Love in the Yard

Love Story stars Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal reunite at Harvard for a conversation about art, love and their new stage show. 

By Alicia Anstead, Harvard Arts Blog Editor

It was the last interview of the day for Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal. They were media marathoning promoting their appearance in the touring stage production of A.R. Gurney’s two-person play Love Letters, and their moods were surprisingly spunky, generously cheerful. They met more than 45 years ago as young actors cast in Love Story, a romantic film with a sad plot and even sadder soundtrack. It was the highest grossing film of 1970, and thrust both MacGraw and O’Neal into stardom. They have stayed friends through the years – they are now in their 70s – and you can hear a habitual affection in their voices. Clearly the reunion is a boon to them as friends, but, if Facebook and reviews are any indication, it’s also turning out to be a lovefest among fans of a certain generation.

That’s my generation. I grew up in the afterglow of Love Story. Because my parents would not let me
 see the film when it came out, I could tell it was important – Ali MacGraw’s center-part hairstyle, for instance, or a refrigerator magnet featuring a version of the film’s most famous line – “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It’s one of the most iconic lines in all movie history, and it likely (mis)informed several of my early romantic relationships.

Ah well. That’s the power of film. And of beauty. When I finally did see the film, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, from the plaintive piano background to the snowy Harvard campus (where much of it was filmed) to its miraculously young and beguiling stars. When MacGraw’s character dies at the end, even that is beautiful. Sorry, young people, for the spoiler, but you learn about this tragic outcome in the film's other iconic line, which opens the story: “What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?”

Erich Segal ’58, a classics scholar, wrote Love Story (in Dunster J-39), first as screenplay and then as a novel (which came out first). It’s worth reading about the provenance of the plot because it’s all very Harvard (especially if you count the cameo scene with Harvard Arts Medalist Tommy Lee Jones ’69). Indeed, each year the Crimson Key Society famously screens the film ­– a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show – to welcome first-year students. The ill-fated saga of Harvard rich-boy Oliver Barrett IV (aka “Preppy”) and Radcliffe "girl" Jennifer Cavalleri is just too rich to be overlooked as a vintage clothing ‘70s night out.

Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'NealMacGraw and O’Neal will return to Harvard at 3 p.m. Monday, February 1 at Kirkland House in a conversation about Love Story, Love Letters (which runs Feb. 2-7 at the Shubert Theatre in Boston), their work together and their lives as artists. The event is free and open to the public, but is sold out. (Some seats may be available at the door beginning at 2:45 p.m.) (Here's an appropriate place to say "I'm sorry.")

The following is an excerpt from a conversation MacGraw, O’Neal and I had by phone. She was in New Mexico, and he was in California. 

AA: What advice do you have for young artists?

AM: My parents were artists, and it’s often a good idea to get a day job.

RO: You’re not going to survive on your gifts.

AA: What did you learn from growing up in a family of artists?

AM: It’s my passion. And it always has been. I’m woefully undereducated in other areas. I am very organized by necessity. I have common sense and I am a pro, and I take whatever job I’m in very seriously. But I’m sorry to say I’m overwhelmingly attracted to artists and their lifestyle and what they value – to the point where I think it’s almost bigoted.

AA: What’s the lifestyle?

AM: Wonder. Freedom. Unpredictability. Juicy.

RO: The way Ali dresses, her home – everything about her is artistic. It’s her own original look. It’s amazing.

AM: The downside is that because of what they were, my parents could barely make a living. My son is a screenwriter, and if it isn’t a lucky moment like Love Story was for me, it’s a tough life.

RO: I have the completely opposite take. My father was a playwright and novelist. My mother was an actress. I watched my parents and thought: Thank god I don’t have to do that. It looked hard. My father was always on the typewriter, typing and typing and typing. My mother was fighting with her leading man at the Pasadena Playhouse. I didn’t disagree with it. I was just relieved that I didn’t have to do it. 

AM: Ryan, if you hadn’t become an actor at a young age, what would you have done?

R: I was a damn good lifeguard.

AA: How about you, Ali?

AM: I was an art history major in college, and I thought I would do something in the art world – and I don’t mean the brainy one in the museum. I just wanted to be around it. I had a very un-specific fantasy about what it would be like. Here’s the truth: I thought, well, maybe it could be 1913 again in Paris, and all those amazing people all starving to death, I would feed them. It was pretty much about living in my fantasy life.

AA: That’s a great fantasy.

RO: I want that fantasy. 

AM: I wanted all the heavyweights coming in for a coffee: Diaghilev, Jean Cocteau, all of them. Of course, I was eliminating the fact that they were freezing to death at night, couldn’t get anything to eat, couldn’t sell their paintings. 

RO: They lived in garrets. Remember that? 

AM: Yes! I have a tremendous attachment to artists. It’s almost bordering on the arrogant. I have a romantic passion for the arts, all of them. I wish I were better at a number of them. 

AA: Harvard students are roughly between the ages of 16 and 23 as undergrads. What advice do you have for them as they think about the arts and how to spend their time in college? 

RO: These are actors? Then: Learn your lines.

AM: All the time, stage mothers push their little darlings to me and say, “She’s so bright, she’s in the school play, she’s only 9, and she wants to be an actor. What do you think?” And I say: Go to school. Learn about as much about as many things as you can, learn as many languages as you can, eat as many kinds of funny foods as you can and go to as many foreign countries as you can. You know: Go for your life. So when you do your art, you have something to tap into besides “I think this is the way I should say my line.” You never know when something in your life that is so totally unrelated is going to surprise you and inform what you are doing. I went to acting class for five minutes. I remember this very sweet guy, a terrifying teacher, who said: “I think I’ll do it like this.” I thought: We are dead because of the self-consciousness of it. When I see those little darlings, I think: How boring it is to be a pretty little thing who did Our Town – and you don’t have something deep inside you with primary emotional gravity to offer.

AA: Ryan, what should actors be paying attention to as they make their way into this field? 

RO: Some good luck. That’s what’s needed.

AM: Yes. Lots of it. 

AA: How do you put yourself in the path of good luck?

RO: Oh. Well. That’s fate. When I think back to my own life, I had a couple of things happen that opened a door or turned me in the right direction. How that happened? It was God’s will. 

AM: And if having a roof over your head and your braces paid for is an issue, you’ve got to have something you can bear to do on the side until that luck hits. 

RO: And don’t be afraid to be embarrassed. 

AA: Both of you have lots of experience. What would you go back and tell your younger selves?

RO: We do have 150 years of experience between us. 

AM: Oh my god, we do, don’t we? I had a bunch of quiet time where I don’t think I learned anything relevant. But the question about what do I know now? I’m getting to do it in Love Letters. Be there. Period. What do they think? I’m not thinking about that. Did they like it? I’m not thinking about that. Do I look good? I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about what I’m listening to next to me and the energy I am feeling from Ryan. That makes it a creatively thrilling experience for me. 

RO: Listen, She’s going to blow your mind. She blew mine the way she plays this part. My God. I didn’t know she could do that. And that’s the thrill of this show. That, and when we walk out, people are happy to see us. That’s a nice feeling, I’ll tell you.

AM: Boy, is it.


This project is supported by the Melvoin Family Fund.