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Robert Vincent O’Neil, who co-wrote and directed Angel, the cult 1983 film about a “high school honor student by day … Hollywood hooker by night” that spawned a low-budget franchise, has died. He was 91.
O’Neil died Saturday in his sleep of natural causes in Fairfield, California, his daughter Lari Bain told The Hollywood Reporter.
O’Neil also co-wrote the Hollywood-set Vice Squad (1982), a crime thriller starring Wings Hauser as a sadistic pimp named Ramrod; co-wrote The Baltimore Bullet (1980), featuring James Coburn and Omar Sharif as pool hustlers; and created the ultra-violent 1985-86 ABC series Lady Blue, whose main character was nicknamed “Dirty Harriet.”
Angel, one of the first films to emerge from New World Pictures after Roger Corman sold the famed indie outfit to Harry Sloan and others, starred Donna Wilkes as Molly Stewart, a pigtailed 15-year-old high schooler who heads to Hollywood Boulevard after nightfall to work as a prostitute. Here’s the trailer.
Talking about directing Wilkes, who was 24 when the movie was made, O’Neil said in a 2008 interview that he “learned about a relationship that she had that had gone sour and she was dealing with, and it was really easy to push the buttons with her.”
Made in the neighborhood of $1 million and filmed in about three weeks, Angel was a surprising hit at the box office, grossing about $17 million ($49 million in today’s dollars).
O’Neil then co-wrote and directed the first sequel, Avenging Angel (1985), with Molly — now played by Betsy Russell after Wilkes insisted on “an outrageous price” to return — off the streets, studying to be a lawyer and tracking down the guy who murdered the cop who helped her get her life together.
The franchise limped to a conclusion with Angel III: The Final Chapter (1988), starring Mitzi Kapture, and Angel 4: Undercover (1993), toplined by Darlene Vogel. O’Neil was not involved with those.
Lady Blue starred Jamie Rose as no-nonsense Chicago cop Katy Mahoney and Danny Aiello as her boss. The MGM Television series was criticized by some for its excessive violence and canceled after 14 episodes. (Rose said she watched Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films and worked with the actor to prepare for the role.)
Born in Oakland on Sept. 15, 1930, O’Neil was raised in San Francisco and Tucson, Arizona. After studying theater at the University of Texas El Paso, he served as a cameraman in Texas during the early years of television and as a property master for Richard Rush on Psych-Out (1968) and The Savage Seven (1968) and for Dennis Hopper on Easy Rider (1969).
On those films, he pestered legendary cinematographer László Kovács for tutelage.
O’Neil’s first feature as a writer-director was Like Mother Like Daughter (1969), and he followed with such drive-in fare as The Psycho Lover (1970), Blood Mania (1970), Wonder Women (1973) and Paco (1975).
After Vice Squad — shot by Stanley Kubrick cinematographer John Alcott — O’Neil co-wrote Deadly Force, this time starring Hauser as a cop, before he and Joseph Michael Cala embarked on the script for Angel.
“Joe and I camped out on Hollywood Boulevard literally night after night after night, and we wrote it to the locations,” he said. “In other words, usually you get a script and you find the locations, but we wrote this script to the locations.”
Angel’s salacious tagline was “High school honor student by day … Hollywood hooker by night.” It all worked out great for the new owners of New World, who took the company public after acquiring it from Corman.
“Although he shot several features on location,” his daughter said, “his choice setting was always the streets of Hollywood, where a sheet of folded pink paper in his shirt pocket made it appear that he possessed a permit and where the LAPD was always happy to let him ride along.”
O’Neil also was a playwright; his most recent work was NightHawks, a crime story loosely based on the Edward Hopper painting that ran in repertory in Los Angeles in 2005 and ’14. He was still writing and developing projects as recently as last year.
Survivors include his twin daughters, Lari (and her husband, Andrew) and Lisa (Bill); daughter Nicole (Lloyd); brother Ron (Evie); grandchildren Jessica, Quinn, Sara, Russell, Jess and Robert; and seven great-grandchildren.
He was married to Lois Lansing, the eldest daughter of James B. Lansing (of JBL and Altec Lansing fame), model Bonita Merino and actress Sunni Walton.
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