Dennis O’Neill was like Joe Pesci in “My Cousin Vinny” when he moved to Fort Worth. On his first night at his new apartment, the New York native popped down to a convenience store, where he got a taste of Southern hospitality.
“I put everything on the counter, I’m getting my money and the cashier says, ‘How y’all doing?’” O’Neill recalled. “I looked at her and said, ‘What? Why do you want to know?’ and I looked at the door to see if there was anybody setting me up for something. I never heard people being that polite.”
A longtime actor, O’Neill felt New York and Fort Worth were worlds apart. Inspired by interactions like those at the convenience store, he used the juxtaposition to write the TV show “Bail Out.” The show is a comedy spoof about a New York detective who ends up on a mobster’s hit list and has to flee to Fort Worth, where he takes over his late uncle’s failing bail bond business.
O’Neill directs the show and stars as its leading character. Though some scenes are set in New York, “Bail Out” is shot in Fort Worth using local talent. ION Television recently picked up the series for production.
While the show features the city’s more traditional cultural spots, like the Stockyards, O’Neill wants to showcase the more modern parts of Fort Worth, too.
“When I moved here, I realized I really love it, and there’s so much here to do,” he said. “And with all of our episodes, I’ve had people from New York ask me, ‘Where was that in Brooklyn?’ and it was in Fort Worth.”
But O’Neill wasn’t always so smitten with Fort Worth. In fact, getting him to leave New York was harder than Tom Hanks saying goodbye to Wilson in “Cast Away.”
The road to Fort Worth was a rocky one that was decades long. To start, O’Neill didn’t have a picture-perfect childhood. He grew up in a dysfunctional household and lived in Section 8 housing. In an attempt to rehabilitate him, he was put in theater. However, it didn’t help much at the time, he said.
“I was always in fights, drinking, doing drugs, and I was just a bad student and bad kid,” O’Neill said. “I was disliked by the faculty and the assistant principal called me in and said, ‘You’ll never make it to your senior year and you’ll never make it in life.”
O’Neill worked hard to “squeak through” his senior year. But before graduation, he quit because he had proved his assistant principal wrong but wanted nothing to do with school anymore. Without a degree, O’Neill had a hard time getting a good job. For the next decade, he worked as a delivery guy, short-order cook, dishwasher and actor.
His wife, Carmen, encouraged O’Neill to get a college education. He heard of a program at Suffolk County Community College where he could work toward his high school diploma and receive an associate’s degree in theater at the same time. But it wasn’t until O’Neill went to church that he started taking acting seriously.
“(Carmen) would come to me about it and put on these Christian TV shows,” O’Neill said. “These preachers would be like, ‘Glory be to God’ and stuff. I’d be laughing stoned out of my mind.”
Much to his dismay, he finally went to a service with his wife. Though resistant at first, when the church prayed for him, he felt a wave of tranquility come over him.
“A woman came over, put her hand on my shoulder, and said, ‘Brother, Jesus has a word for you. My son, I need you to do my work. But you’ve got to change your evil ways,’” he recalled. “I started crying, and I felt this darkness and disease coming out of me. Like 20 years of drug addiction coming out.”
The experience gave him the clarity and focus to pursue performing more seriously. He also started a faith-based advocacy group for actors. He acted in soap operas and became a stunt double for Robin Williams in “Moscow on the Hudson,” which would become the catalyst for his move to Fort Worth and entry to writing.
Time waits for no man. Unless that man is Chuck Norris.
Robin Williams asked O’Neill to work with him on several other projects and found more roles in films. Eventually, he landed a role in “Walker, Texas Ranger” and shot a fight scene with Chuck Norris at Fort Worth’s Alliance Airport.
Other Fort Worth film projects:
A Ghost Story
The Old Man & the Gun
Never Goin’ Back
12 Mighty Orphans
Walker, Texas Ranger
O’Neill traveled frequently for acting and ministry and eventually felt compelled to settle down in Fort Worth in 1989. Since moving to Fort Worth, O’Neill completed a bachelor’s degree through Tarrant County College and the University of Texas at Arlington.
“My wife wanted to move here, and I would always say I was born in New York and would die in New York,” O’Neill said. “But I really liked Fort Worth and so I thought I would try it for a year.”
After a few decades of acting, O’Neill wanted to try his hand at writing and directing. He thought Fort Worth would be the perfect place for a comedy.
“I want to show the clash between New York and Texas,” O’Neill said. “But never do I make fun of Texas. If anything, I make fun of New York.”
He started filming for “Bail Out” in 2009 with the first short released in 2010. The series was released in 2013 and currently has 21 episodes out.
Rush Vann, of Vann Investment Management in Fort Worth, became friends with O’Neill and has been advocating for the show’s success. He helped secure funding and permits for filming on city property.
The show “is a big deal, and it’s Fort Worth who’s going to benefit from it. Not Dallas, not Austin, not Houston,” Vann said. “It showcases our budding film and entertainment industry here. Dennis promotes Fort Worth in a funny way where you can show the underbelly of Fort Worth but also the cool stuff about it.”
The pair brought the show to former Mayor Betsy Price, who had a cameo in an episode of the show without charge. Price praised the show for showing the complexity of Fort Worth.
“It’s great,” she said. “We’re the gateway to the West, but we remember our history. ‘Bail Out’ has a little bit of both.”
Along with the former mayor’s encouragement, O’Neill said the show has received a lot of support from the Fort Worth community and local businesses. Slice City Pizza, Jake’s Burgers and Bird Café have let the crew film on their property free of charge.
1989: O’Neill moves to Fort Worth.
1994-1995: O’Neill acts alongside Chuck Norris in “Walker, Texas Ranger”
2009: O’Neill starts producing “Bail Out”.
2010: The first “Bail Out” short is released.
2013: The series’s first episode titled “I Am Lorenzo Lamas” is released.
2021: ION picks up the series, which has 10 more episodes in store.
“The people in Fort Worth that hear about ‘Bail Out’ want to be a part of it,” he said. “That’s what’s so great about Fort Worth.”
“Bail Out” has 10 more episodes planned, and O’Neill said he’s taking the show one season at a time. But he can see the show going on for several more years.
Although he’s not in New York anymore, he has continued the ministry he started there. O’Neill and the show are supporters of Cook Children’s Medical Center. He also wants to promote theater as a means for rehabilitating incarcerated individuals. O’Neill hopes he can give more back to the community he’s grown to love.
“I wanted to do something with my gifts for the community,” O’Neill said. “The thing is to never forget where you came from.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed to correct the spelling of Cook Children’s Medical Center.
Brooke Colombo is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by grants from the Amon G. Carter and Sid W. Richardson foundations. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.