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The origin story of Love Story, which celebrates its 50th anniversary with a limited-edition Blu-ray and, on Feb. 12, a double star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, is a rocky one.
Erich Segal’s screenplay about star-crossed lovers garnered little interest until Paramount head of production Robert Evans took a chance on it for the floundering studio, whose parent company Gulf+Western was about to walk after a string of box office flops. At the studio’s request in advance of the film, Segal turned his script into a novel, which became a best-seller upon its release on Valentine’s Day 1970. Evans offered the role of well-off Harvard Law student Oliver to Peter Fonda, Michael Douglas and Jeff Bridges, who all turned it down. Then Segal recommended O’Neal, who hit it off with newcomer MacGraw, the wife of Evans.
“We didn’t have to build chemistry. It was there, built in,” O’Neal, 79, tells THR of playing opposite MacGraw’s quick-witted, working-class Jenny from Radcliffe College. Chronicling Jenny and Oliver’s romance from their first date in Cambridge to final embrace as Jenny lays dying in the hospital, director Arthur Hiller and cast and crew shot in New York and at Harvard (one of the last films to do so before the university closed itself off to film shoots — though incoming freshmen are treated to a Love Story screening every year).
When they exhausted the budget and needed pick-up shots to accompany Francis Lai’s now-iconic score, they went back to Cambridge without permits. ” ‘We’re going to have a station wagon with a cinematographer and we’re going to knock out a bunch of dialogue-less scenes,’ ” MacGraw, 81, recalls Evans telling her. That atmospheric B-roll, combined with the music, “just catapulted the film immeasurably,” she says.
It was an instant hit, earning $136.4 million globally ($915.7 million today), and nabbed seven Oscar noms, including an original score win for Lai. While the film has its detractors, MacGraw thinks its timing was key: “Knowing very well the events that were going on in the world — anti-Vietnam and worrying about all kinds of stuff — I think people may have been ready for something sentimental.”
In a recent conversation with THR, MacGraw and O’Neal also discuss when they knew their lives were about to change, hearing Lai’s score for the first time and the Harvard University controversy.
Well, does it feel like 50 years have passed?
Ryan O’Neal: No, they went so quickly! I have total recall.
Ali MacGraw: God, whatever that means. No, of course not. I’m constantly assaulted with this piece of information. Time is so bizarre. Sometimes, one feels that it’s a million years ago, and then you turn around and think it was last month. Simultaneously. So the short answer is: I don’t know what 50 years means. It just was so quick.
Ryan, Love Story’s screenwriter, Erich Segal, championed you for the role of Oliver. Was it rare to have a screenwriter go to bat for you?
O’Neal: Very. He was my only screenwriter. Erich Segal and I had a prior. He wrote a movie called The Games about marathoners, and I was the American marathoner in this Olympic story, The Games, for Fox. So Erich and I used to run every day. He was a marathoner, and we used to jog every day. I would run in the movie and then I would run with him. (Laughs.) He had been working on this script, and he hadn’t said anything to me about it. And then, one day, out of the blue, he called and said, “I want you to meet Bob [Robert] Evans and Ali MacGraw. They have a script, and I think you’re perfect for it. You’ll be from Harvard this time, not from anywhere else.” So I went in, I met with them, and a long process took over. Many boys were tested, and I got lucky.
Jenny was very clever and quick-witted. Ali, did you add her sharp manner of speaking to the writing, or was it mostly on the page?
MacGraw: Oh, I think she was written pretty much as a smartass, yes. I don’t think it was a big stretch to understand who that character was.
When two actors play a couple, they’ll sometimes build chemistry by doing mundane things during their downtime, such as grocery shopping or going for coffee. Did the two of you build rapport in this manner, or was your connection pretty automatic from the start?
O’Neal: Well, we were lucky. We didn’t have to build chemistry. It was there, built in. So not much grocery shopping. Don’t forget, she was married to the president of the studio [Paramount’s Robert Evans]. So she had to go home to him at night, but I had her during the day. Ali is easy to get along with. She’s really got a lot of charm, and she’s very bright. So I just absorbed her.
MacGraw: We did have immediate chemistry. First of all, I had never seen Peyton Place, because I wasn’t much of a television watcher, but I knew that Ryan was a really respected, popular and practiced actor-star. I was nobody, as you very well know. He’s got one of the great senses of humor of all time, and he knows exactly what he’s doing. So it was a very lucky break for me that I got to work with someone that I could be that comfortable with. He was terrific to work with, and we did have great chemistry. I don’t know what explains that, but, boy, I’ve only done one thing where that wasn’t happening and it is really scary. (Laughs.)
What was the first indication in your everyday life that this movie was becoming a phenomenon?
