Ryan O’Neal Turns 80

An eye-opening benchmark, that Ryan O’Neal (b. 1941) is now an octogenarian, for those of us who remember him as the guy in that photo.

While many people may know about his performing offspring Tatum, Griffin and Patrick, few may know the intriguing fact that he himself was second generation film folk. His father Charles O’Neal was a screenwriter, specializing in horror and westerns. Charles’s credits included the screenplays to Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1943), Cry of the Werewolf (1944), The Unknown (1946), and The Alligator People (1959).

Thus, Ryan O’Neal was a movie brat. He spent part of his youth in Germany, where his dad was working on a TV show. This is where Ryan got some of his first acting experience, as an extra. Equally interesting, O’Neal competed as a Golden Gloves boxer, between the years 1956 and 1959, winning far more many bouts than he lost. After four years of guesting on shows like Bachelor Father, Leave it to Beaver, My Three Sons, and The Virginian, he got a major role as a regular on Peyton Place (1964-69), which is pretty much what put him on the map and created movie opportunities for him.

Erich Segal’s Love Story (1970) made O’Neal a major movie star. The following year he co-starred with William Holden in the western The Wild Rovers, which is probably my favorite Blake Edwards’ film, wacky comedies notwithstanding. His most fruitful association was with director Peter Bogdanovich, who starred him to dazzling effect in What’s Up, Doc? (1972), Paper Moon, (1973, with his daughter Tatum, who won an Oscar), and Nickelodeon (1976). He later bit the hand that had fed him by playing a rough version of Bogdanovich in Irreconcileable Differences (1984). His Bogdanovich period was bifurcated by his role in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), a stately-moving, beautiful epic that seems to have hindered O’Neal’s career momentum some. One interesting thing to me is that the pugnacious, bellicose character, two-faced and domineering, is actually very good casting for the real O’Neal. But it was contrary to his image as a sweet-faced, sensitive hippie-era hero. It seemed to put a crack in the crystal.

O’Neal was a big time womanizer, and he became involved with some of Hollywood’s most beautiful women. The first (1963-67) was Joanna Moore (Tatum and Griffith’s mother), sort of bit player/ eye candy whom you can see in such movies as Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), Walk on the Wild Side (1962), Follow That Dream (1962) with Elvis, and Disney’s Son of Flubber (1963). His second wife was Leigh Taylor-Young (the hippie chick in I Love You Alice B. Toklas), to whom he was married (1967-71). He dated many famous actresses and pop stars throughout the ’70s before settling into a long term relationship with Farrah Fawcett-Majors in 1979.

By the late ’70s O’Neal was still a star but slipping from his status at the top. He was in the all-star WWII film A Bridge Too Far in 1977, looking way too baby-faced for the General he was playing. In 1978 he starred in Oliver’s Story, an unsuccessful sequel to Love Story, and the much admired Walter Hill film The Driver. He was in talks to star in a remake of The Champ, but pulled out when the producers refused to cast his son Griffin as the kid (ironic given the cruelty of his working relationship with Tatum, as she reports in her autobiography). Jon Voight ended up starring in The Champ, but O’Neal was able to put his boxing skills (and physique) to good employment in his reunion with Barbra Streisand in The Main Event (1979). Then came Andrew Bergman’s Blake Edwards-esque sex comedy So Fine (1981), and O’Neal’s continued slippage throughout the ’80s. He continued working over the ensuing decades on screens big and small, although drink and ill health took a toll.

When many of us caught up with him years later as the rogue-ish dad on Bones, the physical transformation that had taken place was most alarming. It happens to all of us of course. Well, most of us. Didn’t happen to Cary Grant. And O’Neal did start out as an Adonis. Now — he’s more of a Silenus. The big recent news is that this year (2021) finally got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame!