In 1977, when I interviewed Ryan O’Neal for the Chicago Tribune, he was enjoying a comeback in "The Main Event," a box-office hit in which he played a prizefighter whose trainer was the ever-enterprising Barbra Streisand. His comeback, alas, was brutally brief. --Guy Flatley

"I was in the gay rights march in Central Park on Sunday," reports brawny actor Ryan O’Neal with an outrageously straight face. "My agent thought it would be a good idea. I wore my Kid Natural costume and tossed my Frisbee around."

Kid Natural is the name of the boxer O’Neal plays in "The Main Event," the box-office knockout co-starring Barbra Streisand that has healed the wounds inflicted by the flops of "The Driver" and "Oliver’s Story," and bounced him back into the champ’s corner. And sympathetic though he may be to the cause of gay rights, his accidental participation in the Central Park protest was a pure fluke. A fluke but fun. "Those guys love Barbra," he says. "They love all those clever women, especially the big four. Barbra, Judy Garland, Carol Channing, and Liza with a Z."

O’Neal also loves Streisand, and with good reason, since she is the bankable actress who cuddled with him so commercially in "What’s Up, Doc?," and rescued him from oblivion by picking him to play the skirt-chasing jock in "The Main Event," a confection she whipped up with the support of her producer-pal, Jon Peters. Unfortunately, a slew of critics saw fit to sling mud pies at the industrious superstar, accusing her of egomania and of deliberately placing herself in the center of every scene.

"I’m sorry the critics reacted that way," the actor says, propping his bare feet on the coffee table in his hotel suite. "Barbra was not overbearing during the shooting of the film, and she never slanted things her way. Sure, she oversees all the details of a production, but so does Stanley Kubrick. I worked harder with Barbra than with Kubrick on ‘Barry Lyndon.’ She works 15 and 16 hours a day, checking to make sure we all do our jobs, but she does it in a feminine way. Yet that ruffles some men. I feel that people have been unfair to Barbra. She’s a delicately made creature, a great lady, and I would never have done ‘The Main Event’ without her."

Famed for his fighting flair, O’Neal was a natural for the role of Kid Natural and a contender for "The Main Event" even before the Streisand-Peters team stepped into the ring. "I was offered the part years ago, when they had Goldie Hawn in mind to play the manager. But I turned it down. Then they suggested Diana Ross, but I said, ‘That’s ridiculous—who ever heard of a white fighter and a black trainer? Let Diana fight, and I’ll be the trainer!’"

Still, the ebony and gold pairing of Ross and O’Neal has a punchy appeal, and it was expected that moviegoers would have mobbed theaters for the thrill of ogling the proposed film "Bodyguard," the incendiary drama of a lady who sings the blues when the gentlemen from the syndicate decide to turn on the heat. "We’re not going to do that movie after all," says O’Neal, broodingly. "Director John Boorman and I had worked very hard developing the script. But Diana didn’t like it; she said she didn’t want any blood in the movie. ‘God,’ I said, ‘what are you scared of?’ ‘Myself,’ she said. It’s a shame because I really wanted to work with Diana."

If one can accept gossip-column tidbits as gospel, the couple are playing together again in real life, following a brief tiff.

"That’s not so," O’Neal insists. "We were never apart. . . I mean, we were never together."

That being the case, their love story seems even less destined to make sizzling Hollywood history than "Oliver’s Story," the soggy sequel to "Love Story,"which, as everyone knows, was Erich Segal’s saga of Oliver Barrett III, a rotten-rich preppy who was turned into a man under the tutelage of his poor but peppery, endlessly jabbering Jenny.

"Something happened to ‘Oliver’s Story,’" he says. "A major character was all but eliminated, a third of the movie was cut, and I was sad for Nicola Pagett when I went to the theater and saw that she had just about disappeared from the film. But the character I really missed was Jenny. Yet it’s silly for me to carry on about her, especially when Ali MacGraw, who who played Jenny, keeps popping up in movies all around the world."

Jenny is not the only movie heroine from O’Neal’s past who continues to shed a glow on his off-screen present. "My ‘Paper Moon’ co-star haunts me wherever I go," he says, beaming with parental pride. "And she is in the next suite."

"Paper Moon" was envisioned as a one-shot deal for daughter Tatum, not a vehicle that would swoop the tow-headed tot from movie to movie, from "The Bad News Bears" to the just-completed "Little Darlings." "It was a gruesome thing to do to a kid," O’Neal recalls. "Tatum was miserable making ‘Paper Moon;’ we were all miserable. I never planned for her to get into acting. An actor’s life is filled with anxiety and disappointment, and every time you finish a movie, you say to yourself, ‘Well, that’s the last time I’ll ever work.’"

Despite Papa’s apprehension, not too many seasons passed between "Paper Moon" and "Bad News Bears." "We were driving along one night, and Tatum said she’d decided what she wanted to do with her $60,000. She wanted to buy a ranch and raise horses. ‘What $60,000?’ I asked. ‘The $60,000 I got from "Paper Moon,"’ she said. ‘I got $60,000,’ I told her. ‘You got $6,000.’ She was shocked. ‘I can’t believe that,’ she said. ‘I won an Oscar for that movie!’ ‘Sell it,’ I said, ‘and then you’ll have $6,060.’ She thought about that for a while and finally said, ‘Then I guess I’d better go back to work.’"

O’Neal wasn’t much older than Tatum is now when he began to toil in front of a television camera, and he’s keenly aware of the way in which his competitive career has shaped his character. "I’ve gotten meaner," he admits. "I was a cute guy on ‘Peyton Place.’ I didn’t even get to park on the Fox lot for the first year. I was such an innocent. We all were—Mia Farrow, Barbara Parkins, all of us. We never had a chance to get uppity, because we were working 52 weeks a year. I did 500 episodes in all, at a dollar a show. Then one day Barbara Parkins said, ‘I’ll be seeing you all later; I’m going over to the next lot to launch my career in feature films with 'Valley of the Dolls.' And Mia said, ‘Well, I’m going over to do 'Rosemary’s Baby!' I was still there, though, until Fox dropped my option after six years, instead of the full seven. But Dick Zanuck did write me a nice note saying, ‘We don’t have enough money to pay for your contract, but good luck on 'Love Story,' your next project.’"

Luck, looks, and talent conspired to make O’Neal a not-quite-overnight star whose virile, athletic screen persona was shamelessly swiped from his picturesque private life. "Macho jock? Well, that’s better than light-handed and soft, if you have a choice. The press always portrays me that way, and it’s kind of nice; but they never really get it right. The truth is, I’m not really very macho," he whispers, cupping his hands to his mouth. "I hardly ever box anymore, and I don’t even think movies like ‘The Main Event’ and all those other boxing pictures are good for actors. With our delicate noses, we shouldn’t risk getting pummeled. Our faces are not made for hitting."

In "The Main Event," O’Neal is emotionally maimed when Streisand suggests that he is just another pretty face, a pleasant but superficial sex object. Has his beautiful bod been a stumbling block on the path to artistic expression?

"Well, my mother liked the way I look," he concedes. "Actually, I think my looks have gotten me more jobs than I’ve lost. They definitely worked for me in ‘Main Event.’ I mean, if I’d been a plug-ugly, Barbra would not have responded to me, which would have pleased the critics."

Matinee-idol looks crumble in the end, leaving an actor with nothing but interior beauty. How does O’Neal feel, now that he has reached the incipiently wrinklesome age of 38?

"I feel like a juvenile delinquent. Just the other day, Tatum found a gray hair on my chest, and said, ‘Don’t pull it out! It’s a sign that you’re aging, and I want to feel you’re my father, not my brother!’"