AND IN THIS CORNER...RYAN
In 1977, when I interviewed
Ryan ONeal 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
was in the gay rights march in Central Park on Sunday," reports
brawny actor Ryan ONeal 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 ONeal 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 "Olivers Story," and bounced him back into the
champs 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
ONeal also loves Streisand, and with good reason, since she
is the bankable actress who cuddled with him so commercially in
"Whats 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
"Im 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. Shes a delicately
made creature, a great lady, and I would never have done The
Main Event without her."
Famed for his fighting flair, ONeal 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, Thats ridiculouswho ever heard
of a white fighter and a black trainer? Let Diana fight, and Ill
be the trainer!"
Still, the ebony and gold pairing of Ross and ONeal 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. "Were
not going to do that movie after all," says ONeal, broodingly.
"Director John Boorman and I had worked very hard developing
the script. But Diana didnt like it; she said she didnt
want any blood in the movie. God, I said, what
are you scared of? Myself, she said. Its
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
"Thats not so," ONeal
insists. "We were never apart. . . I mean, we were never together."
being the case, their love story seems even less destined to make
sizzling Hollywood history than "Olivers Story,"
the soggy sequel to "Love Story,"which, as everyone knows,
was Erich Segals 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 Olivers 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 its
silly for me to carry on about her, especially when Ali MacGraw,
who who played Jenny, keeps popping up in movies all around the
Jenny is not the only movie heroine from ONeals 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
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," ONeal recalls. "Tatum was miserable making
Paper Moon; we were all miserable. I never planned for
her to get into acting. An actors life is filled with anxiety
and disappointment, and every time you finish a movie, you say to
yourself, Well, thats the last time Ill ever work."
Despite Papas apprehension, not too many seasons passed between
"Paper Moon" and "Bad News Bears." "We
were driving along one night, and Tatum said shed 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
cant believe that, she said. I won an Oscar for
that movie! Sell it, I said, and then youll
have $6,060. She thought about that for a while and finally
said, Then I guess Id better go back to work."
wasnt much older than Tatum is now when he began to toil in
front of a television camera, and hes keenly aware of the
way in which his competitive career has shaped his character. "Ive
gotten meaner," he admits. "I was a cute guy on Peyton
Place. I didnt even get to park on the Fox lot for the
first year. I was such an innocent. We all wereMia 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, Ill
be seeing you all later; Im going over to the next lot to
launch my career in feature films with 'Valley
of the Dolls.' And Mia said, Well,
Im going over to do 'Rosemarys
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
dont have enough money to pay for your contract, but good
luck on 'Love Story,' your next project."
Luck, looks, and talent conspired to make ONeal a not-quite-overnight
star whose virile, athletic screen persona was shamelessly swiped
from his picturesque private life. "Macho jock? Well, thats
better than light-handed and soft, if you have a choice. The press
always portrays me that way, and its kind of nice; but they
never really get it right. The truth is, Im not really very
macho," he whispers, cupping his hands to his mouth. "I
hardly ever box anymore, and I dont even think movies like
The Main Event and all those other boxing pictures are
good for actors. With our delicate noses, we shouldnt risk
getting pummeled. Our faces are not made for hitting."
In "The Main Event," ONeal 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 Ive lost. They definitely worked for me in Main
Event. I mean, if Id 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 ONeal 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, Dont pull it
out! Its a sign that youre aging, and I want to feel
youre my father, not my brother!"