O’Neal: Well, I took a ride to the Village Theatre in Westwood with my friends, and there was a long, long line around the block. So we asked them, “Is this for the next show?” and they said, “No, this is for the one after the next show.” So people were getting in line ahead of time to get to the next screening. I thought, “Boy, that is something. I’ve never heard of that.” Sure enough, it went on and on around the world, and I just absorbed it all as best I could. It was a shock.
MacGraw: Well, certainly the opening at the Loew’s State Theatre on Broadway on December 16th, 1970. It was a snowy night, and for me, as an ex-stylist, it was a packed, big Hollywood kind of night. We had everybody bring Christmas presents to go to the hospital afterward. The audience started to cry and sniff, and I thought, “Oh my God, it’s really getting to them.” At that point, you’re sort of an observer of audience reaction. And then, I thought, “Well, this is a huge theater full of people, and a lot of them are pretty serious moviegoers. And even they were affected.” Then, the next day, the Gulf and Western Building, which is now a Trump hotel, was all lit up to say “Love Story” with the windows. So that was kind of a big deal. It was a spectacular piece of publicity, and we knew, right away, that there were going to be lines around the block. That was proof positive.
Did life change pretty quickly?
O’Neal: Well, I tried not to let it, but of course, I got arrogant, naturally. So who knows if it was the same. I tried to keep my wits about me.
MacGraw: Well, I was staying with my then-husband [Robert Evans], and soon, within several weeks of the opening, our kid, Joshua [Evans], was born. So there was the business of wanting to take your child out for a walk and having the then-paparazzi trail you. That was a first. That had never happened to me, and it was constant. But that was the time when you could say to them, “Can we take one picture so can I just be with my child?” It wasn’t the assault that it can be now, and there were no cell phones, so you pretty much knew when that was going to happen. So, yeah, it made us movie stars. (Laughs.) It’s so odd to say that, but it’s what happened.
When there’s a new hit movie in town, its lead actors tend to get offered similar roles. Did you field lots of romantic lead pitches after Love Story?
O’Neal: No, I didn’t. There was a college story about Harvard that they asked me about, but I didn’t want to do the same part again. In fact, I did a comedy next, didn’t I?
A Western and a comedy, yes. Wild Rovers and What’s Up, Doc?, respectively.
O’Neal: Making people laugh was something I had never done. So that’s how my career managed to bounce along, but I don’t remember turning down any romantic dramas. I had an agent, Sue Mengers, at this point, and she was famous for turning things down, or asking for more money. (Laughs.) So she kept me out of it.
What about you, Ali? Were you sent any Jenny-type roles after Love Story’s box office success?
MacGraw: No, I absolutely wasn’t. In fact, I can’t remember any, frankly, but I had a wonderful agent named Marty Davidson. He was the kind of agent that was about co-creating your career and really deciding what makes sense in the arc of what they hope is going to be a successful career. So there may have been some of those that I never saw because they wouldn’t have made any sense.
Every time Oliver drove his MG sports car with Jenny in the passenger seat, I held my breath. Ryan, was it scripted to have Oliver drive in such a reckless way, or was that a detail you originated?
O’Neal: The MG TC. It was a 1948-49. What were you holding your breath about? That I was going to crash?
Indeed. Jenny even said that Oliver drove like a “maniac.”
O’Neal: (Laughs.) I don’t know. I drive that way. Don’t forget, years later, I was the Driver in a movie called The Driver. I was always in a bad mood, so I was shifting and driving and moving and shifting. I remember driving so fast that I drove right past Oliver’s house, and I had to back up.
Ali, were you holding on for dear life?
MacGraw: (Laughs.) Just be so grateful it wasn’t me driving. No, I was fine. The thing is I didn’t know how to drive. I didn’t learn to drive until I did The Getaway, which was part of the part. I had to drive five different vehicles. But Ryan’s a good driver. I didn’t feel any sense of terror, but boy, they would’ve been terrified if I’d been driving. It just felt like the character. I didn’t think there was anything odd about the way he was driving.
Years ago, as I was watching the movie for the first time, I convinced myself that Jenny was going to die from Oliver’s driving.
MacGraw: (Laughs.) After all these years, I’m going to have to see it again to see if I can understand that. That’s very funny. It seemed perfectly sane and sound, and I don’t remember that being an issue.
Since Love Story, Harvard has limited film crews from shooting there. According to The Harvard Crimson, some trees were “injured and killed” by Love Story’s fake snow. Did the two of you know that this was an issue at the time?
