Ryan O’Neal is dead at the age of 82 after years of health struggles. His son Patrick announced the news on Instagram.

O’Neal was one of the true heartthrobs of the New Hollywood era, making many who saw him in “Love Story,” “What’s Up Doc?,” “Barry Lyndon,” and “The Driver” swoon. He also was much more than a pretty face, showing a capacity to let the great directors of the era mold him into something so much more powerful than his looks. And his life was defined in some ways, also, by heartbreak and misfortune: the loss of his great love Farrah Fawcett in 2009, the years-long legal troubles of his son Redmond, the rupture of his relationship with son Griffin, and fraught connection to his daughter Tatum. He was a prickly icon, someone whose public statements and demeanor defied people to like him. But the films he leaves behind have stood the test of time for anyone who cares about cinema.

“Ryan was a very generous man who has always been there to help his loved ones for decade upon decade,” his son Patrick wrote in a statement. “Those same people are heartbroken today and will be for a long time.”

“I will share my father’s legacy forever. I will not be deterred from outside voices that say negative things. If you choose to talk shit about my dad, even though you have no clue what you are talking about, you will get called out. If you go that route, I recommend you take a good look in the mirror first.

“My dad was 82, and lived a kick ass life.”

If that statement reads a bit pugnacious, it sums up the contentiousness in which O’Neal’s life was sometimes embroiled.

O’Neal was born April 20, 1941 in Los Angeles, where he’d go on to attend University High School. As a young man he had aspirations of being a boxer, experiences that would inform his 1979 Barbra Streisand team-up “The Main Event.” After some stand-in and stuntman work on productions in Germany, where his parents had moved the family in the late ’50s, O’Neal decided to pursue acting in Hollywood, making his first TV appearance in an episode of “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” in 1960. It was a patchwork of guest parts, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”-style from there, until he landed his ongoing role in ABC’s epochal half-hour primetime soap, “Peyton Place,” opposite Dorothy Malone, Mia Farrow, and Barbara Perkins. He married his costar Leigh Taylor-Young in 1969, following a previous marriage to actress Joanna Moore.

Several of its stars used the success of “Peyton Place” to kick-start their own film careers and O’Neal was no exception. He landed his first lead role in a film with 1969’s “The Big Bounce.” The next year he’d hit superstardom.

1970 was the year “Love Story” was unleashed on the world. Jon Voight and Beau Bridges had already turned down the role of Oliver Barrett IV, an East Coast old money scion at Harvard who falls in love with a working class Radcliffe student played by Ali MacGraw, then married to the film’s producer, Robert Evans. For his part, Evans told the Los Angeles Times he felt that the Barrett role was “a Cary Grant role — a handsome leading man with lots of emotions.” O’Neal was less certain of the film’s potential success, telling the LA Times, “I hope the young people like it. I don’t want to go back to TV. I don’t want to go back to those [National Association of Broadcasters] conventions.”

He needn’t have worried. “Love Story” was the number one box-office smash of 1970, raking in $50 million in domestic theater rentals. It’s a fascinating snapshot of what non-New Hollywood box office smashes could be like at that time, a formulaic romance meant to break viewers’ hearts. Francis Lai’s “Theme from ‘Love Story,’” also known as “Where Do I Begin?” was instant Andy Williams fodder. And the movie’s line “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” became iconic, with O’Neal and Streisand making fun of it at the end of “What’s Up Doc?” when she says it to him and he replies, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

But America had fallen in love with Ryan O’Neal after “Love Story.” He got a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars, losing to George C. Scott for “Patton” (who famously refused the award). It was the last time O’Neal would receive any Academy recognition. Yet his star was beyond ascendant, and, for cinephiles, his best films were all still ahead.

Audiences didn’t take much notice of his immediate “Love Story” follow-up, the Blake Edwards Western “Wild Rovers.” They certainly did his second, however: “What’s Up, Doc?,” Peter Bogdanovich’s madcap and uproariously funny screwball comedy homage, was the third highest grossing movie of 1972. And if his connection with Ali MacGraw in “Love Story” was yearning and sweet, his chemistry with Streisand was crackling. Here was another Cary Grant-type role — O’Neal’s Dr. Howard Bannister is very, very similar to the character Grant plays in “Bringing Up Baby,” Bogdanovich’s most obvious influence — and while he channeled Grant’s straight-man understatement, he brought a level of sexiness that might have even eluded the earlier actor. Take a look at O’Neal going shirtless with nothing but a bowtie and glasses at one moment and ask yourself if you’ve ever seen a Chippendale look better.

Off-camera, O’Neal may have displayed a massive ego. But in a role like “What’s Up, Doc?” he plays his character as if he’s oblivious to his handsomeness altogether, which only enhanced his appeal. At a time when the New Hollywood — Robert Redford, who often tried to conceal his looks, aside — didn’t prioritize handsomeness for handsomeness’s sake, O’Neal was a genuine heartthrob. That he could parlay that into Bogdanovich’s desire to channel the 1930s in the 1970s is a remarkable act of cinematic alchemy.

