One of the most iconic on-screen couples of all time, Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal have reunited more than four decades after starring in Love Story to appear in A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, playing a pair of friends and lovers who exchange a lifetime of letters, even as they live wholly separate lives. We got the longtime friends on the line to talk about the play, which enjoys a limited run at the Shubert Theatre Feb. 2-7.
What drew you both to the play? Ali: Here’s what miraculously happened. The play had three or four incarnations on Broadway, with very celebrated actors. And at the end of the Broadway run, they decided they wanted to take it around the country. And, simultaneously, an odd thing happened. [There was ] a photograph that was taken of us for a Hollywood Reporter annual book about famous couples in the movies or something, and the producer said, “Well, what about those two?” And it was very simple; we said, “Yes, thank you.” So it was really just due to our history—a huge population saw Love Story all those years ago, and as luck would have it, people seem to be interested in us still.
You’ve known each other more than 40 years. Do you think that helps inform your roles? Ali: Well, we’re very, very comfortable together, so that helps. Ryan: You know, in a cheesy way, it’s exactly what it felt like to do Love Story, because it went so smoothly, that when we stepped into this, it’s almost like déjà vu.
Have you kept in touch over the years? Ryan: Sure, enough, enough. She married other men… [Laughs.] Ali: You married other women! C’mon, don’t start that one. Ryan: But I never lost sight of her. Ali: We’ve been asked fairly often to give away awards together as a couple, or christen a boat, because nearly everybody, amazingly enough, has seen Love Story. And it’s played all over the world. And the most amazing thing is I’ll be in some place like Jaipur and have someone come running up to me and say, “When are you going to make another Love Story?” And it’s shocking! Ryan: If you go into a restaurant anywhere in the western world, and they have a band and they recognize us, they play the Love Story theme song. In the middle of dinner. And you kind of shrink your head and try to disappear.
Of course not. But, worse than that, because I wasn’t a trained actress, I never asked the logical question: “Excuse me, what does that mean?” Ali:Ryan: I have been trying to explain it for years. Ali: I’ve had to live with that for a really long time, because I think it’s the absolute polar opposite of the truth. Ryan: Oh geez. Here I was trying to say, “No, if you really love each other, she knows you’re sorry; you don’t have to say it!” Ali, on the other hand, is kicking it under the rug. I do remember having to say I’m sorry a lot in life; that’s all I know. Ali: Well, here’s what I learned: That’s not enough. You’ve got to change your behavior.
The set for this play is very spare. Do you feel extra pressure to perform well? Ali: No extra pressure—if you give everything you’ve got, that’s all you can do…. You’re just sitting there next to each other, not looking at each other—per our directions—and really listening and truthfully reacting.
Did you go back and watch Love Story again to prepare? Ryan: I don’t connect the two in that way. I only connect to this woman. When I’m there, I’m not to look at her, but I listen to her, and she reminds me so much of Jenny from Love Story. Her voice hasn’t changed in the slightest. Ali: Well, yours hasn’t either! Ryan: I know, but I never matured. She did! [Laughs.]