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Am I Just Anybody?: Ryan O’Neal (1941-2023)

Born on April 20, 1941 in Los Angeles, Ryan O’Neal was literally a child of the show business industry—father Charles was a novelist and screenwriter and mother Patricia was an actress. While attending high school in Los Angeles, he began training to become a Golden Gloves boxer and when his family moved to Munich, Germany in the late 1950s, he landed a job as a stand-in on a locally-produced TV show. This led to more work as an extra and as a stuntman and when he returned to the United States, he decided to try to make a go of it as an actor. Starting in 1960, he began making appearances in such shows as “The Many Loves of Donnie Gillis,” “The Untouchables,” “My Three Sons,” “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Virginian” while serving as a contract player at Universal. After they let him go, he was cast in “Empire,” a contemporary Western that ran from 1962-63 and when that ended, he returned to doing guest shots on episodes of “Wagon Train” and “Perry Mason.”

In 1964, he had his first big break when he landed the role of Rodney Harrington on “Peyton Place,” a soap opera that was an adaptation of the once-scandalous novel by Grace Metalious that exposed the hypocrisies and scandals barely hidden beneath the well-manicured surfaces of a seemingly ordinary American small town. Although a broadcast television show of that time could hardly begin to touch on the seamy stuff that made both the book and the 1957 film adaptation such big hits in their time, the show nevertheless proved to be an instant hit and much of its initial popularity was due to audience fascination with the relationship that developed between Harrington and local girl Allison MacKenzie (Mia Farrow), much to the consternation of her mother (Dorothy Malone) and his girlfriend (Barbara Parkins). Although Farrow left the show after two seasons, O’Neal stuck with it until it left the air in 1969 and towards the end of its run, he appeared in the pilot for a proposed series, “European Eye,” and when that went nowhere, he found himself wondering what to do next.

Following in the footsteps of Parkins and Farrow, who had had respective hits with “Valley of the Dolls” (1967) and “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), O’Neal found himself pursuing a career on the big screen. His first film lead came in “The Big Bounce,” the 1969 adaptation of an Elmore Leonard crime novel that was poorly received by practically all who encountered it at the time, including Leonard himself, though it has a certain quirky charm to it. This was followed by “The Games,” a 1970 sports drama in which he played an American Olympic marathon competitor that also failed to make much of a mark, critically or commercially. However, this project would prove to be very beneficial to him because the film’s co-writer, Erich Segal, noticed him and recommended him as a potential star for an upcoming project that he had written the script for, based on his own novel. At the time, the role in question had been turned down by any number of hot young actors of the period and when O’Neal was finally officially offered the part, the story goes, he had to choose between that or a Jerry Lewis project that would have paid him several times what he was going to get for it.

That film, of course, turned out to be “Love Story” (1970) in which he and Ali McGraw played a pair of star-crossed young lovers—he a child of wealth and privilege attending Harvard and she a working-class music student at Radcliffe—whose relationship faces hurdles ranging from Harvard losing to Cornell in a hockey championship to his being cut off financially by his stern father (Ray Milland) to her being diagnosed with a terminal illness that leads to heartbreak, tears and the immortal line “Love—love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Although some critics at the time scoffed at what they felt was little more than sappy melodrama (Gary Arnold wrote “I found this one of the most thoroughly resistible sentimental films I’ve ever seen”), others, including Roger Ebert, raved about it. This was clearly an audience picture and once the word got out about the undeniable screen chemistry between the two leads, it became a box-office phenomenon, at one point peaking as the sixth highest-grossing film in Hollywood history, and earned seven Oscar nominations, including nods for Picture, Director Arthur Hiller and the two leads, both of whom became instant superstars as a result of its success. (In 1978, a sequel, “Oliver’s Story,” would appear in which O’Neal’s grief-stricken character would find love once again with a new love played by Candice Bergen and that is the last that we shall speak of that one.)

