When the curtain opens Tuesday night at the Fisher Theatre and Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal emerge, there will be more going on in the minds of theater-goers than just the lines the two actors speak in the play “Love Letters.”
When MacGraw, 76, and O’Neal, 74, interact, it sets off cascading memories for the onlooker of a certain age, tapping into your pop cultural subconscious.
Those memories go straight back to their sweet-tart cinematic relationship of 46 years ago, when they played the tragic collegiate couple Jenny Cavalleri and Oliver Barrett in the wildly popular 1970 movie “Love Story.”
The actors know that they represent more than just the sum of their parts, onstage. “The audience gets a free history,” O’Neal agreed. “Of their own lives!” MacGraw added.
Some critics have proclaimed “Love Letters” to be better, less kitschy material in which the two can show off their fabled chemistry.
“I’ll tell you something, this is a wonderfully written play,” MacGraw said. “I don’t think there’s a fake, stretching moment in it, as written. Also, there’s a richer feeling in it because we have 50 years to play, not just a few years, in our 20s.”
“Love Letters” by A.R. Gurney tells the story of a couple’s romantic friendship through 50 years of letters they’ve exchanged. The plays runs April 12-17 in Detroit.
Having been on the road for several months with the play, are the actors more comfortable with the material?
Not too comfortable, it seems. “It’s hard to be fresh every night, so I think, the same effort is put into it,” MacGraw said.
“We’ve widened it,” O’Neal said.
“That’s the perfect word,” MacGraw noted.
“Our body language, and the way we say things seems to have expanded and become more effective,” O’Neal said.
The actors are speaking by phone, on a conference line, with O’Neal patched in from his Malibu, California, home, and MacGraw speaking from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she’s lived for decades.
There is much banter and laughing in between questions, with MacGraw breaking up over O’Neal’s jokes, while he provides a continuous, self-deprecating commentary as a backdrop to her more serious responses. Along the way, he proclaims her “beautiful” and humorously acts the besotted but spurned suitor to his longtime friend and co-star.
The two were cast in the revival of “Love Letters” because a Broadway producer saw photos of the two in the “Hollywood Reporter,” posing to commemorate “Love Story,” and there it was, pictorial proof that their long-ago charisma as Oliver and Jenny hadn’t faded.
“You know, we don’t look at each other, during the play, we either stare at the audience, or at our words (in the letters),” O’Neal mused. “But I ‘hear’ Jenny. And my instinct is to turn to her. But it’s not Jenny — it’s someone else entirely. And I have to use restraint,” he said, with some emotion. “She has the same voice, the voice of a young one.”
Both their voices sound much the same. O’Neal’s voice has always been one of his better traits as an actor, brimming with emotion, the perfect counterpoint to MacGraw’s crisp, East Coast enunciation.
“I guess we knew we’d be doing this play some day,” O’Neal quipped.
As the feisty, doomed Radcliffe music major Jenny in “Love Story,” MacGraw referred to the upper class Oliver as “Preppie,” a word she delivered with acid delight.
Does she ever slip and call him “Preppie” in “Love Letters”?
“No! God, I never use that word!” MacGraw said.
But her co-star added, wistfully, “I miss it! I miss being called ‘Preppie’!”
The characters they play in “Love Letters,” Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner, would be described as preppies, if that word was in currency today.
They are wealthy Easterners, while in real life, both O’Neal and MacGraw came from modest, middle-class backgrounds. O’Neal particularly has played against his background more than a few times — rich kid Rodney Harrington in TV’s “Peyton Place,” Oliver in “Love Story” and the follow-up, “Oliver’s Story.”
He also proved to be a deft hand at comedy, in Peter Bogdanovich’s “Paper Moon,” as well as his underrated turn in that director’s “What’s Up, Doc,” opposite Barbra Streisand. That string of movies, starting with “Love Story,” pushed him into the No. 2 male box office star ranking in 1973, with only Clint Eastwood above him.
MacGraw’s star rose even more, with the film — she was the No. 1 female box office star in 1972. A former fashion assistant (to icon Diana Vreeland, no less) and model, she made an impact playing an upper-middle class dream girl Brenda Patimkin in “Goodbye, Columbus,” opposite Richard Benjamin, a year before “Love Story.”
Neither stayed at the top in Hollywood as long as predicted, but both led personal lives that kept them in the headlines; MacGraw with a high-profile marriage to studio chief Robert Evans, and later, actor Steve McQueen. O’Neal was married several times, and had a long relationship with Farrah Fawcett that became tabloid and reality show fodder. Fawcett died in 2009.
Asked if their chemistry had ever boiled over to their personal lives, MacGraw replied primly but politely that she didn’t comment on her personal life. In the background, O’Neal could be heard murmuring something that sounded like, “I tried.”
Both actors are interested in Detroit; O’Neal’s former wife Leigh Taylor-Young, who starred in “The Big Bounce,” based on the Elmore Leonard novel, was from Birmingham. O’Neal recalls “driving up and down Woodward Avenue,” and managing Detroit boxer Hedgemon Lewis. “He was from the Brewster projects,” O’Neal noted.
MacGraw was happy that the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection was preserved during the city’s fiscal crisis, and has been following the Flint water crisis from afar. “That art collection stunned me, and I’m so glad (that it was preserved), and that this major city is coming back. We’ve been told that there’s a terrific young vibrant theater scene there.”
“Detroit was the heart of America,” O’Neal said. “It needed to start beating hard again.”
Was there any talk of making “Love Letters” into a film?
“I’d like to, but somebody owns it, and they are … difficult,” O’Neal said.
Interestingly, much like their characters in “Love Letters,” MacGraw and O’Neal have written each other — with pen and paper — dating back to 1970, and “Love Story.”
O’Neal has kept MacGraw’s letters.
They didn’t write as often as their characters in “Love Letters,” MacGraw countered. But yes, they did write. Why did O’Neal keep the letters?
“She always said nice things, and she had beautiful handwriting,” O’Neal said. “Beautiful, I mean Gothic. It was fascinating.”
MacGraw credits her second-grade teacher.
“We had a very specific moment when we were taught to combine printing with a sort of Victorian cursive that everybody used to have to learn,” she said. “It’s a long time ago, but all of us at that school learned to write that way.”
“It’s a lost art,” O’Neal lamented.
by A.R. Gurney, directed by
Starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal
Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand, Detroit. (313) 872-1000
Performances: 8 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday matinee; 3 p.m. Sunday matinee; special weekday matinee at 1 p.m. Thursday.
(800-982-2787), and broadwayindetroit.com
Children 5 and under not admitted.