neill tells the haunting story of the life and work of America's greatest and only Nobel Prize-winning playwright -- set within the context of the harrowing family dramas and personal upheavals that shaped him, and that he in turn struggled all his life to give form to in his art. More than a biography of the greatest literary genius the American theater has produced, this American Experience production is a moving meditation on loss and redemption, family and memory, the cost of being an artist, and the inescapability of the past. It is also a penetrating exploration of the masterpieces O'Neill created only at the very end of his career -- "The Iceman Cometh" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night" pre-eminent among them -- brought to life in mesmerizing scenes performed especially for the production by some of the most gifted actors working in theater today, including Al Pacino, Zoe Caldwell, Christopher Plummer, Robert Sean Leonard, Liam Neeson, and Vanessa Redgrave. (taken ... Written by

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Release Date:

21 March 2006 (USA) See more »

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WGBH See more »
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User Reviews

well, nobody's perfect
5 August 2016 | by blanche-2See all my reviews

This documentary about the great playwright Eugene O'Neill doesn't sugarcoat the kind of man he was. It couldn't, because the kind of man he was was largely responsible for some of our greatest plays: Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh, Moon for the Misbegotten, and countless others, his work growing stronger as he aged.

Long Day's Journey is a biographical play, and it's about a family so dysfunctional they make Honey Boo-Boo's family look like Ozzie and Harriet: a family that's never had a real home, a heroin addicted mother who hates her older, alcoholic son, a disappointed father, and a son who seems to absorb all of it. Hanging over this is the guilt of losing a two-year-old boy during a time when the mother was traveling with her actor husband.

So like many others, O'Neill came from a sad beginning, something he never really got away from. He abandoned wives and children (as did Charles Dickens), he became a derelict hanging out at a cheap bar (experiences from which he drew The Iceman Cometh), he was totally self-involved and was the poster child for the tortured artist. Lousy for him, great for us.

There is a lot of analysis of O'Neill as a man and how it affected his plays, and some of it is repetitious. There were also actors - Liam Neeson, Al Pacino, Zoe Caldwell, and Christopher Plummer - who acted out parts of his plays. It leaves one practically in tears wishing that Christopher Plummer would do James Tyrone on the stage again - he is breathtaking, and I never saw the one he did in London some 40+ years ago. I suppose he wouldn't have the stamina now.

There were photos of the first production, starring Frederic March, Florence Eldredge, Bradford Dillman, and Jason Robards -- Robards went on to play not only Edmund, but James Tyrone, and directed the play. He also starred in The Iceman Cometh. Having seen some of Eldredge's work, she was probably a wonderful Mary.

All in all, an interesting documentary about how several of his plays came about. Though Long Day's was never to see a stage production and not even be published until 25 years after his death, his widow defied all of that, and it was first produced in 1957. As one person interviewed said, O'Neill probably expected her to do just that. I'm sure he just didn't want to be alive when it was produced.

Let's face it, a lot of the greats were just not nice people: Picasso, Hemingway, Richard Wagner, to name just a few. As Charles McGrath said in the New York Times, "The cruel thing about art — of great art, anyway — is that it requires its practitioners to be wrapped up in themselves in a way that's a little inhuman."

As for O'Neill, for all the talking the scholars did, I'm not sure in the end anyone really knew what made this man tick. All we know is that art was everything to him, and he created some of the greatest art of all time.

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