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 the American Film Institute ranked No. 13 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.
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On Tuesday, the actors will launch a languidly paced national tour in A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters. Their journey begins with eight performances at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, and more dates are being added to the 12 weeks already booked.
“The minute they asked me and said Ryan would do it, I said, ‘Yes, thank you. Yes, please,’” MacGraw, 76, said during a conference call from her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
O’Neal, 74, hops into the call a few minutes later from his home in Malibu, California, greeting MacGraw with a “Hi, baby.” He said 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 fall. When the actors met with him for a first rehearsal, O’Neal said 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 said.
“Jenny,” of course, is Jennifer Cavalleri, the working-class Radcliffe 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, the couple seems poised for a beautiful life — until Jenny is diagnosed with an unspecified terminal illness. Both 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. It’s an epistolary play, meaning that the story is told through back-and-forth correspondence, and the actors don’t memorize 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 the instant gratification of text messages, Twitter, Facebook and the like for meaningful personal communication.
The style if not the content of Love Letters, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is something of an anomaly for the prolific Gurney. Now 84 and a product of the prep school-Ivy League world referenced in many of his more than three dozen plays, Gurney has a new comedy, Love and Money, opening Tuesday at Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse. It moves to Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre, where resident playwright Gurney had two older plays produced in September and May for the second part of its world-premiere run Aug. 15 through Sept. 27.
Initially, Gurney said by phone from his Connecticut home, he wrote Love Letters as 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 (she plays Charlie and Alan’s mother on TV’s Two and a Half Men) 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 said. “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 at Off-Broadway’s Promenade Theatre (where Gurney’s hit The Cocktail Hour was running) on Sunday and Monday evenings. Because it involved no memorization, different pairs of actors (including Victor Garber, Marsha Mason, Christopher Reeve and Christopher Walken) rotated into the show each week.
Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards launched Love Letters on Broadway in 1989, and other famous alumni (from that production and the most recent one) include Jane Curtin, Elizabeth McGovern, Richard Thomas, Elaine Stritch, Brian Dennehy, Mia Farrow, Carol Burnett and Candice Bergen. In 2007, Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones did a benefit reading, raising $1 million for Taylor’s AIDS foundation.
“I was amazed by its success and longevity,” Gurney said. “It’s so specifically anchored in the details of letter writing, which people aren’t doing anymore. ... I hope it speaks to a younger generation.”
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 said.
Before leaving for South Africa, where his adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone is touring to unconventional spaces with an international cast, director Mosher spoke by phone about the chemistry O’Neal and MacGraw bring to Love Letters.
“I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, get Ryan and Ali.’ I didn’t know them. I hadn’t seen Love Story, but I watched it, and they’re enchanting together,” Mosher said. “Reading it, the love that was going back and forth between them was palpable. And I don’t mean sappy, sentimental s--t. ... 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 said, 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 said, 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. They have 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 resumé includes six years as a photographic assistant to fashion legend Diana Vreeland.
Neither of the stars, however, has much stage experience.
MacGraw appeared on Broadway in 2006 in the dark drama Festen, which she called “a heart-wrenching drama of sexual abuse.” Doing it, she said, was terrifying.
“It was one of the most incredibly frightening experiences of my life. But it was an important act of courage. It gave me a deep appreciation for what seasoned actors do,” she said.
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 said. “This is a fantastic surprise in my life.”
“To get next to Ali again is a thrill,” O’Neal said.
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.”
If you go
What: ‘Love Letters’ by A.R. Gurney.
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, through July 26.
Information: 954-462-0222 or browardcenter.org.