By Bill Hirschman
Interviewing Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, or trying to, about their upcoming national tour of Love Letters that kicks off in Fort Lauderdale next week seems almost churlishly interfering with a warm reunion of old friends.
The off-topic banter and wandering riffs worthy of a vaudeville act are clearly spontaneous and genuine, and asking questions really just gets in the way.
Some interviewees, like Broadway’s Bernadette Peters, are cordial, but it’s clear you can’t ask a question she hasn’t heard 100 times and for which she doesn’t have carefully honed and homogenized answer memorized.
But on the phone, these two natter along in about as unscripted a session as you could imagine.
The chemistry is palpable, not of old lovers, but old buddies. In fact, they admit, that while they have remained friends for 40-plus years, they see each other only every once in a while. “We christened a ship together on a cruise to the Bahamas,” he said. Enough time goes by between times that they spent much of these interviews catching up on friends and family and career.
O’Neal slipped into a side conversation as if the reporter wasn’t listening: “So do you have an agent now?” She answered, “No, do you?” “Oh, no, I just have a manager.” “Well, so how’s Patrick? (O’Neal’s sportscaster son)”
It’s a seemingly unguarded glimpse of very famous people who are so intimate with the falseness and seduction of celebrity that they simply don’t need it.
Back to the interview: “I’ve never been mad at her,” he said. “And I yell at everyone.”
She laughed. “We get along incredibly and we have fun; he is one of the funniest people in the world.”
They are looking forward to this 7-stop-and-growing tour at venues at tony as Los Angeles and as less on-the-beaten path as Oklahoma City. But Love Letters, which opens at the Broward Center for a week’s run on July 21, is an odd piece well matched to their skills and shortcomings.
Playwright A.R. Gurney penned the work in which two actors sit side-by-side, never looking at each other, and reading directly from a lifetime’s correspondence between the two. Inexplicably funny and moving, it is popular with producers and performers because it involves very little rehearsal and no memorization. Scores upon scores of actors have performed the show since 1988, often rotating in and out of a production in one-week stints.
The pairing of MacGraw and O’Neal plays on the fact that the two starred in 1970’s Love Story. For pre-Boomers, the film was a five-hanky tale written first as a screenplay by Erich Segal and then as a novella which became wildly popular before the film was released. It focused on two gorgeous young people in love who have to cope when she contracts a fatal disease and (spoiler alert for anyone under 55) dies. The film’s catchphrase, both soppy and terribly effective, was “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It was so popular that when director Peter Bogdanovich later made the screwball comedy What’s Up Doc, Barbra Streisand says the line to co-star O’Neal, who responds, “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
Since then, both have gone on to varied careers in many media and seeing their considerable private pains spotlighted in the gossip trade. But even with silver in their hair and being a bit thicker around the middle, both remain stunningly attractive, he at 74 living in Malibu and she at 76 living Santa Fe.
More importantly, they have maintained an uninhibited sense of humor and self-deprecation. Still, they sound clearly anxious about this project. She performed the show twice in very limited runs, but many years ago. He has never done it and not even seen it.
“I’m a virgin and I’m going to be counting on my leading lady,” he said.
In fact, both are very up front about their theatrical experience being nil. Her sole stage experience of any other kind was in an ensemble in a Broadway show called Festen in 2006. She acknowledges it was a disaster.
O’Neal has even less. Early in his career, he and Mia Farrow played the twins in a modest Los Angeles production of Edward Albee’s The American Dream. Farrow insisted on festooning the set with her lines on scraps of paper, O’Neal recalled, but he tried to memorize his lines. So on opening night, she seemed to deliver her dialogue smoothly; he forgot nearly every word.
That story sparked another excursion into their memories about other actors like Brando and Mae West who used cue cards hidden all over their sets.
But both are optimistic that their chemistry and the light demands of the play will carry them through. O’Neal laughed, “After all, they just want to see us.”
There’s also genuine respect for each other’s talent. When the conversation strays to O’Neal’s performance as a Depression Era conman in 1973’s Paper Moon with daughter Tatum, MacGraw praised it with absolutely sincerity as one of the best films of the period. To which, O’Neal riffed that many people think it was made in black-and-white because director Bogdanovich had just won kudos for the black-and-white The Last Picture Show and could get anything he wanted; “but really, it was to disguise that Tatum and I were these blond people with deep tans.”
Asked how the project came about, MacGraw told O’Neal, “I got a call from my manager and asked would I like to do Love Letters and I said, yes, providing you were doing it. And they said, oh, Ryan is going to do it,” she recalled.
O’Neal laughed. “That’s what they told me; that you were going to do it.”
Eventually, it seemed clear that the interview was over, but that these two would continue schmoozing with or without someone on the line.
“So we’re going to Apsen to rehearse? Why Aspen?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we can meet in the LA airport first. But I see Oklahoma is on the tour. Are there going to be tornadoes?”
Love Letters runs through July 26 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Broadway Across America-Fort Lauderdale series, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets approximately $41 – $89. For more information, call 954-462-0222 or visit BrowardCenter.org.