the origin story of love story, which celebrates its 50th anniversary with a limited edition blu-ray and, on February 2. 12, a double star on the hollywood walk of fame for ali macgraw and ryan o’neal, it’s hard.
erich segal’s screenplay about star-crossed lovers attracted little interest until chief production officer robert evans took a chance on the floundering studio, whose parent company gulf+western was on the verge of leaving after a string of film flops. ticket office. At the studio’s request prior to the film, Segal turned his screenplay into a novel, which became a bestseller upon its release on Valentine’s Day 1970. Evans offered the role of Oliver, a well-to-do Harvard law student. , to peter fonda, michael douglas and jeff bridges, who rejected it. Segal then recommended O’Neal, who hit it off with newcomer Macgraw, Evans’ wife.
“We didn’t have to create chemistry. it was there, integrated,” says o’neal, 79, as he played macgraw opposite the witty, working-class jenny from radcliffe college. chronicles jenny and oliver’s romance from their first date in cambridge to their final embrace as jenny lies dying in hospital, director arthur hiller and cast and crew shot in new york and harvard (one of the last films to do so before after the university closed to film shoots, although freshmen get a screening of a love story every year).
when they ran out of budget and needed impromptu shots to accompany francis lai’s now-iconic score, they returned to cambridge without permits. “‘We’re going to have a van with a cinematographer and we’re going to cut out a bunch of non-dialogue scenes,'” Macgraw, 81, recalls Evans telling him. that atmospheric b-roll, combined with the music, “just catapulted the movie beyond measure,” she says.
was an instant hit, grossing $136.4 million worldwide ($915.7 million today) and garnering seven Oscar nominations, including an original win for lai. While the film has its detractors, Macgraw believes its timing was key: “Knowing full well the events that were going on in the world, anti-Vietnam and worrying about all sorts of things, I think people may have been ready for something. sentimental. ”
In a recent chat with thr, macgraw and o’neal also talked about when they knew their lives were about to change, hearing lai’s score for the first time, and the harvard controversy.
well, does it feel like 50 years have passed?
ryan o’neal: no, they went so fast! I have full recall.
ali macgraw: god, whatever that means. of course not. I am constantly assaulted with this information. time is so strange. sometimes you feel like it was 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 was so fast.
ryan, love story writer erich segal screened you for the role of oliver. Was it weird for a writer to fight for you?
o’neal: very. he was my only screenwriter. erich segal and I had a preview. 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 marathon runner 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 hadn’t said anything to me about it. And then one day, out of the blue, he called me up 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 will be from harvard this time, not from anywhere else.” so I went in, met with them and took over a long process. many children were evaluated and I was lucky.
Jenny was very smart and resourceful. ali, did you add her sharp way of talking about her to the writing, or was she mostly on the page?
macgraw: oh, I think she was written as a know-it-all, yeah. I don’t think it was a huge exaggeration 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 got lucky. we didn’t have to build chemistry. it was there, incorporated. so not much grocery shopping. don’t forget she was married to the studio president [robert evans of paramount]. so she had to go home with him at night, but I had her during the day. Ali is easy to get along with. she really has a lot of charm, and she’s very bright. so I just absorbed it.
macgraw: we had immediate chemistry. First of all, I had never seen Peyton Place, because he was not much of a TV viewer, but I knew that Ryan was a highly respected, popular, and practiced actor-star. I was nobody, as you well know. he has one of the best senses of humor ever and he knows exactly what he’s doing. so it was a stroke of luck for me to be able to work with someone who I could feel so comfortable with. It was great working with him, and we had great chemistry. I don’t know what explains that, but boy, I’ve only done one thing where that wasn’t happening and it’s really scary. (laughs)
What was the first indication in your daily life that this movie was becoming a phenomenon?
o’neal: well, i took a walk to the village theater in westwood with my friends, and there was a 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 lining up ahead of time to get to the next screening. I thought, “boy, that’s something. I’ve never heard of that.” Sure enough, it went on and on around the world, and I soaked it all up as best I could. It was a shock.
macgraw: well, certainly the opening at loew’s state theater on broadway on december 16, 1970. it was a snowy night, and for me, as a former hairstylist, it was a packed event, big night in hollywood we had everyone bring Christmas presents to go to the hospital afterwards. the audience started crying and sniffing, and I thought, “oh my god, it’s really getting to them.” at that moment, you are a kind of observer of the reaction of the audience. and then I thought, well, this is a big theater full of people, and a lot of them are pretty serious movie buffs. and even they were affected.” Then the next day, the Gulf and Western Building, which is now a Trump Hotel, was lit up to say “love story” with the windows. so that was a big deal. it was a spectacular publicity piece, and we knew right away that there would be lines around the block. that was proof positive.
Life changed pretty quickly?
o’neal: well, I tried not to quit, 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, several weeks after the opening, our son, joshua [evans], was born. so there was the matter of wanting to take your son for a walk and have the then paparazzi track you down. that was the first. that had never happened to me, and it was constant. but that was the moment when you could say to them, “can we take a picture so I can be alone with my son?” It wasn’t the assault 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 weird to say that, but that’s what happened.
