In this paper, we often read about a talent that is starting to bubble to the surface. A talent that will, if the stars align, lead to fame and a little fortune. Of the thousands that are written about, only a handful ever reach that coveted spot of adoring, sometimes psychotic, fans and endless zeros in their bank account. Some move on to other things after a number of disappointments while others move on because, well, life. Others never let that ambition die, eventually realizing their dream.
On Mon. Feb. 18, the South Carolina film community lost one of those successful dreamers. Actor Belton O’Neal Compton Jr. died at the age of 68. Known to most as O’Neal Compton, the ambitious native of Sumter, Compton attended Clemson and Wofford College and served in the Navy. Compton’s muse came in many forms, including writing and photography. While he was successful in those pursuits — even having his works commissioned by Jerry Seinfeld to create a series of his “slow speed” natural light portraits of the cast and crew in the final season of Seinfeld — for obvious reasons, he was most recognized for his work as a character actor in films and television.
Compton, with muralist-filmmaker David Boatwright and friend Timmy Mallard, appeared in numerous commercials as a larger than life Cajun “Big Daddy” character named Justin Thyme. As recently noted in the Post and Courier, Boatwright saw the talent Compton possessed, “He was a really natural actor … Just as soon as you saw him on camera, you believed him.”
His first ever film role was in Don’t Tell Her it’s Me (a.k.a. The Boyfriend School). The film, which has amassed a mild cult following thanks in no small part to Steve Guttenberg’s amazing mullet and crucifix earring, featured Compton as a gas station attendant who got to witness the blossoming romance (under false pretenses, that is) between Guttenberg’s Lobo/Gus and Jami Gertz’s Emily. While a small role, it helped set in motion a career that would span over a decade in nearly 40 films, TV shows, and commercials.
While his appearance in an obscure Guttenberg rom-com or local commercials may not jog your memory, you’ve likely seen Compton in one of the other productions where he was featured. Film maniacs may recognize his face from films like the Martin Lawrence/Eddie Murphy vehicle Life; the dark comedy The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom; the prescient political satire Primary Colors; his role as Morten Entrekin in that other late ’90s special effects laden apocalypse film Deep Impact; or his role as Don Fantana opposite Liam Neeson in Jodie Foster’s film Nell.
Fans of early ’90s TV may recognize him from roles in Parker Lewis’ Can’t Lose, Quantum Leap, Home Improvement, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, or Wonder Years. If you, like a large segment of the TV viewing audience, are a big fan of Seinfeld, you likely remember him as the recurring character Earl Haffler.
A personal favorite was his role as J.T., the acerbic cook in Robert Rodriguez’s Roadracers. In one scene, J.T. listens to John Hawke’s The Nixer prattle on and on until it’s decided by the burger cook that it’s time to lay down a cold reality. With that, J.T. coolly walks over, takes a fry from The Nixer’s plate, swirls it in the ketchup and informs him, “You ain’t doin’ nothin’. You’re going to spend the rest of your days right here in this little town … and you’re gonna die here. With one of my burgers in your hand.”