Ryan O’Neal is dead at the age of 82 after a long battle with leukemia. His son Patrick announced the news on Instagram.
O’Neal was one of the true heartthrobs of the New Hollywood era, making many who saw him in “Love Story,” “What’s Up Doc?,” “Barry Lyndon,” and “The Driver” swoon. He also was much more than a pretty face, showing a capacity to let the great directors of the era mold him into something so much more powerful than his looks. And his life was defined in some ways, also, by heartbreak and misfortune: the loss of his great love Farrah Fawcett in 2009, the years-long legal troubles of his son Redmond, the rupture of his relationship with son Griffin, and fraught connection to his daughter Tatum. He was a prickly icon, someone whose public statements and demeanor defied people to like him. But the films he leaves behind have stood the test of time for anyone who cares about cinema.
“Ryan was a very generous man who has always been there to help his loved ones for decade upon decade,” his son Patrick wrote in a statement on Instagram. “Those same people are heartbroken today and will be for a long time.”
“I will share my father’s legacy forever. I will not be deterred from outside voices that say negative things. If you choose to talk shit about my dad, even though you have no clue what you are talking about, you will get called out. If you go that route, I recommend you take a good look in the mirror first.
“My dad was 82, and lived a kick ass life.”
If that statement reads a bit pugnacious, it sums up the contentiousness in which O’Neal’s life was sometimes embroiled.
O’Neal was born April 20, 1941 in Los Angeles, where he’d go on to attend University High School. As a young man he had aspirations of being a boxer, experiences that would inform his 1979 Barbra Streisand team-up “The Main Event.” After some stand-in and stuntman work on productions in Germany, where his parents had moved the family in the late ’50s, O’Neal decided to pursue acting in Hollywood, making his first TV appearance in an episode of “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” in 1960. It was a patchwork of guest parts, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”-style from there, until he landed his ongoing role in ABC’s epochal half-hour primetime soap, “Peyton Place,” opposite Dorothy Malone, Mia Farrow, and Barbara Perkins. He married his costar Leigh Taylor-Young in 1969, following a previous marriage to actress Joanna Moore.
Several of its stars used the success of “Peyton Place” to kick-start their own film careers and O’Neal was no exception. He landed his first lead role in a film with 1969’s “The Big Bounce.” The next year he’d hit superstardom.
1970 was the year “Love Story” was unleashed on the world. Jon Voight and Beau Bridges had already turned down the role of Oliver Barrett IV, an East Coast old money scion at Harvard who falls in love with a working class Radcliffe student played by Ali MacGraw, then married to the film’s producer, Robert Evans. For his part, Evans told the Los Angeles Times he felt that the Barrett role was “a Cary Grant role — a handsome leading man with lots of emotions.” O’Neal was less certain of the film’s potential success, telling the LA Times, “I hope the young people like it. I don’t want to go back to TV. I don’t want to go back to those [National Association of Broadcasters] conventions.”
He needn’t have worried. “Love Story” was the number one box-office smash of 1970, raking in $50 million in domestic theater rentals. It’s a fascinating snapshot of what non-New Hollywood box office smashes could be like at that time, a formulaic romance meant to break viewers’ hearts. Francis Lai’s “Theme from ‘Love Story,’” also known as “Where Do I Begin?” was instant Andy Williams fodder. And the movie’s line “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” became iconic, with O’Neal and Streisand making fun of it at the end of “What’s Up Doc?” when she says it to him and he replies, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
But America had fallen in love with Ryan O’Neal out of “Love Story.” He got a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars, losing to George C. Scott for “Patton” (who famously refused the award). It was the last time O’Neal would receive any Academy recognition. Yet his star was beyond ascendant, and, for cinephiles, his best films were all still ahead.
Audiences didn’t take much notice of his immediate “Love Story” follow-up, the Blake Edwards Western “Wild Rovers.” They certainly did his second, however: “What’s Up, Doc?,” Peter Bogdanovich’s madcap and uproariously funny screwball comedy homage, was the third highest grossing movie of 1972. And if his connection with Ali MacGraw in “Love Story” was yearning and sweet, his chemistry with Streisand was crackling. Here was another Cary Grant-type role — O’Neal’s Dr. Howard Bannister is very, very similar to the character Grant plays in “Bringing Up Baby,” Bogdanovich’s most obvious influence — and while he channeled Grant’s straight-man understatement, he brought a level of sexiness that might have even alluded the earlier actor. Take a look at O’Neal going shirtless with nothing but a bowtie and glasses at one moment and ask yourself if you’ve ever seen a Chippendale look better.
Off-camera, O’Neal may have displayed a massive ego. But in a role like “What’s Up, Doc?” he plays his character as if he’s oblivious to his handsomeness altogether, which only enhanced his appeal. At a time when the New Hollywood — Robert Redford, who often tried to conceal his looks, aside — didn’t prioritize handsomeness for handsomeness’s sake, O’Neal was a genuine heartthrob. That he could parlay that into Bogdanovich’s desire to channel the 1930s in the 1970s is a remarkable act of cinematic alchemy.
For their next pairing, Bogdanovich decided to literally set the film in the 1930s: “Paper Moon” saw O’Neal as an itinerant con man who teams up with a nine-year-old orphan, played by his real life daughter with first wife Joanna Moore, Tatum. She became the youngest winner of a competitive Oscar in history, when she won for Best Supporting Actress.
Ryan O’Neal’s collaborations with Bogdanovich are arguably among the best actor-director partnerships of the 1970s, and they’d work together again on “Nickelodeon” (which also featured Tatum O’Neal). He showed a unique ability to channel the vision of major auteurs, despite being far removed from Actors Studio-style training or anything resembling “method acting.”
More to come…