Love Letters bring O'Neal and MacGraw together again on stage

Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw reunite in a touring production of A. R. Gurney's timeless two-hander half a lifetime after the movie that made them world famous.

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 August, 2015, 11:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 August, 2015, 11:03pm


Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw first fell in love - or at least the movie version of it - 45 years ago.

The defiant, tragic romance the actors lived out in 1970's Love Story earned them Oscar nominations, made them A-list movie stars and forever linked them to a line that the American Film Institute ranked 13th on its list of the 100 top movie quotes: "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

Now, half a lifetime later in 2015, O'Neal and MacGraw are exploring love again and are definitely not sorry about it.

The actors are launching a languidly paced US tour in A.R. Gurney's Love Letters. Their journey began in Florida and will continue to Beverly Hills, Boston, Dallas and, by next summer, Baltimore.

"The minute they asked me and said Ryan would do it, I said, 'Yes, thank you. Yes, please,'" MacGraw, 76. says during a conference call from her home in Santa Fe.

O'Neal, 74, hops into the call a few minutes later from his Malibu home, greeting MacGraw with a "Hi, baby". He says of their enduring chemistry, "If we had had a falling out, we couldn't do it. But we've never had a hostile word."

Their director is two-time Tony Award winner Gregory Mosher, who worked with a rotating cast of stars when Love Letters played Broadway last autumn. When the director and actors met for a first rehearsal, O'Neal says he felt the spark of his long-ago connection with MacGraw.

"Ali and I had dinner with our director, and the next day, we sat down and did the play. I thought I was back in Love Story, with Jenny alive," he says.

"Jenny," of course, is Jennifer Cavalleri, the working-class beauty who captures the heart of upper-crust Harvard man Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story. The two marry despite the objections of Oliver's father, who cuts his son off. After struggle and sacrifice, they seem poised for a beautiful life - until Jenny is diagnosed with an unspecified terminal illness. A chick flick and a monster hit, Love Story ends in tears.

Love Letters takes another upper-class couple, lawyer-turned-senator Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and rebellious artist Melissa Gardner, on a 50-year journey through life, as recorded in their notes and letters to each other. The story is told through their correspondence, and the actors don't memorise the script. Instead, they sit and read the letters, not looking at each other or interacting, bringing a deep friendship (and more) to life in a way that must seem unfathomable to those who rely on text messages, Twitter, Facebook and the like.

The style if not the content of Love Letters, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is something of an anomaly for the prolific Gurney. The 84-year-old says he wrote Love Letters as, initially, an epistolary novella. "I sent it to The New Yorker, and they returned it with a note saying, 'We don't publish plays.' I had a wonderful agent then, Gilbert Parker at the William Morris Agency, who said, 'Maybe it is a play,'" Gurney recalls.

This was 1988, and the playwright had been scheduled to make a speech at the New York Public Library. Instead, he asked his actress pal Holland Taylor to fly in and read Melissa to his Andrew.

"The library called and said that wasn't a good idea, that the audience would be made up of East Side types, primarily women," Gurney says. "At the end of the first act, I thought, 'This isn't working.' They walked out. But they came back. Afterward, they said, 'We called our nannies and told them we're going to be late.'"

Love Letters went on to widespread, enduring success. John Rubinstein and Joanna Gleason did a run of it at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, then Rubinstein and Kathleen Turner launched it off Broadway at the Promenade Theatre. "I was amazed by its success and longevity," Gurney says. "It's so specifically anchored in the details of letter writing, which people aren't doing any more … I hope it speaks to a younger generation."

We know what it’s like when you love, and the other person loves, and it’s not going to work out

As for the pairing of O'Neal and MacGraw, Gurney pronounces it "brilliant".

"Who the actors play with is so important. They bring those Love Story echoes with them, and they're both very good actors," he says.Mosher concurs. "I hadn't seen Love Story, but I watched it, and they're enchanting together. Reading it, the love that was going back and forth between them was palpable. And I don't mean sappy, sentimental … They bring their own charisma, aura and skill to it and their passion to do this together."

Contrary to Gurney's reputation as "a writer of buttoned-up WASPs", the director says, the playwright has "a huge heart and an understanding about the pain of life … He's a writer of such intelligence and grace."

Love Letters continues to resonate with audiences in part, Mosher says, because "most of us have fallen in love with the wrong person. We know what it's like when you love, and the other person loves, and it's not going to work out. This carries them through 50 years as they keep trying to work it out."

O'Neal agrees: "The audience said, 'Oh my God. Their timing is off. Yet they're perfect for each other.'"

In their own long lives, O'Neal and MacGraw have focused chiefly on movies and a bit on television. Neither of the stars, however, has much stage experience.

They have also had high-profile significant others - O'Neal was married to actresses Joanna Moore and Leigh Taylor-Young and had a long relationship with Farrah Fawcett; MacGraw had a brief early marriage, then wed producer Robert Evans and later actor Steve McQueen.

O'Neal is the son of an actress and a novelist-screenwriter and was a successful amateur boxer before turning to acting. MacGraw is the Wellesley-educated daughter of two commercial artists, and her résumé includes six years as a photographic assistant to fashion legend Diana Vreeland.

Though Love Letters is done as a high-end staged reading, MacGraw believes Gurney captures "decades of a full, rich life". She and O'Neal have an easy, warm back-and-forth as they contemplate their onstage reunion and doing a funny, moving play together.

"We're excited for sure," she says. "This is a fantastic surprise in my life."

"To get next to Ali again is a thrill," O'Neal says.

Then he tells his costar about where the play takes him emotionally, and how their life experience - good, bad, tragic - feeds into his interpretation of Gurney's words: "I have to bite my lip at the end. I relate this to so many things in my life and yours."

Miami Herald