Why Stars Stop Being Stars: Ryan O’Neal

January 20, 2020
In what we can only hope is an ongoing series of articles, Stephen Vagg explores the two cold streaks of Ryan O’Neal.

I’ve always been fascinated with why stars stop being stars – not through death or retirement, but due to their lustre fading away, publicly and embarrassingly, after a cold streak of unsuccessful films. I have no idea where this interest comes from – maybe it’s simple schadenfreude; possibly it’s PTSD from the childhood trauma I felt watching the career of Burt Reynolds nose-dive through the ‘80s (he was the first movie star I remember feeling sorry for).

Motive notwithstanding, I’ve decided to write a series of case studies on stars who lost their A-list status after a cold streak. I look at why it happened, if it was avoidable in hindsight, and whether any lessons can be learned.

My first subject is Ryan O’Neal.

At the mention of that name, most non-film buffs under forty will go “who?” – but it should trigger memories for Gen X and older. Because, for roughly twenty-five years, Ryan O’Neal was a very famous person – originally because of his acting and private life, but then pretty much just due to his private life. For the past three decades, he’s been mostly categorised as “former star”. That is a long time to be sentenced a has-been. What happened?

O’Neal was a Hollywood baby: dad was a screenwriter, mum an actress. He got the showbiz bug working as a stuntman on The Tales of the Vikings TV series (1959-60) and decided to try acting. He was a good-looking, charming young man who seemed straight and could believably throw a punch…. It’s always difficult to make it as an actor in Hollywood but the people for whom it is easiest are white males with those qualities, and O’Neal soon found himself in the lead role of a TV series, Empire (1962-63). That didn’t last long but he managed to find subsequent work with reasonable steadiness and then became nationally famous in the TV series, Peyton Place (1964-69) alongside Mia Farrow and Barbara Perkins.

All three can be seen below.

That was O’Neal’s first big break. A second followed when Paramount couldn’t find an inexpensive young leading man for their adaptation of Eric Segal’s best-selling terminal illness tome, Love Story (1970). Reportedly, the role was turned down by Michael Douglas, Beau and Jeff Bridges, Jon Voight, Peter Fonda, Keith Carradine and Michael Sarrazin (NB this rejection list comes from Robert Evans, so needs to be run through a truth filter), before they went with O’Neal, who had the last laugh when the film became a box office phenomenon. His performance was mocked at the time and continues to be so, but he portrayed a soulful melancholy utterly perfect for the movie; it earned O’Neal an Oscar nomination and established him as one of the most sought-after leading men in Hollywood.

Here’s him and co-star Ali McGraw.

He teamed with William Holden in a Blake Edwards Western, The Wild Rovers (1971), which was severely re-edited by MGM and flopped. However, Peter Bogdanovich then cast him as Barbara Streisand’s leading man in the screwball comedy What’s Up Doc? (1972) which was a huge hit.

In that movie, O’Neal channeled Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938). He followed it with The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973), channeling Grant in To Catch a Thief (1954), resulting in a half- success. He then went into Paper Moon (1973), again for Bogdanovich, again channeling Cary Grant, this time in Sylvia Scarlett (1935); Moon co-starred O’Neal’s daughter Tatum, and was a fabulous movie, deservedly adored by critics and audiences (Tatum won an Oscar, and it’s probably her father’s best performance).

At the end of 1973, O’Neal was voted the second biggest star in the country. Adding to the romance of his personal narrative, Tatum’s mother, struggling with addiction and mental health issues, had deposited her daughter with Ryan to raise. Not only was he a huge star, he was a hunky playboy single dad raising an Oscar winning daughter. It was like Bachelor Father, only real.

Then O’Neal hit his first cold streak – five films that were commercial disappointments. This streak didn’t destroy his career, but it hurt. And the scary thing about it? Every single film he decided to do made absolute sense at the time.

