Erich Segal, whose screenplay and novel Love Story became worldwide hits, has died. Segal, who had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for more than two decades, suffered a fatal heart attack at his London home on Sunday, Jan. 17. He was 72.
The New York City-born rabbi’s son and Yale professor achieved fame in 1970. He had his romantic screenplay rejected by a number of Hollywood studios, until former college friend Ali MacGraw, the wife of Paramount’s executive vice president Robert Evans, asked her husband to help make the project become a reality. While Evans was looking for a director and male star, Segal turned the script into a novel mostly written in brief, direct sentences. “I cut it to read in two hours,” he explained, “because I wanted it to be a one-sitting experience.” Luckily for him, millions decided to experience that one-sitting read.
“There has been nothing like it in a generation,” said Time, referring to the Paramount release Love Story, which opened in December of that year. Directed by Arthur Hiller, and starring MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, best known for his role in the television series Peyton Place, Love Story – abetted by Francis Lai’s “Theme from Love Story” – became one the highest-grossing movies in history. (As of Monday, it was still a little ahead of Avatar, according to boxofficemojo.com‘s inflation-adjusted chart.)
The tale of the doomed love between WASP college student Oliver Barrett IV (O’Neal), reportedly inspired by Harvard students Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones (who has a small role in the film), and non-WASP college student Jennifer Cavalieri (MacGraw), young and pretty but about to die of cancer, Love Story made critics laugh until wet and millions of moviegoers cry until dry. Millions of other moviegoers, for their part, merely rolled their eyes and groaned.
Apart from the four-letter words, which still carried some shock value at the time, the film became famous – or rather, infamous – for the line “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” which spread like a multilingual disease all over the world. It even led to a series of newspaper comic strips. (O’Neal later parodied the line in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 comedy What’s Up Doc?, telling Barbra Streisand’s character that it was “the dumbest thing I ever heard.”)
Love Story was nominated for seven Oscars: best picture, director, actor, actress, supporting actor (John Marley), original screenplay, and score. Francis Lai was the only one to come out victorious.
Oliver’s Story, published in 1977, was also adapted for the screen but with less rosy results. Ryan O’Neal starred again, this time paired with Candice Bergen. Directed and co-written by John Korty, the film was a major flop when it came out in 1978.
Among Segal’s other screenwriting credits are Michael Winner’s The Games (1970), with O’Neal and Michael Crawford; Noel Black’s Jennifer on My Mind (1971), with Michael Brandon; Richard Lang’s poorly received box office disappointment A Change of Seasons (1980), with Anthony Hopkins, Shirley MacLaine, and Bo Derek; and Dick Richards’ sentimental family drama Man, Woman and Child (1983), with Martin Sheen and Blythe Danner.