When Ryan O’Neal died Friday, almost all the headlines referred to his lead role in the 1970 movie, “Love Story.” But my mind went to four others he starred in.
First was Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 farce, “What’s Up, Doc?” In it, O’Neal proved that he had comedic chops, handling witty verbal banter and broad slapstick while avoiding being run over by co-star Barbra Streisand. She’d already proven her talents in both those areas in “Funny Girl,” but she was never more luminous than as a woman who insinuates herself into O’Neal’s life. The movie not only boasts a riotous screwball screenplay by Buck Henry, Robert Benton, and David Newman, but a stellar supporting cast, too — including the always-hysterical Madeline Kahn, plus Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton, Michael Murphy, Mabel Albertson, Sorrell Booke, John Hillerman, Liam Dunn, Graham Jarvis, and M. Emmet Walsh. “What’s Up, Doc?” was a great choice for O’Neal following the sappy, serious “Love Story.”
Second was another brilliant turn the following year in another Bogdanovich feature, “Paper Moon.” Not only did O’Neal have to keep up a steady patter as a con man, he also played straight man for his daughter, Tatum, who blew everyone away with her performance (which, at ten years old, made her the youngest Oscar winner ever). As in “What’s Up, Doc?” the elder O’Neal had to underplay his natural charisma to allow everyone around him to shine, including Madeline Kahn again, while still making his character and his scams believable. My wife refers to O’Neal as the poor man’s Robert Redford, so it’s ironic that both of them had hits in 1973 playing con artists (the other, of course, was “The Sting”).
Third was “Irreconcilable Differences,” which wasn’t made by Bogdanovich, but O’Neal played a character based on him, a knowledgable movie historian who’s given the chance to direct his first feature. His co-star this time was Shelley Long, who had just become popular on “Cheers,” as his co-writer and wife. But their marriage begins to fall apart when he doesn’t give her enough credit for his success and begins a relationship with an up-and-coming actress (Sharon Stone). All of this distresses their daughter, played by Drew Barrymore, who takes her parents to court in an attempt to divorce both of them. Directed by Charles Shyer from a Nancy Meyers script, “Irreconcilable Differences” had a lot of fun poking holes in Hollywood nonsense. O’Neal and Long had great chemistry, and Barrymore was still at the age when she could steal a scene just by showing up.
Fourth was “The Thief Who Came To Dinner,” which O’Neal did between “What’s Up, Doc?” and “Paper Moon.” It’s nowhere near the level of those classics, but remains a guilty pleasure for me. O’Neal plays a cat burglar/jewel thief who maneuvers his way into the lives of rich people he then steals from. Each time, he leaves behind a chess piece and a card denoting a chess move. This catches the eye of Austin Pendleton, the chess editor for the local newspaper, who allows himself to be manipulated into playing a game against O’Neal one move at a time — and it doesn’t go well. Even better, Warren Oates plays the insurance investigator assigned to catch O’Neal and somehow combines seething frustration and grudging admiration for his prey. Oh, Jacqueline Bisset is along for the ride, too, as O’Neal’s romantic interest, and there are small roles for Ned Beatty and Gregory Sierra. The whole thing was directed by Bud Yorkin, who, at the time (with partner Norman Lear) had three of the top four shows on television. Years later, Yorkin said, “I don’t think it’s the greatest picture in the world but it is very entertaining.”
All four of these titles (but not “Love Story”) appear on my Movies You Might Not Know list.