First cab off the rank was Barry Lyndon (1975), the movie Stanley Kubrick made after he realised his long-cherished Napoleon project would bankrupt a small nation, and wanted to utilise some of his research. Kubrick offered O’Neal the title role as a swashbuckling Irish adventurer – a move that surprised some observers seemingly unaware of Kubrick’s use of pretty boy actors in the past such as Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, John Gavin and Tony Curtis. The movie was made with typical Kubrickian thoroughness (i.e. it took forever to shoot) but when it came out it was met with un-Kubrickian commercial disappointment and mixed reviews.

Time has been kind and the film’s reputation has risen over the years. Kubrick always defended his star (asking, reasonably enough, what star would have been better casting in 1974 – Hoffman? Nicholson? Pacino?) but O’Neal felt it cost his career momentum; certainly, his personal notices were underwhelming.

He would have been confident about the commercial prospects of his next movie, though. Nickelodeon (1976) reunited him with Bogdanovich, in a subject very dear to the director’s heart – the early silent era of Hollywood. Adding to the can’t-miss factor was the fact that O’Neal’s co-stars would include the enormously popular Burt Reynolds, and Tatum. Surely, Bogdanovich would just cull the best silent era comedy sequences, bang them all together and add some What’s Up Doc? style wackiness and he’d be home?

Yeah, but no. Bogdanovich actually wanted to make a drama, and he insisted on writing (or, rather, rewriting) the script himself – and his skill in that department never matched his ability as a director. The public recoiled and the film was an out-and-out bomb. Bogdanovich distanced himself from the final result in subsequent years saying he wanted to make it in black and white with non-stars like John Ritter and Jeff Bridges – not a ringing endorsement of O’Neal, who never worked with Bogdanovich again. The movie’s reputation has risen in recent years, though not to the level of Barry Lyndon, and remains worth seeing.

Third cab off the rank was A Bridge Too Far (1977), producer Joseph E. Levine’s all-star look at the Battle of Arnhem. The battle was a German victory, not an Allied one, so the film’s underwhelming box office performance in the US should not be a surprise (how often do American audiences embrace stories of defeat?) – but it performed better in other territories. O’Neal was one of many names, but his performance tended to be singled out negatively by critics who thought he was unconvincing as the legendary General “Jumpin’ Jim” Gavin. “I can’t help it if I photograph like I’m sixteen,” said O’Neal defensively afterwards.

It’s a decent movie by the way, with a well-organised William Goldman script.

O’Neal tried an action movie, The Driver (1978), the sophomore directorial effort from Walter Hill. This was a flop on release, but in subsequent years its reputation has risen even more sharply than Barry Lyndon’s. It’s a marvelously tense, exciting movie whose initial commercial failure is bewildering. While Hill has consistently defended O’Neal, and the actor gives a fine performance, maybe audiences simply didn’t want to see an action film starring him. As O’Neal himself admitted, his fanbase mostly consisted of women – men tended to find him too good looking, too annoying. But the film survives, and is one of the best things O’Neal ever did.

O’Neal’s fifth stumble came when he proved unable to resist a $3 million offer to appear in a sequel to Love Story. Oliver’s Story details his character’s new romance with a young woman (Candice Bergen) and… that’s about it. It’s very hard to make a decent sequel to a movie about someone who died and Oliver’s Story didn’t overcome that challenge – but it was unreasonable to expect O’Neal to turn down a payday that guaranteed his financial security for life.

See him and Bergen emote below.

Michael Caine once floated the theory that movie stars needed a one hit in every five films “or you’re out”. At this stage, O’Neal had four disappointments in a row (you can’t really count A Bridge Too Far).

To make it worse, he’d lost out on two roles which would have been perfect for him. One wasn’t his fault – an adaptation of Lawrence Kasdan’s director-proof script for The Bodyguard, which floundered despite John Boorman being attached when his intended co-star, Diana Ross, pulled out of the project; the film was perfect for O’Neal who must have felt the pain when Kevin Costner took over the role more than a decade later and rode the movie to box-office glory. It was, however, very much O’Neal’s fault he did not star in Franco Zeffirelli’s remake of The Champ (1978) – the actor wanted to co-star with his son Griffin, which made sense after Tatum’s success, but when Zeffirelli overruled him, O’Neal sooked off and was replaced by Jon Voight. It’s a shame because the film was absolutely in his wheelhouse – he boxed in real life and the movie was a weepie (his character dies at the end – O’Neal dubbed it “Glove Story”); in hindsight, walking away from The Champ was the biggest mistake of O’Neal’s professional life.