MacGraw: Oh wow. This is the first time I’ve heard that. It’s a real pain in the neck to have a film on location, especially at a serious school. It’s disconcerting, and there’s also a tendency for some stuff to get inadvertently messed up. So it doesn’t surprise me, but that’s not OK. That’s not OK. This is a gorgeous school that is several hundred years old, and if they were concerned about their property being trashed, I think that’s a fair thing. I can’t imagine it had anything to do with the movie, but rather with some sloppy crew stuff, maybe. I don’t remember trashing any trees when we shot that.
O’Neal: Never heard it. I have never heard that. When we were shooting the Harvard Yard scene, some Black students turned their music up, so that it was blaring around the quad. We then had to negotiate with them to get them to stop. So that was about the only thing I ever heard that was a problem. It held us up for a few minutes. Because there were no Black people in the movie. They had a point.
Jenny desperately wanted Oliver to patch things up with his father (Ray Milland). Oliver eventually reached out to him for a loan in order to pay for Jenny’s medical bills, but he never told Jenny that he at least made contact. Since it was so important to her, do you somewhat wish that Jenny could have learned this information before passing away?
MacGraw: No, I don’t. I think that it’s maybe a more realistic human story in some people’s inability to do that. It’s quite believable actually. The ability to clean up the mess you make of other people’s lives takes a lot of practice, and I don’t think that was the topic of that script. No, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. In terms of the film, I think it might have been a little sappy, frankly. I’ve never thought about it, but I know too many people that seem to have a terribly difficult time cleaning up their stubborn moments with family members.
Ryan, have you ice-skated since wrapping this movie?
O’Neal: Ay-ay-ay. No, never. Isn’t that funny? I live in Malibu, so I don’t see any ice! I had several weeks of preparation, but I had never skated. I mean, I’m not bragging because I barely kept my feet, but I had a great double who helped and trained me. I trained at a little ice rink in New York called Le Petit [Ice Skating Studio], where I trained with little children. Me and little children. Every day, we would rehearse all day, and then I would go to the rink, knowing that I barely had any of it down. I still hadn’t learned to skate backward, but when you want something bad enough …
Do you remember your first impression of Francis Lai’s indelible score?
MacGraw: Of course I do. I was married to Robert Evans, who was Paramount’s head of production at the time. I was not part of this at all, but I knew what was going on, obviously. Some really amazing musicians auditioned for that, and then, Alain Delon, who was a friend of the family, especially of Bob, said, “I think you should come over here and have Francis Lai do the music.” He had done A Man and a Woman, which is one of the great film scores of all time, and was huge then. So we went to Paris, and Alain had us come to the house and hear the music. Obviously, from the very minute we heard it, it was incredible, and I think it has everything to do with the success of this movie. Obviously, he got a deserved Oscar. When there’s no dialogue and it’s just that music, I think it’s very, very responsible for the feeling that people get when they watch it.
O’Neal: I thought it was pretty good, actually. It was from a movie I had already seen called Love Is a Funny Thing, a French movie with [Jean-Paul] Belmondo. The music was by Francis Lai and it went … (O’Neal hums the score.) We already had a score, but we didn’t like it. So they played this, and they said, “You know, if you slowed it down …” So Arthur Hiller went to Paris. Francis Lai spoke no English, but Arthur explained what he wanted and that’s what we got. And then it played around the world. Every time I went into a restaurant in Europe that had a band, they would start with Love Story. (Laughs.) I couldn’t even get to my table. To this day!
Has the word “preppy” followed you most of your life?
O’Neal: Yeah, it did for years. (Laughs.) For years. Yeah, preppy. I wasn’t even sure what a preppy was. Don’t forget, I grew up here [Los Angeles]. I had to learn a lot of stuff. I started with Brooks Brothers.
“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Ali, is it true that your famous line was originally scripted with “not ever” instead of “never”?
MacGraw: I don’t remember at all. (Laughs.) I have no idea. I only remember it as it is, and I remember that I, as someone who had never acted really, had no idea how to really get deeply into any character, at that point. So I don’t think it’s a triumphal moment from an actor’s point of view.
How hectic did things become when the production ran out of funds for the necessary permits?
O’Neal: Oh, we cheated a little bit, but not much. We put cameras in cars and walked down Fifth Avenue. The cameras would be in the car and nobody would notice. The audience was just people walking. (Laughs.) But we had a couple of assistant directors to make sure that nothing went wrong. I had this thing happen where I was alone, walking at night down Fifth Avenue toward my hotel, and somebody was following me. You know, a big dark figure. So I stopped and he stopped. And then I started walking and he started walking. So I waited for him, and he came up to me. He said, “I’ve been following you.” I said, “Yeah, I noticed.” He said, “I know who you are.” I said, “Tell me, who am I?” He said, “You’re Ali MacGraw.” (Laughs.) I said, “Oh, you’re so close. I’m the other one.” And he said, “Oh, isn’t that funny? In my country, Ali is a man’s name.” But I’ve been treated pretty respectfully, considering.