O’Neal’s first post-“Love Story” film was “Wild Rovers” (1971), a somewhat misfired Blake Edwards Western that he appeared in with William Holden that was a flop, at least in part due to becoming a victim of disagreements between Edwards and MGM. He would have much better luck the next year when he was tapped by then-hot director Peter Bogdanovich to star opposite the equally popular Barbra Streisand in “What’s Up, Doc?,” a broad homage to the screwball comedies of the 1930s (specifically “Bringing Up Baby”) in which he played a nebbishy musicologist who finds himself unexpectedly involved with a mix-up involving identical pieces of luggage and a free-spirited woman (guess who?) who inexplicably decides to insinuate herself in his life, whether he likes it or not. (In 1979, the two leads would reunite for another romantic comedy designed to evoke the screwball era in “The Main Event” and that is the last that we shall speak of that one as well.)

After appearing in another light caper comedy, “The Thief Who Came to Dinner” (1973), O’Neal and Bogdanovich would reunite for two more films, both of which would also consciously evoke earlier eras, albeit with dramatically different results. “Paper Moon” (1973) was a road movie set during the Great Depression that chronicled the misadventures of a con man who finds himself forming a partnership with a young girl who may or may not be his illegitimate daughter. To play the role of the girl, it was suggested that O’Neal’s own daughter, Tatum (one of two children he had with his first wife, actress Joanna Moore), might be right for the part. Although much would be written about their strained relationship over the years, their on-screen pairing proved to be inspired and the film would become another hit and earned the younger O’Neal a Supporting Actress Oscar. Three years later, the two O’Neals and Bogdanovich would reunite for “Nickelodeon,” a film inspired by and set amidst the wild early days of Hollywood that, despite the additional presence of Burt Reynolds, proved to be a major flop, though Bogdanovich’s obvious fascination with the period and some of the quirky elements of the script he co-wrote with W.D. Richter gave it enough of a sense of goofy charm to make it worth seeking out today.

In between those two films, O’Neal would embark on what would prove to be the finest film of his entire career when he was hired to play the title role in “Barry Lyndon” (1975), Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the William Makepeace Thackeray sprawling novel chronicling the rise and fall of a roguish Irish opportunist who, through a combination of charm, ruthlessness and dumb luck, manages to ascend to the heights of society, only to see it all slip through his hands when his misbehavior proves to be too much for his newly purchased peers. At the time, O’Neal’s casting raised many eyebrows who felt that he simply didn’t possess the combination of sly charm and acting chops to make his largely odious character palatable to audiences (as opposed to someone like Jack Nicholson, who many felt should have been cast) and when the film proved to be a commercial disappointment upon its release, his performance was cited as one of the key reasons for its failure. However, much in the way that the film as a whole has undergone a reappraisal that now finds it considered to be one of Kubrick’s greatest achievements, O’Neal’s work also looks better and better with each passing year. Because his previous performances had mostly found him playing glib characters getting by on their looks and charm, as Barry himself does in the film’s first half, there is the sense that he is just doing that again here. However, in the film’s second half, a character who is largely governed by his passions ends up succumbing to them instead of putting his self-interest ahead of everything else and this leads to the downfall that is beautifully underscored by the genuine emotions that O’Neal is able to channel. The result is a truly extraordinary performance in a truly extraordinary movie.

After “Barry Lyndon” misfired both critically and commercially, O’Neal’s days as a bankable leading man were pretty much over and one was more likely to find him in the pages of the tabloids, especially during his long on-again, off-again relationship with Farrah Fawcett, than on the screens of multiplexes. And yet, while most people had written him off professionally and off-screen behavior understandably turned him into something of a pariah—he would have well-publicized struggles with substance abuse, accusations of physical abuse, oft-troubled personal relationships and other things that would have been too lurid for even the soap opera that made him a star in the first place—he continued to work.

