By Deborah Wilker
City & Shore Magazine
It’s been 45 years since Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal became pop-culture icons, portraying the tragic lovers Jenny and Oliver in the 1970 film classic Love Story.
The movie broke box office records, propelled the two to superstardom and turned MacGraw into the era’s defining example of timeless beauty. Though they became good friends on the set, they never worked together again except for occasional media appearances.
But that’s about to change, finally, as the storied screen duo reunites for the first time in the national tour of Love Letters — the 1989 Broadway stage play about a couple who love deeply but never quite connect.
O’Neal and MacGraw, now 74 and 76, respectively, don’t appear to have that problem.
When they got together last year for a short video piece that was part of The Hollywood Reporter’s 100 Favorite Films series, their magic seemed to leap once again from the screen.
Not long after, the producers of Love Letters called.
For many years the two had lived nearby one another in California — until 1993 when MacGraw’s Malibu home burned to the ground. Unable to find a suitable replacement, she viewed it as a possible sign from the Universe. Maybe it was time to leave Hollywood?
She took what few possessions remained and moved full-time into what was then a get-away home she had in Santa Fe, N.M. Today she does voice-over work for PBS, devotes herself to Yoga and community issues, and visits Los Angeles frequently to see her son, grandson and closest friends.
Lately O’Neal has played Max Keenan on the long-running Fox series Bones. His sometimes-turbulent family life was again laid bare around the time of his 2009 appearance in longtime companion Farrah Fawcett’s sobering cancer documentary, Farrah’s Story. He too has battled various cancers, but says he is feeling well these days.
In 2010, about 15 months after Fawcett’s death, O’Neal was reunited with MacGraw to promote the 40th anniversary of Love Story on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Their manner with one another suggested there might be something more going on, but as O’Neal explained then and now, it has simply been an unrequited crush for decades.
Together by phone from their homes in Malibu and Santa Fe, the two discussed love, chemistry, aging in Hollywood and how they prepared for Love Letters, which makes its first U.S. stop July 21-26 at the Broward Center. In addition to Fort Lauderdale, the Love Letters tour will visit Los Angeles, Detroit, Boston, Dallas and Baltimore, with more cities to be announced.
CITY & SHORE: The video last year for The Hollywood Reporter series really was special.
RYAN O’NEAL: I love this woman.
ALI MACGRAW: We’ve reunited many times since Love Story, and it’s always like that. The chemistry is instant.
RO: I tested for Love Story and I felt there was something right away, and …
AM: … and it showed because everyone knew it right away. They said, ‘That’s the guy,’ and …
RO: … and I’m still the guy.
C&S: Do you always finish each other’s sentences?
RO: Still, to this day.
C&S: You rehearsed recently in New York.
C&S: Well, which was it?
RO: We just ran it.
AM: Yes, we ran it once. We flew in one day and were out the next.
RO: We did it in an interesting way. The director just wanted to hear us do it. So we faced each other and it was very powerful that way, looking at her as she read these letters.
AM: I thought it went really well, didn’t you Ryan?
RO: I thought it was amazing. And I thought, oh this is gonna be fun. I am always asking her to run away with me. And now she will. To nine different cities!
C&S: So here you are finally working together again and it’s another piece about doomed love.
AM: I don’t think it’s doomed. Love Letters takes place over so many decades. It’s reality.
RO: She breaks my heart in the story. Over 40 years we had married different people. But we never broke our bond with one another. We never lost contact, or …
AM: … or said what we really felt about each other . . . maybe not even know how we feel until it’s too late.
C&S: Ali, it sounds like you’re very happy in Santa Fe, but like you also enjoy tip-toeing back into show business when you can.
AM: I am thrilled to be invited to play in that sandbox occasionally. And this is going to be joyful because I love being with Ryan. We work so well together. But I love not living in the middle of it, because it intimidates me.
C&S: What does it feel like then, being out and about with your natural gray hair in this last year, after a lifetime of being identified with a certain look?
AM: I feel real. It’s about 75 different colors and the front is all white.
RO: Every color has a story.
AM: I live in a community that’s not all about massive plastic surgery and being petrified that you’re no longer 30 years old. It’s tough to get older in Hollywood.
RO: It’ll kill you.
C&S: If someone had told you 45 years ago that you’d be working together today would you have wanted to; would you have believed it?
AM: I would have wanted to, but I wouldn’t have attached any kind of energy to would I believe it or not. I would just think, wow …
RO: . . . lucky us!
C&S: So what is the key to lasting love?
RO: We are the two people you shouldn’t ask, the pair of us.
AM: Love changes shape – that’s what I do know now. And at the risk of sounding like some new-age geek, I think love is more important than anything else. The more one has room in the heart for love, the better life is.
RO: Oh, Ali, that is so nice. I hope you’re writing this down, Deborah.
AM: Don’t you mean me – so I can say