Nobody can ever accuse John O’Donohue of not being a risk taker. He has always been brave enough to dream big, and fortunate enough to have seen many of his dreams come true.
As a member of the New York City Police Department from 1968-88, he attained the rank of lieutenant. Among other things, he has been a professional boxer and a working actor. He had a regular role as Sgt. Eddie Gibson, the meddlesome detective squad supervisor who was always at odds with the fictional detective Andy Sipowicz on “NYPD Blue.”
“My character started out as a Neanderthal dinosaur, a real male chauvinistic pig,” said the 59-year-old O’Donohue. “Even though Eddie Gibson wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, he started to grow on the show. Of course I was sad to see the show go off the air, but I was thrilled to be part of it. The writing and the acting was terrific.”
O’Donohue grew up in an Irish and Puerto Rican neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that he describes as being like “‘West Side Story’ without the singing and dancing,” moved back to New York after living in Los Angeles for eleven years.
While there is less work to be had on the East Coast, he just completed a film role for director Ed Burns, playing Jay Mohr’s father in a soon to be released movie called “The Groomens.”
As appreciative as O’Donohue is of his West Coast experience, he is happy to be back on more familiar ground. It was in New York that his lofty dreams were spawned, and where his internal engines churned to make them a reality.
Shortly after joining the NYPD, the department was rocked by a scandal involving corrupt narcotics officers. An independent investigative team known as the Knapp Commission shook the department to its core. O’Donohue was detailed to bodyguard detective Robert Leuci, who was the central figure in the best-selling book and highly acclaimed movie “Prince of the City.” Treat Williams played the part of Leuci.
Leuci later became the author of many books, including his recent memoir, “All the Centurions,” where he remembered O’Donohue sharing with him his dreams of being both a prizefighter and an actor.
“I got that detail because I was young and, presumably, untainted by corruption,” said O’Donohue. “Leuci initially came across as an altruistic guy who wanted to change the system. There were all sorts of rumors of hit teams out to get him, so he was guarded around the clock. Regardless of what he did or didn’t do, he was a very intelligent and charismatic guy.”
During those days O’Donohue was drinking heavily. Oftentimes it got out of control. Having grown up with several friends who had become fighters, he had great respect for the sport. While pontificating one night, he hatched upon the idea of boxing professionally. He figured it was a surefire way to keep him out of bars and in the gym.
He urged a friend of his to convince the late Paddy Flood, who worked out of the fabled Gramercy Gym in Manhattan, to book him a fight. O’Donohue trained with enthusiasm and sparred regularly with middleweight prospect Bobby O’Brien, himself an active police officer, and Sandy Alexander, a solid pro who was also the president of the New York City chapter of the Hells Angels.
“Those guys took pity on me and took it easy on me,” said O’Donohue, who trained all of three weeks for his inauspicious ring debut, which occurred at the legendary Sunnyside Gardens arena in Queens on December 17, 1975. “The training was as nerve-wracking as it was exciting, but I didn’t have the sense to pull out.”
Flood matched O’Donohue with Otis Gordon, a heavily muscled Connecticut convict who was trained by a correction officer and occasionally furloughed to fight. Although Gordon was 0-2 at the time, he would go on to have a respectable career fighting such championship caliber opponents as Eddie Mustafa Muhammad and Carlos De Leon.
“A busload of cops came from the precinct, and scores of people from the neighborhood were there too,” recalled O’Donohue. “Every time Gordon hit me with his snapping jab, my body vibrated. I went down near the end of the first round and got up at the count of seven. Leonard Lewin, who was a reporter for the New York Post at the time, wrote that I had my first pro fight at 29 and was not destined to reach my 30th birthday if I kept it up.”
O’Donohue says his boxing experience is one he will never forget. “I’m still very proud that I got in the ring, especially given my circumstances,” he said.
Over the next few years O’Donohue would fill his physical and emotional voids by becoming a long-distance runner and also going to Off-Off Broadway plays. Before long the acting bug bit and he has never looked back.
“Like boxing and running, I guess I was able to hide my feelings through acting,” said O’Donohue. “I enrolled in the [now defunct] Dramatic Workshop and became obsessive about learning my craft. I loved all the positive feedback and all the crazy characters I got to play.”
O’Donohue soon landed a role in the acclaimed Off-Off Broadway play “Bullpen” by Dennis Watlington, which chronicled the travails of a cross-section of offenders awaiting arraignment in criminal court. He was involved in the play off and on for ten years, working alongside such future stars as Bruce Willis, Giancarlo Esposito and Denzel Washington.
Shortly before he retired from the NYPD, he attended an open audition for an MTV production called “Colin Quinn Goes to Brooklyn.” He and the director, a young Ben Stiller, hit it off. O’Donohue garnered some much-needed television experience and soon received his first paying role, as well as a coveted SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card, by playing a cop in a crime reenactment on “America’s Most Wanted.”
“That was a pivotal moment,” said O’Donohue. “In those days it was even harder to get a SAG card than it is today. I asked my wife to give me ten years in Los Angeles. Six months after I arrived I got a reoccurring role on ‘The Ben Stiller Show,’ which won an Emmy for writing after it had already been cancelled.”
That led him to an agent and a regular role as Max the Bus Driver on “The John Larroquette Show” in the early nineties. After also appearing in such shows as “Mad About You,” “Seinfeld,” “King of Queens,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “ER” and “Chicago Hope,” he auditioned for a role in a cop show called “Brooklyn South.”
Although that program didn’t last a season, Bill Clark, a retired NYPD detective who was the executive producer, offered him the recurring, and eventually regular, role of Eddie Gibson on “NYPD Blue,” for which Clark also served as the executive producer. The rest is, or soon will be, celluloid history.
O’Donohue is the first to admit that, from the standpoint of fear, acting doesn’t hold a candle to boxing. “Even though I lost my one and only fight, I needed to know that I had the balls to go between those four ring posts,” he said. “If you can work through that, everything else is easy by comparison. Even acting.”