When there’s a new hit movie in town, its lead actors are often offered similar roles. did you find many romantic main plots after the love story?
o’neal: no, I didn’t. I was asked about a college story about Harvard, but I didn’t want to do the same role again. Actually, 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 before. that’s how my career managed to bounce back, but I don’t remember turning down any romantic drama. at the time i had an agent, sue mengers, and she was famous for turning things down or asking for more money. (laughs). so he kept me out.
what about you, ali? did they send you jenny type roles after the box office success of love story?
macgraw: no, it absolutely wasn’t. actually, i don’t remember any, frankly, but i had a wonderful agent named marty davidson. he was the kind of agent who was in charge of co-creating your career and really deciding what makes sense in the arc of what they hope a successful career will be. so there may be 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. why were you holding your breath? that I was going to crash?
certainly. Jenny even said that Oliver drove like a “maniac”.
o’neal: (laughs). I do not 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 would shift and drive and move and shift. I remember driving so fast I went right past oliver’s house and had to back up.
ali, were you holding on for dear life?
macgraw: (laughs.) He’s so glad I wasn’t the one driving. no, I was fine. The thing is, he didn’t know how to drive. I didn’t learn to drive until I did the breakaway, which was part of the role. I had to drive five different vehicles. but ryan is a good driver. I didn’t feel any sense of terror, but boy, would they have been terrified if he had been driving. he just felt like the character. I didn’t think there was anything strange about the way he drove.
Years ago, when I was watching the movie for the first time, I was convinced that Jenny was going to die from Oliver driving.
macgraw: (laughs). after all these years, I’m going to have to watch it again to see if I can understand that. That’s very funny. He seemed perfectly safe and sound, and I don’t remember that being a problem.
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: wow. this is the first time i hear that. it’s a real pain to have a movie on location, especially in a serious school. it’s unnerving, and there’s also a tendency for some things to inadvertently screw up. so I’m not surprised, but that’s not right. that’s not right this is a beautiful school that’s several hundred years old, and if you were worried about your property being vandalized, I think that’s a fair thing to do. I can’t imagine it has anything to do with the movie, but some sloppy stuff from the crew, maybe. I don’t recall smashing any trees when we filmed that.
o’neal: never heard of it. I’ve never heard that when we were filming the harvard garden scene, some black students turned up the music so it would blast out into the courtyard. then we had to negotiate with them to stop. so that was the only thing i heard that was a problem. He held us for a few minutes. because there were no black people in the film. they were right.
Jenny desperately wanted Oliver to work things out with his father (Ray Milland). Oliver eventually approached him about asking for a loan to pay for Jenny’s medical bills, but he never told Jenny that she had at least contacted him. Since it was so important to her, do you somehow wish Jenny had learned this information before she passed away?
macgraw: no I don’t. I think it’s perhaps 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 in other people’s lives takes a lot of practice, and I don’t think that was the point of that script. No, it doesn’t bother me in the least. As for the movie, I think it might have been a bit cheesy, frankly. I never thought about it, but I know too many people who seem to have a terribly difficult time cleaning up their stubborn moments with family members.
ryan, have you been ice skating since you finished this movie?
o’neal: ay-ay-ay. never. it’s not funny? i live in malibu so i dont see ice! I had several weeks of preparation, but I had never skated. I mean, I’m not bragging because I was barely on my feet, but I had a great stuntman who helped me and trained me. i trained at a small ice rink in new york called le petit [ice skating studio], where i trained with little kids. me and the little kids. Every day, we would rehearse all day, and then I would go to the track, knowing that I barely had any of it. I hadn’t learned to skate backwards yet, but when you want something bad enough…
Do you remember your first impression of Francis Lai’s indelible score?
macgraw: Of course I do. She was married to Robert Evans, who was Paramount’s head of production at the time. I wasn’t a 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 family friend, especially Bob’s, said, “I think you should come here and have Francis Lai do the music.” he had done a man and a woman, which is one of the greatest movie scores of all time, and it was huge then. so we went to paris, and alain made us come to the house and listen to the music. obviously, from the moment we heard it, it was amazing, and I think that has a lot to do with the success of this movie. Obviously, he got a well deserved Oscar. when there’s no dialogue and it’s just that music, I think that’s very, very responsible for the feeling that people get when they see 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 said… (o’neal hums the sheet music.) we already had a sheet music, but we didn’t like it. so they played this and said, “you know, if you slowed it down…” so arthur hiller went to paris. Francis Lai didn’t speak English but Arthur explained what he wanted and that’s what we got. and then he played around the world. every time he went to a restaurant in europe that had a band, they would start with a love story. (Laughter.) I couldn’t even get to my table. to this day!
has the word “preppy” followed you most of your life?
o’neal: yes, he did for years. (laughs.) for years. yes, pimp. he wasn’t even sure what a preppy was. don’t forget, I grew up here [los Angeles]. I had to learn many things. I started with the brooks brothers.
“love means never having to say you’re sorry”. ali, is it true that your famous line was originally written with “never” instead of “never”?
macgraw: I don’t remember anything. (laughs.) I have no idea. I just remember it as it is, and I remember that I, as someone who had never really acted, had no idea how to delve into any character, at the time. so I don’t think it’s a triumphant 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 no one would know. the audience was just people walking. (laughs.) But we had a couple of assistant directors to make sure nothing went wrong. This happened to me when I was alone, walking down Fifth Avenue at night towards my hotel, and someone 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 are ali macgraw.” (Laughter.) I said, “oh, you’re so close. I am the other.” and he said, “oh, isn’t that funny? in my country, ali is a man’s name”. but they have treated me with quite a bit of respect, considering.
macgraw: When I was with Bob Evans, I remember he came home one night and I said, “Well, how are you doing?” not in a cloying way, but I wondered why he really worked hard. he said, “well, wow, it’s just, uh, I don’t know. is flat. So he and Arthur Hiller and producer Howard Minsky said, “We have to go to Cambridge for two or three days without permits. bring your own clothes. we’re going to have a van with a cinematographer and we’re going to cut out a bunch of non-dialogue scenes.” and that’s what the music is largely based on. and we did. we would hide under the back seat if someone walked by on the sidewalk while we changed clothes. and then it snowed, and then it rained, and then it was a perfect sunny day. so they got this whole thing, what would normally be called b-roll, and with the music on top of it, I think it just catapulted the movie immeasurably. plus, it was fun. (laughs.) maybe that’s why they don’t want us back in cambridge. maybe that’s the reason. (Laughs.) It was so much fun.
ryan, after oliver finds out about jenny’s fate, i love the sound design as he walks home. there’s a loudspeaker blaring that really amplifies her mind space at that moment.
o’neal: yes! And do you remember when I was going door to door in the music department and every door I opened had a different type of music because everyone was practicing there? that was interesting. I cried when I first saw it. I never understood exactly what was going on, and then I understood: I lost her. (O’Neal gets emotional.) We shot the last scene in the hospital, and I actually missed it. she went home with her husband and I came back with my wife. and we prepare ourselves for what could come from us.
Is it rare for you to get emotional during a movie?
o’neal: very. especially if I’m into it. I was trapped I was like everyone else.
Can you watch most of your movies, including love story?
o’neal: yes. I haven’t seen love story in many years, but I plan to because a new dvd will come out on February 9th.
macgraw: I haven’t seen a love story in decades.
Ali, it’s really a shame we didn’t get a lot more movies with you.
macgraw: That’s a very sweet thing to say. I always felt like I was on a path based on some kind of personality energy, maybe, but with no idea what I was doing. I worked with some really great actors and realized how little I knew. but I had the miracle, including the love story, of working, for the most part, with directors and other co-stars who were generous, supportive, understanding, and not horrified because they didn’t know what they were doing. so i thought it was pretty amazing that he had those three movies in a row [goodbye, columbus, love story, the getaway] before he actually stopped doing anything particularly good.
Congratulations on the double star you will both receive 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) over to paramount, and they thought it was an interesting idea. 50 years… and after all, paramount was struggling at the time. love story was a great success for them. we put them back on the map, and that made me proud. I would have liked more money, but hey, you can’t always get what you want. (laughs)
macgraw: oh that’s so sweet. who in the world expected this to happen? no one. You asked me a while back when I thought it could be a big hit, and it was extraordinary that there was a certain point in the shoot where the crew was really affected. and obviously having done only one other movie up to that point, I had never experienced that. they have seen it all, and yet if they feel, then perhaps they are transmitting some feeling. I know a lot of time has been spent defending the film. I don’t understand why it upsets so many people. but knowing full well and participating in the events that were really happening in the world at the time, anti-vietnam and worrying about all sorts of things, I think people may have been ready for something sentimental. I guess I don’t look much like 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 you going to do another love story?” so it remains an enigma to me, and I am grateful for the access and opportunities it gave me because they were extraordinary. Nothing ever prepared me for that trip because it was a complete surprise from start to finish. i was incredibly lucky that film attracted arthur hiller as our director, he was a joy to work with and a wonderful human being. and ryan, ray milland, john marley, and all these wonderful people who were kind to me and helped me get through it. god knows no one left the last shot of the movie saying, “wow, we’ve got a killer on our hands.” nobody.
ryan, you actually did a sequel called oliver’s story in ’78. how do you feel about it in hindsight?
o’neal: I don’t think much, but I have a lot of money for that. I got $3 million to play oliver again and ended up in hong kong. I knew this wasn’t my doing, but I liked money. but he didn’t have jenny. I didn’t have ali macgraw.
A version of this story first appeared in February. issue 10 of the hollywood reporter magazine. click here to subscribe.