Ryan O’Neal obituary

<span>Photograph: Paramount/Allstar</span>
Photograph: Paramount/Allstar

With his blond good looks and blue eyes, Ryan O’Neal, who has died aged 82, was often cast as a callow, boy-next-door type in the 1970s films that made him internationally famous. Back then, his clean-cut onscreen image offered few clues as to the notoriety his private life would gain. But his troubled relationship with three of his children, Tatum, Griffin and Redmond, his drugtaking and a tempestuous relationship with the actor Farrah Fawcett would come to overshadow his long, fluctuating acting career.

As the well-groomed Oliver Barrett IV, a Harvard law student, he falls for Jennifer Cavalieri (Ali MacGraw), a working-class music student, in Love Story (1970). They marry against his wealthy father’s wishes, and she dies of cancer. The two young stars created some chemistry, and with the tagline “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”, the tearjerker was a huge success. But despite noteworthy performances in Paper Moon (1973) and Barry Lyndon (1975), O’Neal was never to equal the popularity that Love Story conferred on him.

O’Neal was born in Los Angeles into a movie family. His father was Charles “Blackie” O’Neal, a novelist and screenwriter whose film scripts included the subtle horror movie The Seventh Victim (1943) and the Randolph Scott western Return of the Badmen (1948). His mother, Patricia (nee O’Callaghan), appeared in a few films, but mostly acted on stage.

With his younger brother, Kevin, who also became an actor briefly, Ryan grew up in the smart Coldwater Canyon district. He was pugnacious from an early age, so his father built him a boxing ring in their back garden, hoping the sport would provide a controlled outlet for his fighting spirit. In the event, he became a very useful amateur boxer, and his father’s work took him briefly to Munich, where he took part in the US TV series Tales of the Vikings as a stuntman.

In 1960, O’Neal spent 51 days in prison for assaulting a stranger at a party. In the same year, he had a walk-on part as a bellboy in an episode of The Untouchables, written by his father, and a small part in an episode in the TV series The Many Loves of Dobie Gilles.

O’Neal then appeared frequently on television over the next nine years, with regular roles in the western series Empire (1962-63) and, more importantly, as Rodney Harrington, the privileged son of a mill owner, in 501 episodes of the prime-time soap opera Peyton Place (1964-69), most of which revolved around the character’s love affairs.

In 1963 he married the actor Joanna Moore. They had a son, Griffin, and a daughter, Tatum, and divorced in 1967.

O’Neal’s feature film debut in The Big Bounce (1969) could not have been less auspicious. He played a cucumber picker in California who becomes involved with the teenage lover of the plantation owner. She was played by Leigh Taylor-Young, his co-star in Peyton Place, who had become his wife in 1967, and with whom he would have a son, Patrick. According to the New York Times, O’Neal “is merely photogenic in his movie debut”.

In his second feature, Michael Winner’s The Games (1970), O’Neal played a Yale undergraduate marathon runner at the Rome Olympics who, having trained on drugs, beer and women, suffers a heart attack during the race. The film was written by Erich Segal, whose bestselling Love Story was made into a rather more effective film by Arthur Hiller in the same year. It convinced producers they had found a new star in O’Neal, who was nominated for an Oscar.

He next co-starred with William Holden in Blake Edwards’s buddy western Wild Rovers (1971), playing a dumb, boisterous cowboy looking up to his older, though not much wiser, mentor. He then had a role opposite Barbra Streisand, as a prissy, absent-minded, bespectacled musicologist in Peter Bogdanovich’s heavy homage to screwball comedy, What’s Up, Doc? (1972), for which he suffered from unfair comparisons to Cary Grant.

O’Neal was far more comfortable as the slick conman in Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, perhaps because little depth was required for the character. However, the film was stolen from him by his nine-year-old daughter. When Tatum became the youngest person to win an Academy Award (for best supporting actress), he hit her, in a fit of what was construed as jealousy. It was not the first or last time he would strike her. “My father terrorised me, but Griffin was his real whipping boy,” Tatum explained in her memoirs. “Most of the time I couldn’t protect Griffin from my father. He was always covered with bruises, which he’d account for with crazy stories about falling downstairs with his hands in his pockets.”

