Theater & art

winter arts guide

For Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, 45 years between love stories

Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal.
Austin Hargrave
Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal.

I’m on a conference call with Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw. He’s in Malibu, and she’s in Santa Fe. He’s already serenaded me with a raspy rendition of George M. Cohan’s tune “Harrigan,” and he’s terribly sorry that he got my name wrong. The two actors will be in Boston this week starring in A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” at the Shubert Theatre, and O’Neal has one burning question.

“Will I need a coat?”

Um, yes.

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It’s not that he hasn’t been here before, as boomers of a certain age know. He and MacGraw filmed much of the 1970 romantic weeper, “Love Story,” in Cambridge. Yes, that movie. Quick recap: Rich Harvard undergraduate meets not-so-rich Radcliffe student. They fall in love. His father objects. They marry anyway. She dies. Cue soundtrack.

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In its day, the iconic film was a cultural phenomenon and huge box office success. The actors became overnight sensations, and the tour of “Love Letters” draws on the chemistry they shared in the film.

The two have remained in touch over the years and share an easy rapport. She’s contemplative. He’s self-deprecating. He claims he still has letters she wrote to him while they were making “Love Story.”

“She has beautiful handwriting. And the way she writes — it’s literature.” They both say that their onstage reunion comes naturally. “It’s amazing,’’ he says. “It’s comfortable,’’ she adds. “It’s the best fun there is,’’ he replies.

The epistolary play tells the story of a pair of uppercrust, star-crossed lovers. Two actors sit at a table and read letters written to each other over decades, beginning in second grade. He becomes a US senator, and she lives the life of a bohemian artist, drifting in and out of addiction clinics. Easy to produce, the play has been performed by scores of actors over the years, and it played for weeks at the Wilbur Theatre in the early 1990s with a series of rotating casts. Actors young and old have performed the roles, a distinguished list that includes such pairs as Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards, Julie Hagerty and Christopher Reeve.

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O’Neal is surprised by that last one. “Superman? Really? I bet he had a coat.”

The roles are appealing to actors, since there is no memorization involved. “We’re reading it,” MacGraw says. “There isn’t the ‘Oh gosh, I hope I don’t miss a line.’ It’s without fear. And it’s so comforting with Ryan, because we’ve known each other for years and years, and we know we’re on each other’s side.”

O’Neal concurs. “I don’t think I’ve ever been mad at her, and I’ve been mad at everyone.”

They’ve both been around the block a few times since “Love Story” debuted and understand the play’s message about missed chances and regrets. At 74, he’s been married twice and lost his longtime partner, Farrah Fawcett, to cancer in 2009. At 76, she has been married three times. Her memoir, “Moving Pictures,” detailed her struggles with addiction.

MacGraw left the film industry by choice and now lives in Santa Fe, devoting her time to such causes as animal rights. She says she was overwhelmed by the instant stardom after “Love Story.” “It was my second movie, and I had no idea what I was doing,” she says. “Ryan was this established, experienced actor and I was this creature off the street. Nothing prepared me for the craziness and the privacy invasion and the specialness.”

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He, however, didn’t mind all the attention. “I just swaggered around. Mr. Big Shot. I thought it was fun being a movie star. It only lasted for a few minutes, but it was all right.”

His character in the play is a buttoned-up fellow who is wary of public attention. Gurney writes about members of a certain moneyed New England set, and MacGraw, who went to prep school and college in New England, understands the mindset of his characters. “The very language that Gurney uses and the kinds of people are familiar to me,’’ she says. “It is very specific to the Northeast.”

The play resonates for her in other ways. “Many of us have had relationships that have almost come together and didn’t,’’ she says. “I have had variations on every beat in that play.”

“Love Letters” debuted in 1989, long before texting and tweeting were even imaginable. Both actors say they still write letters in longhand. “Someone asked me if this play could have existed in the era of the iPhone and the iPad,’’ MacGraw says. “It would lose everything if you were concentrating on some technology in your hand, eating Chinese food with the other hand.”

Despite their onscreen chemistry, the two actors were never romantically involved off-screen — but not for lack of trying. “I was always pounding on her door in the middle of the night,” O’Neal says. “She never opened it.” She just laughs, and he adds, “I’m not done yet.”

They both say they would love to continue performing “Love Letters’’ after this tour ends in June, and there is talk of productions in Australia and London. Of course, there is no denying that the box office appeal of this particular production is, for some, due to nostalgia for “Love Story.” The actors say that they get an immediate reaction from the audience when they walk onstage. And they often get asked about the film’s quizzical catchphrase, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” O’Neal has no particular allegiance to the line. “It was in the story, so we just said it,” he says. “Did we know what it meant? No. I expect the author did.” MacGraw adds, “And it is so not true.”

Out of the blue, O’Neal bursts into song again, changing the letters of the Cohan tune this time so he doesn’t have to say he’s sorry. But before ending the conference call, he still has one final question. “Will I need a coat?” Yes. You will.

LOVE LETTERS

Play by A.R. Gurney. Produced by Love Letters LLC. Presented by Citi Performing Arts Center. At the Shubert Theatre, Feb. 2-7. Tickets, $34-$89, 866-348-9738, www.citicenter.org

Patti Hartigan can be reached at pattihartigan@gmail.com.