Barbara Streisand came to the rescue with The Main Event (1979), a cheerful screwball comedy that was O’Neal’s first hit since Paper Moon and proved audiences would still see him in decent numbers in the right vehicle. He also found true love when he wooed Farrah Fawcett Majors away from Lee Majors.

Unfortunately for O’Neal he then struck a second cold streak, this time of six films. His choices were much less defendable this time around.

Green Ice (1981) was a thriller from the Lew Grade Organisation, who specialised in mid-Atlantic adventure tales made with one eye on an American TV network sale. Even at inception, Green Ice must have sounded like a programmer which everyone was only doing for the money; the director was fired halfway through, but no one seemed to care. I don’t think anyone expected this to be a hit, and its eventual flop was no surprise.

Here’s a clip from the film with O’Neal channeling Cary Grant again, this time in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), only without Howard Hawks. (And PS: how many duds has poor old Anne Archer been in over the years?)

So Fine (1981) would have seemed more promising, a cheery comedy about transparent jeans which was the directorial debut of Andrew Bergman who had just written The In Laws (1979). The movie has bright moments, but had little impact on the public and wound up losing money. Bergman felt the film contained some of his best stuff and said O’Neal was a brilliant physical comedian, though he admitted the star was slightly miscast in a role that required someone more obviously nerdy and Jewish. Maybe it needed another “name” in the cast.

O’Neal tried with the funny again in Partners (1982), a buddy comedy from French writer Francis Veber. How’s this for ‘80s high-concept: O’Neal plays a straight cop who teams with gay John Hurt to track down a killer of gays – a comic Cruising (1980)? There was a brief vogue for gay themed movies in Hollywood following La Cage Aux Folles (1978), until the outbreak of AIDS. Sometimes this sort of film works – Partners didn’t, and the public stayed away. The gay community have reclaimed many films about LGBTI characters from this period, but Partners remains resolutely un-championed.

O’Neal says that around this time he turned down the lead role in First Blood (1982) (NB lots of stars were offered this part). I’m not sure that movie would have turned his career around – if the public didn’t like O’Neal in The Driver, I can’t see them flocking to him as John Rambo. However, he would have been perfect as the priest in an adaptation of Colleen McCullough’s best seller The Thorn Birds, a project to which O’Neal was attached when it was going to be a feature directed by Arthur Hiller; then it became a mini series, and Hiller dropped out, as did O’Neal, who was (then) reluctant to do TV. Richard Chamberlain played the role to great success.

After two flop comedies in a row, O’Neal would have been wary of making a third but he struck gold with Irreconcilable Differences (1984). This was a lovely comedy from Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers with O’Neal playing a character based on Peter Bogdanovich; Shelley Long basically playing Polly Platt, and Sharon Stone (gorgeous, hilarious) as a Cybill Shepherd type. It’s funny, poignant and contains some of O’Neal’s best work… but the public didn’t turn out in great numbers to see it. It’s a shame – film buffs definitely will love it (maybe that was the problem – it was too “in-jokey”).

Neither of O’Neal’s last two feature films as a leading man must have looked promising on paper and their eventual failure would have surprised few. Fever Pitch (1985) was a drama about a gambling addict which was the final film from director Richard Brooks.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987) was a drama directed by Norman Mailer which lives on in a YouTube joke.

By the late 1980s, O’Neal was done as a star. Since then he tried a few TV series, several TV movies and guest spots, as well as supporting roles, but never regained his former status, or even came close. Since the mid ‘80s, he’s been best known for his colourful private life, which includes well-publicised disputes with his children (two of whom served prison time), bouts of ill health and a turbulent on-off relationship with Fawcett.