Meanwhile, O’Neal’s career seemed to have gained a boost by being cast as Thackeray’s social-climbing Irish rogue Redmond Barry, alias Barry Lyndon, in Stanley Kubrick’s long, lavish and loving 1975 recreation of 18th-century sensibility. “Stanley had a wonderful eye for the visual,” O’Neal recalled. “He was adamant about his vision, and he would get it whatever the cost. Sometimes there would be as many as 100 takes. But I couldn’t let it make me crazy.”

The film was ill-received, as was O’Neal’s performance, though both have since gained status. O’Neal, who had the reputation since Love Story of being a Hollywood heartthrob, was judged by many to be too contemporary a figure for such a period piece. In fact, O’Neal, the only American in the cast, manages to suggest the character’s cool, passionless detachment and alienation from his surroundings.

It was back to Bogdanovich with Nickelodeon (1976), a charmless look at the early days of silent cinema, which O’Neal, as a lawyer turned director, did nothing to rescue. Among the all-star male cast in Richard Attenborough’s second world war epic A Bridge Too Far (1977), O’Neal gathered brickbats for his role as Brigadier General James Gavin. The bad reviews prompted O’Neal to try to change his image by portraying the taciturn, nameless loner being pursued across a film noir landscape by the law in The Driver (1978), Walter Hill’s modern-day western. But despite generally positive reviews, it did not lead to an improvement in his career.

There were clear signs of desperation in the Love Story sequel Oliver’s Story (1978) and a reteaming with Streisand on The Main Event (1979). In the latter, another attempt at screwball comedy, he is a useless boxer, Kid Natural, whose contract Streisand has inherited. As O’Neal moved into his 40s, good roles seemed to go out of their way to avoid him. Nevertheless, he continued to play guileless characters in comedies, with occasional attempts to play action heroes. Among his better performances was as an egomaniacal film director (clearly based on Bogdanovich) in Irreconcilable Differences (1984). One of his most bizarre was as a pot-smoking would-be writer in Norman Mailer’s idiosyncratic Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987) in which O’Neal delivers the mantra, “Oh, man! Oh, God!”

Finding it difficult to obtain work in a feature film, O’Neal returned to television as Fawcett’s married lover in the superior miniseries Small Sacrifices (1989). O’Neal’s second marriage had ended in divorce. He and Fawcett had been in a relationship since 1979, and had a son, Redmond (named after O’Neal’s character in Barry Lyndon). It was through Fawcett’s involvement that he was able to land the TV series Good Sports (1991).

A ratings disaster, it ended amid much acrimony, and placed a strain on the O’Neal-Fawcett relationship. It was also clear to O’Neal that he was a fading star with few hits, fewer good performances and a difficult reputation. He had a comeback of sorts as a husband who hires a hitman to get rid of his wife in Faithful (1996); a shady tycoon in Zero Effect (1998); a judge in The List (2000); and an ageing film star in People I Know (2002).

In 2007, he was arrested on charges of assault and negligent discharge of a firearm after a fight with Griffin. The following year, he and Redmond were arrested for narcotics possession, and were sentenced to undergo rehabilitation treatment. In 2012, O’Neal reported that he had prostate cancer after having recovered from leukaemia, which had been diagnosed some years before.

None of this prevented him from working. He was a regular in the forensic TV series Bones (2006-17) and appeared as a sadistic voyeur in the horror pastiche Slumber Party Slaughter (2012). He was also glimpsed in a cameo at a decadent Hollywood party in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups (2017). In 2016, O’Neal was reunited with MacGraw in a US tour of AR Gurney’s two-hander Love Letters.

He and Fawcett parted in the late 1990s but were reunited in 2001 and remained together until her death from cancer in 2009. His brother Kevin died in January 2023. O’Neal is survived by his four children and five grandchildren.

Charles Patrick Ryan O’Neal, actor, born 20 April 1941; died 8 December 2023

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