In “The Driver,” the masterful 1978 action film from the legendary Walter Hill, he played a terse getaway driver who becomes enmeshed in a battle of wills with an equally obsessive cop (Bruce Dern) in what was essentially an arthouse version of a car chase film that befuddled viewers back in the day, but which is now seen by many as a neo-noir classic. “So Fine,” the 1981 directorial debut of Andrew Bergman (who had previously written the script for “The In-Laws”) was a very funny, if sadly underseen, screwball homage in which he plays a professor whose attempts to get his dressmaker father (Jack Warden) out of debut to a hulking mobster (Richard Kiel) lands him first in the bed of the latter’s sexpot wife and, after splitting his pants while trying to escape being caught, winds up inadvertently creating the big new fashion craze—designer jeans with see-through behinds. “Irreconcilable Differences” (1984) was a smart and touching comedy about a young girl (Drew Barrymore) suing her career-driven parents for divorce in a story inspired by the real-life marriage of Peter Bogdanovich and producer Polly Platt. In another screwball homage, “Chances Are” (1989), in which a long-widowed woman (Cybill Shepherd) discovers that her daughter’s new boyfriend (Robert Downey Jr.) is the reincarnation of her late husband.

There are two films from this period that I especially would like to point you towards, if O’Neal’s passing inspires you to seek out his work. The first is “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” (1987), in which Norman Mailer adapted and directed his 1984 noir novel about a struggling blackout-prone writer (O’Neal) who wakes up from a two-week blender and finds himself plunged into an increasingly hallucinatory nightmare of sex, violence and duplicity that involve a crazed police chief (a memorably unhinged Wings Hauser), a former love (Isabella Rossellini) a fundamentalist  preacher (Penn Jillette, because why not) and his trampy wife (Debra Sandlund), porn stars and severed heads that keep appearing and disappearing from his hidden marijuana stash. Yes, O’Neal’s overwrought line reading at one key point (“Oh man! Oh God, oh man! Oh God, oh man! Oh God, oh man!”) has gone down in the annals of bad movie history (O’Neal himself reportedly begged Mailer to cut the line) but while that moment would prove to be a meme decades before such things came to be known, the film as a whole does work as a darkly funny and cheerfully lurid narrative that, for good or ill, is the kind of thing that, once seen, is not easily forgotten—I mean that in a good way, for the record.

The other is “Zero Effect,” an equally quirky mystery from 1998 that marked the debut of writer-director Jake Kasdan. Very loosely inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle short story “A Study in Scarlet,” the film revolves around Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman), a man who happens to be a brilliantly intuitive private detective who is nevertheless completely inept at the most basic of social graces—he spends most of his time locked away in his apartment, where he plays terrible music on his guitar and subsists entirely on Tab, tuna and speed while his long-suffering assistant (Ben Stiller) represents him in public. O’Neal plays a powerful millionaire who hires Zero to find some lost keys in a case that soon expands to involve blackmail involving a long-buried secret that proceeds to get really complicated, especially when Zero begins investigating and crosses paths with a woman (Kim Dickens) who proceeds to confound him in unexpected ways. Although everything about the film is fantastic—including O’Neal, who is quite good in his supporting turn—hardly anyone turned out to see it when it first came out and it has subsequently slipped into undeserved obscurity. Put it this way—if you dug the “Knives Out” films, and I believe some of you do, get your hands on this as soon as you can.

In his final years as an actor, O’Neal alternated between increasingly obscure films (with his last screen appearance being a brief turn in Terrence Malick’s 2015 film “Knight of Cups,” a Hollywood saga where he again felt right at home) and appearances on television, most notably a recurring role on “Bones.” If his days of stardom had by then long faded, the impact of the films that made him famous, not to mention the sheer magnetism of his presence, remained as strong as ever. Had he been able to get his off-screen issues under control, it is entirely possible that he might have properly revived his career at some point with the right material. Offscreen, his life might have come across as an increasingly grim cautionary tale, but even in the worst of his projects he had a genuine screen presence. When he was given the right material (as was the case with “Barry Lyndon,” “The Driver” and the Bogdanovich collaborations), he had the kind of talent that one ultimately wishes he had been given more chances to demonstrate.

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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