For their next pairing, Bogdanovich decided to literally set the film in the 1930s: “Paper Moon” saw O’Neal as an itinerant con man who teams up with a nine-year-old orphan, played by his real life daughter with first wife Joanna Moore, Tatum. She became the youngest winner of a competitive Oscar in history, when she won for Best Supporting Actress.

Ryan O’Neal’s collaborations with Bogdanovich are arguably among the best actor-director partnerships of the 1970s, and they’d work together again on “Nickelodeon” (which also featured Tatum O’Neal). He showed a unique ability to channel the vision of major auteurs, despite being far removed from Actors Studio-style training or anything resembling “method acting.”

Many would argue his greatest performance was as Redmond Barry in Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 masterpiece, “Barry Lyndon.” The film, meant to evoke the paintings of 18th century artists like Fragonard and Watteau, is the ultimate example of a director-as-star sublimating his actors into his vision. And O’Neal seems uniquely in harmony with Kubrick, even if he’s being moved around like a piece on a chess board. Few movie characters have ever been quite this internal, his face as much a mask as any worn at an 18th century masquerade — like the mask of Barry Lyndon himself Tom Cruise’s character wears in Kubrick’s later “Eyes Wide Shut.” But there’s a slow-burning fire that pops out of O’Neal at moments in “Barry Lyndon” too, which erupts into a full-on explosion of violence when he beats up his stepson Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) in front of a crowd, then later faces him in a duel with pistols, one of the most suspenseful scenes ever put on film.

“Barry Lyndon” showed a willingness to let a director mold him like clay. It’s something that’d happen again with Walter Hill for “The Driver,” where O’Neal plays a character who, well, is simply only called The Driver — Nicholas Winding Refn has named that film as a massive influence on his own “Drive.” But after “The Driver,” O’Neal’s most creatively rich period ended. Part of that might be due to his offscreen relationship with Farrah Fawcett, which began in 1979, being so dramatic it overshadowed what he might have achieved in future roles (though he’s a particular delight in the 1989 Cybill Shepherd rom-com “Chances Are”). He was in a marriage in everything but name with the “Charlie’s Angels” star until 1997.

From then on out, his relationships dominated his relationships with the public. “Barry Lyndon” seemed to cast an unusual shadow over what followed next for him: He named his son with Fawcett, Redmond, after his character in the Kubrick film. Redmond, now 38, has been incarcerated in a state psychiatric hospital for nearly four years after he was charged with attempted murder in 2018, but was subsequently declared unfit to stand trial. This follows a lifetime of brushes with the law. It’s believed he had no relationship with his father when Ryan died. Nor did Ryan have a relationship with his son, Griffin, who he attacked in 2007, much in the manner of Redmond Barry beating his stepson in “Barry Lyndon.” He later refused to allow Griffin to attend Fawcett’s funeral in 2009.

Reports also circulated for years that Ryan was viciously jealous of his daughter winning an Oscar, and he did not attend the ceremony where she won. They did not speak for over 25 years, and in a 2004 autobiography Tatum said that she had been molested by her father’s drug dealer and that her father had physically and emotionally abused her. Griffin alleged that his father had given him cocaine from the age of 11.

This was dark, vicious stuff to pierce the aura of what had been Hollywood’s golden couple: one of the biggest heartthrobs of the ’70s in Ryan, in a star-crossed romance with Fawcett, the biggest sex symbol of that decade. As Patrick O’Neal even wrote in his Instagram tribute, “Everyone had the poster, he had the real McCoy. And now they meet again.”

O’Neal and Fawcett did enter a relationship again from 2001 until her death in 2009, during much of which she battled cancer, as Ryan himself did for years. And he did try to make amends with Tatum, starring in an OWN reality series in 2011 with her called “Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals.”

But the gap between the golden aura of Ryan and Farrah and the reality of his offscreen life was stark, even for an industry where such gaps between public perception and private reality are unusually common. I myself got to see that golden aura firsthand as a three-year-old on a Florida beach in 1989 when Ryan, Farrah, and their son Redmond were vacationing. They were in town on vacation, I was there as a local. Redmond and I, nearly the same age, met and spent the day playing Pac-Man and Galaga at an arcade. He gave me the first piece of bubble gum I’d ever tried. My mom spoke to Ryan at some length — but not Farrah, who was feeling ill that day. All our lives have diverged radically since. But for one moment, I saw how powerful that golden aura was. It even left an impression on a three-year-old. It may not have been true, but truth isn’t really the stuff of movies. Movies exist in that place between what’s true and what you want to be true. Ryan O’Neal was as suited to that place as anyone in the movies ever.

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