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Renaissance man O’Connor keeps it simple

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Peter McDermott

Jerome O’Connor has the same uncomplicated attitude producing a movie that he had when he was laboring on a building site. "Everyone just works and gets it done," he said.

Indeed, O’Connor seems unfazed by the world of Hollywood deal-making as he approaches an important milestone in his career as a producer. "An Everlasting Piece," his first film, will open in theaters on Christmas Day.

The film, which was made for Steven Spielberg’s production company Dreamworks, is directed by Barry Levinson, who won an Oscar for "Rain Man."

Whereas some people are happy to make one niche for themselves in life, the Millstreet, Co. Cork, native has carved out several in his 15 years in New York. He’s been a laborer, carpenter, building contractor, bar owner and restaurateur, and is now a producer.

All of these career strands can be seen in his working environment. If you find him talking to Hollywood on his cell phone, it’s likely to be in the Half King, his "production office," the Chelsea bar and restaurant he designed and built and co-owns, and it’s likely, too, that he’s sitting there on benches made from antique oak he found exploring Pennsylvania with his 4-year-old son, John.

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"Most of the time I spend talking to people about scripts," he said

The 39-year-old O’Connor previously built the East Village bar and restaurant St. Dymphna’s. It was there he became friends with "Perfect Storm" author and screenwriter Sebastian Junger, writer and journalist Scott Anderson and documentary filmmaker Nannette Burstein. The four conceived the idea of a new literary hangout where readings would be part of the mix. The Half King has flourished since it opened in the summer.

The bar is on 23rd Street, far over on the West Side, at 10th Avenue, but on the right side of the tracks, just about. It’s a few feet from a disused railway bridge. "They’re supposed to take it down," O’Connor said of the bridge. "I hope they don’t."

There’s an exclusive residential block in the other direction, immediately to the Half King’s east, and the legendary Chelsea Hotel is farther along 23rd. More important, though, the area is home to several film production companies, whose employees, together with writers and others in publishing, make up much of the Half King’s clientele.

"I meet a lot of interesting people here. It’s always good to meet writers if you’re in film," he said.

When he opened the Half King, he hired Waterford native Conor Foran, a chef, and bartender Louisa Murray, from Tipperary, both of whom began with him in St. Dymphna’s. It was Murray who told him in late 1997 of a reading in Swift’s of Barry McEvoy’s script about two barbers, one a Protestant and the other a Catholic, who team up to sell hairpieces in 1980s Northern Ireland. "I was really surprised that it hadn’t been picked up. It got a lot of rejections," O’Connor said.

He optioned Devlin’s script and asked him to rework it. "We set up a reading and invited a lot of people," he said. About 40 people showed up for the reading in Anseo in the East Village, among them the son of "Donnie Brasco" producer Lou DiGiaimo.

DiGiaimo and his partner, Mark Johnson, were on board as producers early on. Another breakthrough came when Barry Levinson agreed to direct. Ex-comedy writer Levinson made his name with "Diner" in 1982 and went on to direct movies like "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Wag the Dog" as well as "Rain Man" and to produce several others.

O’Connor himself got a feel for the industry working with Dubliner Jimmy Smallhorne on his movie "2 by 4". "Jimmy used St. Dymphna’s as a base making the movie, and I learned a lot watching him," he said.

With "An Everlasting Piece," O’Connor is far closer to the mass market and is hopeful of success. The feedback from screenings has been very positive so far. "It’s difficult to write a good script and this is really good. And we’ve got Barry Levinson," he said.

But it’s hardly one throw of the dice. "I’m involved with several other film projects," he said. One is a movie called "Locked and Uptight," written by Barry Devlin and David Sussman.

Despite the shift in focus in recent years, O’Connor said that he doesn’t want to be tagged. "I’m mainly a producer now, but I like coming into the bar too," he said.

"And I liked working on construction projects," he said. "But not every day."

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