Plus, what Ryan O'Neal thinks about the line "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

By Maureen Lee Lenker
February 09, 2021 at 08:30 AM EST

The theme song from Love Story is one of cinema's most iconic scores.

The lush central ballad, which helped composer Francis Lai win an Oscar, is instantly recognizable. And no matter where he goes in the world, star Ryan O'Neal is greeted with it.

But it could've been a lot worse for O'Neal. The filmmakers had originally hired Jimmy Webb, the songwriter behind pop hits like "MacArthur Park," to write music for the film. "He got the job to do the music originally, and he went away to the mountains or something to work on the score," O'Neal tells EW. "When he came back, he had this music that went, 'Jenny's dead, she's gone and she's dead.'"

The lyrics refer to the tragic fate of the other half of the titular Love Story, Ali MacGraw's Jenny. But they sound like more of a riff on Oklahoma's "Pore Jud is Daid" than a fitting anthem for a romantic melodrama. The team behind Love Story thought so too.

"I remember [head of Paramount] Bob Evans pulled the phone out of the wall. He was so angry," O'Neal recalls. "They had a French movie that they had called Love Is a Funny Thing and the music went like this — [Sings Love Story theme in double time] — all through the picture. So, they hunted him down. He was in Paris [and] he spoke no English. They said, 'Do what you did in Love Is a Funny Thing, only slow it down.' It won the Academy Award."

It's just one example of the serendipity that helped turn Love Story into one of the most beloved films of all the time. Having celebrated its 50th anniversary in December, Love Story is getting a full restoration on a new Paramount Blu-ray dropping Tuesday.

Additionally, to celebrate the film's golden anniversary, the film's stars, Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw, will receive side-by-side stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Friday. O'Neal's star will also be next to the already existing star of his longtime love, Farrah Fawcett.

In honor of those anniversary festivities, we called up O'Neal to talk more about his memories of the star-making film that still plays a major role in his legacy 50 years later.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were cast off screenwriter Erich Segal's recommendation, and this ended up being a huge breakout role for you. Did you perceive that it had that potential at the time?

RYAN O'NEAL: I tested with 12 other guys. All good-looking, good actors. It was nerve-wracking. But in the test scene where we kiss, [Ali] kissed me very deeply. She kissed me with love in her heart. I felt that in the test. But then, nothing happened. They didn't hire me; they didn't hire anybody. They were still looking. So I had a friend at Paramount and I said, "Did you see the test?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "Did you see how she kissed me?" He said, "Yeah but she kissed everybody like that." And that was my introduction to Hollywood.

What was it like working with Ali? Did your chemistry come naturally?

Oh yeah, I adored her. I adored her. I didn't want the film to end. Of course, it ends in the hospital. And then I didn't see her again for a year. I still held on to my feeling for her, even though I still had a wife. Oh, it was so complex really. But we've reconnected and always were close, and even late in our lives went on the road and did a play [Love Letters on a small national tour]. I'd never been on the stage before. Ali was spectacular. She saved her best part for last.

I read that you learned to ice skate and play hockey for the movie. Is that true?

[Laughs] There's not much to tell. I had never been on ice skates, and I found a rink in Burbank, and my wife and I and my children would all go out to this place. [They would] push me around the ice, and I gradually started to get the idea. But I wasn't close to a hockey player until I got to New York. Then, I went to La Petite Rink, which was around the corner from the Plaza Hotel. It was for children, a tiny little skating area, and I had a coach that I would be working with, this little guy, knocking him down and trying to skate backwards. I had a wonderful double, and he saved the day. I was about halfway there when we had to shoot. I needed more time. Ali had to take harpsichord lessons every day. So I'd go off to La Petite Rink, and she would go off to her harpsichord rehearsal.

I've also heard that beautiful scene where you two frolic in the snow at Harvard was filmed and added after production had wrapped. Why?

When they looked at the movie, there wasn't enough there. So, we flew back there, just about four or five of us and and met the cameraman, Dick Kratina, was his name. I remember they said, "Okay, we're in the snow, let's do an angel." And I said, "What's an angel?" Ali said, "You don't know?" So, she lay down on the ground and waved her arms. And I said, "Ah, there's an angel." I remember she did something wonderful during that scene. I had snow all over my face ,and she licked it off. This is in a day where there was no licking, separate beds. So, I thought that was terrific.

love story
Credit: Getty Images

"Love means never having to say you're sorry" has become such an iconic line.

I even said that in What's Up Doc? I mocked it. I didn't hurt it. But I mocked it. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," I say in What's Up Doc?

When you first heard the line, did you think it was the stupidest thing you'd ever heard?

Of course! I couldn't figure it out, and I stopped asking. The Town and Country article that we did, Ali talks about how it could be used effectively. I see what she's talking about, when love is so deep and the pain is so forceful.

Has your attitude toward the line changed at all?

I don't think about it. I have such pain and sorrow in my love life that I really can't figure out when to say you're sorry. But I'll tell you something interesting. I've traveled the world for one reason or another and every time I come into a restaurant that has an orchestra or a band they play the Love Story theme. I haven't even gotten to my table yet. There's no escaping it.

The film is pretty simple. It's a tragic romance where you know the ending from the first line told in a brisk 100 minutes. Why do you think it has endured for 50 years?

I can't tell you that. I wonder myself. It's the easiest work I ever had. So easy to work with [Ali] and to become emotional. She's got a quirk about her that's so interesting. She's not just a face or a body; she's something.

What does it mean to you to receive your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame alongside her?

With Ali and Farrah, they put us all together. These are the greatest women in the world. And I'm right next to them. It's an honor.

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