The most striking thing about Ryan O’Neal’s film career is that so many of the films he chose, when he was in a position to choose films, were understandable decisions – in particular Barry Lyndon, Nickelodeon, The Driver, and Irreconcilable Differences must have seemed like solid bets, and time has been kind to them… but they were disappointments when they came out. He definitely should have done The Champ and should have fought harder to do The Bodyguard and The Thorn Birds – that isn’t wisdom in hindsight, he knew they were good projects at the time. I also think he should have worked with bigger co-stars – when you think about it, all O’Neal’s hits had him bounce off a strong female (Streisand, Ali McGraw, Tatum).

There are three main things I took from looking at the career of Ryan O’Neal:

  1. go after good material and fight for it, because it won’t always be there.
  2. quality does count in the long run – even if a film under-performs (The Driver), if it is actually good it will have a life.
  3. try to get the support of a name co-star.

O’Neal’s 2012 memoir, Both of Us: My Life With Farrah, covers his romance with Farrah Fawcett from 1980 to her death in 2009. It offers a fascinating insight into the mind of O’Neal – witty, self-deprecating, narcissistic, self-obsessed, hot tempered, defensive about his terrible record as a father. He knew his career was on the downslide but was unable to turn it around. Because it is hard for movie stars to overcome the blast of one cold streak, let alone two.

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Comments

  1. Charlotte Frajman

    I’d love to see a similar analysis of Johnny Depp, who did reach mega-star status and is now a bit “off-colour”.
    I never thought he deserved his lofty status, although he was the primary “star” in the Pirates franchise, which turned out to be a huge money churner.

  2. Julian Hill

    Next candidates:
    William Hurt
    Kevin Costner
    Jennifer Grey
    Eddie Murphy
    Faye Dunaway
    Christian Slater
    Michael Sarazin

  3. Dee

    Actors with two Jewish parents: Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman, Logan Lerman, Paul Rudd, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bar Refaeli, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Adam Brody, Kat Dennings, Gabriel Macht, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Erin Heatherton, Lisa Kudrow, Lizzy Caplan, Gal Gadot, Debra Messing, Gregg Sulkin, Jason Isaacs, Jon Bernthal, Robert Kazinsky, Melanie Laurent, Esti Ginzburg, Shiri Appleby, Justin Bartha, Margarita Levieva, James Wolk, Elizabeth Berkley, Halston Sage, Seth Gabel, Corey Stoll, Michael Vartan, Mia Kirshner, Alden Ehrenreich, Julian Morris, Asher Angel, Debra Winger, Eric Balfour, Dan Hedaya, Emory Cohen, Corey Haim, Scott Mechlowicz, Harvey Keitel, Odeya Rush, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy.

    Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Jewish, too (though I don’t know if both of his parents are).

    Actors with Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers: Timothée Chalamet, Jake Gyllenhaal, Dave Franco, James Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Radcliffe, Alison Brie, Eva Green, Joaquin Phoenix, River Phoenix, Emmy Rossum, Ryan Potter, Rashida Jones, Jennifer Connelly, Sofia Black D’Elia, Nora Arnezeder, Goldie Hawn, Ginnifer Goodwin, Judah Lewis, Brandon Flynn, Amanda Peet, Eric Dane, Jeremy Jordan, Joel Kinnaman, Ben Barnes, Patricia Arquette, Kyra Sedgwick, Dave Annable, and Harrison Ford (whose maternal grandparents were both Jewish, despite those Hanukkah Song lyrics).

    Actors with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, who themselves were either raised as Jewish and/or identify as Jewish: Ezra Miller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zac Efron, Alexa Davalos, Nat Wolff, Nicola Peltz, James Maslow, Josh Bowman, Andrew Garfield, Winona Ryder, Michael Douglas, Ben Foster, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nikki Reed, Jonathan Keltz, Paul Newman, David Corenswet.

    Oh, and Ansel Elgort’s father is Jewish, though I don’t know how Ansel was raised. Robert Downey, Jr., Sean Penn, and Ed Skrein were also born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. Armie Hammer, Chris Pine, Emily Ratajkowski, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and Finn Wolfhard are part Jewish.

    Actors with one Jewish-born parent and one parent who converted to Judaism: Dianna Agron, Sara Paxton (whose father converted, not her mother), Alicia Silverstone, Jamie-Lynn Sigler.

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