MacGraw: When I was with Bob Evans, I remember he came home one night and I said, “Well, how is it going?” Not in a cloying way, but I was just wondering because he really worked hard. He said, “Well, wow, it’s just, uh, I don’t know. It’s flat.” So he, Arthur Hiller and the producer, Howard Minsky, said, “We’ve got to go up to Cambridge for two or three days with no permits. Bring your own clothes. We’re going to have a station wagon with a cinematographer and we’re going to knock out a bunch of dialogue-less scenes.” And that is what the music is largely laid over. And we did. We’d duck under the backseat if somebody walked by on the sidewalk while we changed our clothes. And then it snowed, and then it rained, and then it was a perfect sunny day. So they got all this what would probably normally be called B-roll, and with the music over it, I think it just catapulted the film immeasurably. Plus, it was fun. (Laughs.) Maybe that’s why they don’t want us back at Cambridge. Maybe that’s the reason. (Laughs.) It was really fun.
Ryan, after Oliver learns Jenny’s fate, I love the sound design as he walks home. There’s a blaring horn that really amplifies his headspace at the time.
O’Neal: Yeah! And remember when he was going from door to door in the music department and each door he opened had a different kind of music because they were all practicing in there? That was interesting. I wept when I saw it the first time. I never really understood exactly what was happening, and then I did: I lost her. (O’Neal gets emotional.) We shot that hospital scene last, and I actually did lose her. She went home to her husband and I went back to my wife. And we braced ourselves for what might come of us.
Is it rare for you to get emotional during a movie?
O’Neal: Very. Especially if I’m in it. I was caught up. I was just like everybody else.
Are you able to watch most of your films including Love Story?
O’Neal: I have. I haven’t watched Love Story in many years, but I plan to because there’s a new DVD coming out on the 9th of February.
MacGraw: I haven’t seen Love Story in decades.
Ali, it’s truly a shame that we didn’t get significantly more movies with you.
MacGraw: That is such a sweet thing to say. I always felt that I was on a path based on some kind of personality energy, perhaps, but without any idea what I was doing. I got to work with some really great actors, and I realized how little I knew. But I had the miracle, including Love Story, of working, mostly, with directors and other co-stars who were generous, supportive, understanding and not appalled that I didn’t know what I was doing. So I thought it was quite astounding that I had those three consecutive movies [Goodbye, Columbus, Love Story, The Getaway] before I really stopped doing anything particularly good.
Congratulations on the double star you’ll both be receiving as part of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
O’Neal: Thank you. You should congratulate my son, Patrick (O’Neal). He called (Jim) Giannopoulos and Brenda (Ciccone) out at Paramount, and they thought it was an interesting idea. 50 years… And after all, Paramount was struggling at the time. Love Story was a huge success for them. We put them back on the map, and that made me proud. I would’ve liked more money, but well, can’t always get what you want. (Laughs.)
MacGraw: Oh, that’s so sweet. Who in the world ever expected this to happen? Nobody. You asked me a bit ago when I thought that it might be this big hit, and it was extraordinary that there was a certain point in the filming where the crew was really affected. And obviously, having done only one other movie to that point, I had never experienced that. They’ve seen it all, and yet, if they feel, then maybe it’s delivering some feeling. I know that there’s been an awful lot of time spent on defending the movie. I don’t understand why it angers so many people. But knowing very well and participating in the events that were really going on in the world at that moment — anti-Vietnam and worrying about all kinds of stuff — I think people may have been ready for something sentimental. I guess I don’t look much like I did then, but I travel a lot to faraway places like India and Africa, and I still have people come up to me and say, “When are they going to do another Love Story?” So it remains an enigma to me, and I’m grateful for the access and opportunities it gave me because they were remarkable. Nothing ever prepared me for that ride because it was a complete surprise from beginning to end. I was just so incredibly lucky that that film attracted Arthur Hiller as our director, who was such a joy to work with and such a fine human being. And Ryan, Ray Milland, John Marley and all these terrific people who were kind to me and got me through it. Heaven knows nobody left the last shot of the movie saying, “Wow, we’ve got a killer on our hands.” Nobody.
Ryan, you actually made a sequel called Oliver’s Story in ’78. How do you feel about it in retrospect?
O’Neal: I don’t have much thought, but I got a lot of money for that. I got $3 million to play Oliver again, and I ended up in Hong Kong. I knew that this wasn’t my doing, but I did like the money. But I had no Jenny. I had no Ali MacGraw.
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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