In 1970, Ali MacGraw, then a relatively unknown model-turned-actress fresh off her debut role in “Goodbye, Columbus,” sat on the front steps of a Cambridge, Mass., duplex in deep winter, sobbing and shivering and blubbering the line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
It was the non-apology heard ’round the world.
While MacGraw, around 30 years old at the time, didn’t exactly agree with its sentiment, or even her delivery — “I had no acting training, I had no idea what I was doing,” she says now — the tearjerker drama containing said catchphrase, Arthur Hiller’s “Love Story,” became a global-wide phenomenon.
The film earned seven Oscar nominations (netting a win for Francis Lai’s musical score), rescued Paramount’s finances and propelled its writer, Erich Segal, to international literary fame.
Perhaps most significantly, “Love Story” rocketed its two young leads, MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, as “conceited Radcliffe bitch” Jennifer Cavalieri and “All Ivy Harvard jock” Oliver Barrett IV, respectively, into the superstardom stratosphere.
Fifty years later, MacGraw and O’Neal are still close friends; they reunited in 2015 to perform A.R. Gurney’s classic two-hander “Love Letters.” On Feb. 12, they will receive adjacent stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a tribute to the lasting impact of a film Variety’s critic Art Murphy called “a story so touching that tears may be shed without any embarrassment whatsoever.”
Even reading the script turned MacGraw into a weepy mess.
“I was sent this script by another studio. And I read it, and I cried — and I’m pretty sophisticated. I thought, ‘Why? Why am I crying?’ ” she recalls. “So, I read it again. And I still was very moved. And I called my agent Marty Davidson, one of the great agents. And I said, ‘Marty, I know I owe Paramount a picture. Can we do this at Paramount?’ ”
Robert Evans, MacGraw’s then-husband and head of production at Paramount, said yes to the project.
Peter Bart, who was VP of production at Paramount at the time and now with Variety sister publication Deadline, greenlit the film. Since gritty films including “Easy Rider” and “Midnight Cowboy” had just come out in 1969, Bart recalls thinking, “It would be fun to do some counterprogramming with a good old-fashioned love story.”
There was also the matter of MacGraw and O’Neal’s pairing as star-crossed soulmates, a relationship so palpable and electric and real, it’s hard to imagine they weren’t actually in love.
“We had some kind of chemistry, and it just never waned,” says O’Neal. “We just worked well together.”
“He knew what he was doing. I mean, he was a big, gigantic television star,” notes MacGraw of her first impression of O’Neal, who for five seasons toplined ABC’s primetime soap “Peyton Place.”
“I didn’t watch a lot of television, so I hadn’t seen it,” she adds. “But he’s also somebody who’s a really good actor. He’s very bright. So right off the bat, we liked each other. We were all so happy together.”
But as much as “Love Story” was indeed just that — boy meets girl, boy marries girl, girl dies — it’s also a movie that is very much of its time. It remains a nostalgic ode to Boston and New York, its two principal settings, on the precipice of 1970.
“We shot the film in 1969, and that was an interesting time because there was a whole lot of freedom and the sweetness of the ’60s, with the awareness of the two terrible dark spots, which were the Vietnam War and the racial crisis in our country,” says MacGraw. “It was a seesaw between these two extremes.”
While MacGraw graduated from Wellesley College and “had a boyfriend at Harvard,” shooting on the snow-pounded campuses of Harvard and Cornell was a novelty for O’Neal, a California kid who grew up on the beaches of Malibu. (In order to land the part of Oliver, a Harvard hockey star, O’Neal spent three weeks learning how to skate, but the role still required a double on the ice.)
“I hadn’t even seen snow before,” says O’Neal of the famous scene in which he and MacGraw, in the throes of young love, roll around in a pile of New England powder. “[Hiller] said, ‘make a snow angel.’ I thought, ‘what’s that?’ And then Ali swung her arms around and made wings: ‘I get it. I get it. I can do that.’ There was a moment in which I had snow all over me. We were wrestling. And she licked the snow off my face.”
While collective fervor for the film has dimmed since those early days when both stars were trailed constantly by paparazzi, O’Neal reflects fondly upon one particular incident.
“I was walking along Madison Avenue in New York late at night,” he says. “And this guy was following me. So finally I stopped. And he walked up and said, ‘I’ve been following you.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I saw you.’ He said, ‘I know who you are.’ And I said, ‘Who am I?’ And he said, ‘You’re Ali MacGraw!’
“Turns out, the guy was from a country, I forget which one, where Ali is a man’s name. I thought that was so funny.”