Actor Ryan O’Neal dies aged 82 as a legend of Hollywood’s post-classical era

Barbra Streisand among fellow actors who recalled ‘funny and charming’ leading man

For a period in the early 1970s, Ryan O’Neal, who has died at the age of 82, was close to the biggest movie star in the world. It is hard to convey the popularity of Arthur Hiller’s Love Story. Based on a lachrymose novel by Erich Segal, the ruthless weepy became the highest-grossing film in the US for 1970. The tagline “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” was everywhere. Images of O’Neal and costar Ali MacGraw were also ubiquitous. It was an unequalled phenomenon.

O’Neal, blessed with clean preppy good looks, built on the success. Two films for Peter Bogdanovich, What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973), were sizeable hits. Critics and audiences were initially unsure about Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1974), much of which was shot in Ireland, but the film is now regarded as among the greatest ever made. O’Neal couldn’t maintain that level of stardom into the 1980s. His personal life was characterised by family tensions and problems with substance abuse. But he dies as a legend of Hollywood’s post-classical era.

Patrick Ryan O’Neal, son of screenwriter Charles O’Neal, was born in Los Angeles in 1941. There was Irish heritage on both sides. He was a talented boxer as a youth, but drifted towards acting after troubles at school. Success arrived first on television. Guest slots came his way throughout the early 1960s before he landed the role of Rodney Harrington in the hugely popular series Peyton Place. Based on a hit novel by Grace Metalious, the show proved a model for future prime-time soaps such as Dallas and Dynasty.

In that era, it was not so easy to make the transition from television to film, but decent roles arrived in films such as Alex March’s The Big Bounce and Michael Winner’s The Games. It is said that actors such as Beau Bridges and Jon Voight had turned down Love Story before the script reached O’Neal. He and MacGraw brought just the right class of faux-hip to their roles – respectively, patrician Harvard student and working-class Radcliffe College undergraduate – for a mainstream audience still processing the social changes of the 1960s. MacGraw’s enactment of elegant, pretty death caused a run on tissues. O’Neal’s haughty charm fast became hotly in demand. The picture landed seven Oscar nominations, including one for O’Neal. Love Story’s success confirmed that, while Hollywood was embracing edgier material such as MASH and Five Easy Pieces, there was still room for old-fashioned, blubby entertainment.


What’s Up, Doc? saw him take on contemporary screwball comedy with Barbra Streisand. In Paper Moon, he starred opposite his daughter Tatum O’Neal – who became the youngest winner of a competitive Oscar – in a gorgeous monochrome summoning of the Depression era.

In Ireland (and perhaps everywhere else) he will be best remembered for his role as the weirdly blank, roguish hero of Kubrick’s take on a lesser known William Makepeace Thackeray novel. That director’s productions were always fraught operations, but the stresses on Barry Lyndon were unparalleled. In 2015, visiting the Dublin International Film Festival for a special screening of the film, O’Neal spoke about the stresses of shooting a lavish 18th-century production at the height of the Troubles. “It never affected us truly until suddenly, after 10 months here, there was a phone call that came in – one of the hairdressers got it – a threat to Stanley to get out of Ireland. He was given 24 hours. He was gone in 12,” O’Neal explained. He recalled finding a panicked Kubrick in Dublin Castle. “I went in and he said ‘Get down!’ because there was a window.” O’Neal remembered. “I said: ‘What? They’re going to shoot me? I’m not even English. He said, ‘Get down, get down!’ So he took things very seriously, and that was the end of Ireland for us.”

Enormously slow, shot with natural candlelight, the film was only a modest success at the box office, generating mixed reviews. When, however, Sight and Sound magazine published its decennial poll last year, the world’s directors voted Barry Lyndon the 12th best film ever. O’Neal’s eerily flattened performance was a vital part of the aesthetic.

More conventionally handsome than the rising wave of rugged actors such as Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro, O’Neal was never again a massive draw. But he continued to work. He was excellent in Richard Attenborough’s epic A Bridge Too Far in 1977. Walter Hill again made use of his creative blankness – a contemporary samurai – in his durable existential thriller The Driver. He turned up on TV in Desperate Housewives and secured a regular role in the police procedural Bones.

In later years, he struggled with health problems. He was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2001 and with prostate cancer on 2012. O’Neal was estranged from his oldest children for some time. “I’m a hopeless father,” he told Vanity Fair in 2016. “I don’t know why. I don’t think I was supposed to be a father. Just look around at my work – they’re either in jail or they should be.” In a bizarre appearance on The Late Late Show in 2015, he mouthed off uncomfortably about his daughter Tatum. “I’m mad at her,” he replied. “She just irritates me. I don’t hate her ... but life is a lot easier that when Tatum isn’t around. She’s a devil.” Russell Crowe, sitting next to him, did not seem to enjoy the experience. “For me as a member of the audience I’m a little uncomfortable,” the Australian remarked.

O’Neal was married to Joanne Moore from 1963 to 1967, and to Leigh Taylor-Young from 1967 until 1974. He had a famously public relationship with Farrah Fawcett that began in 1979 and, after a hiatus, resumed in 2001, lasting until her death in 2009.

He remained a charismatic figure throughout his strange, hectic life. Illness and hard living could never fully strip away the keen looks that brought a whiff of old Hollywood to an industry in a state of whirlwind change. His artistic legacy remains Barry Lyndon. There is immortality there.

“So sad to hear the news of Ryan O’Neal’s passing,” Streisand said. “We made two films together, What’s Up, Doc? and The Main Event. He was funny and charming, and he will be remembered.”

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Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist