Actor Ryan O’Neal

The Oscar-nominated actor discusses media scrutiny of his parenting skills, his battle with different types of cancer and why he wrote his memoir, Both of Us: My Life with Farrah.

To his older fans, Ryan O'Neal is best known for his role on the primetime soap opera Peyton Place and his Oscar-nominated performance in the classic romance film Love Story. His younger fans may know him more for his recurring role on the Fox series Bones. Others may be more familiar with his tumultuous relationship with his "soul mate," actress Farrah Fawcett, which he writes about in the intimate memoir Both of Us. O'Neal had planned to become a pro boxer but eventually opted to go into the family business—he's the son of a screenwriter and an actress—and started in the industry as a stuntman on a TV series.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Ryan O’Neal to this program. The Oscar-nominated actor has penned a very personal new book about his long-time relationship with TV icon, Farrah Fawcett. The book is called “Both of Us: My Life with Farrah”. Ryan O’Neal, nice to have you on this program, sir.

Ryan O’Neal: Thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: The obvious question, I guess, to start a conversation like this is why? Why a book? Why so personal? Why reveal so much?

O’Neal: Well, I don’t know why I did it actually. I kept all these journals over the years, so the story was still close and it was a way to stay close to her. I wasn’t done with her yet. I thought we were interrupted, so I was looking for ways to stay connected.

Tavis: Just ways to stay connected or was the book in any way therapeutic?

O’Neal: Therapeutic. It hasn’t been exactly therapeutic because I’ve been on a tour to try to sell it and I’ve had some rough interviews with people who wanted to know what kind of a father I was and why my children are all addicted.

You know, it’s rough, it’s rough. Nobody wanted to hear about Farrah and my love. They just wanted to know what kind of a father I turned out to be. So has it been therapeutic? Not yet.

Tavis: I’m not gonna ask about that, given your…

O’Neal: Well, I’ll force it on you [laugh].

Tavis: No, no, no. I’m not gonna ask about that now since you’ve just expressed how tired you are of being asked those questions. I’ll ask it this way.

What do you make of the media’s fascination with the fact that this Hollywood family does, in fact, have such travail with drug addiction? What do you make of our fascination with that? Is that a legitimate question to be asked even though it may be uncomfortable?

O’Neal: Yeah, it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t really know how to answer it. I mean, they look for the down side of a man rather than anything of quality and it’s hard to explain my children.

First of all, they’re not children anymore. They’re adults and at one point, you know, they veer off into their own lives, their own world, and there isn’t much I can do about that. So that’s that.

Tavis: Do you think in any way that the relationship with Farrah got in the way of your being a good father, a better father?

O’Neal: That’s a good question. It’s a very good question and I assume that it did. I was preoccupied with her, to say the least, and my boys adored her. They couldn’t get enough of Farrah. They loved her. Not my daughter. She was much harder to understand and eventually I gave up trying and lost her. She was gone with the wind.

Tavis: In retrospect because if time does nothing else, it allows us, I think, sometimes to see things in the rearview mirror that we couldn’t see up close, are there any reflections you have now?

Even though Tatum is an adult, as you said earlier, any reflections you now have on then and why you lost her over this other woman?

O’Neal: No. She’s a woman. I have never been able to figure them out. I don’t know. I would have loved it to have been different. It just wasn’t.

Tavis: Again, I don’t want to get into the drug addiction stuff, but I am curious, though, as to how a father navigates either feeling like or having the media throw up in your face all the time that you’ve not been such a good father.

We’re just a matter of weeks away from Father’s Day we celebrate every year. How do you navigate – we’ll come back to Farrah in just a second, but how do you navigate the media and others putting in your face that you’ve not been a great father?

O’Neal: Not very well, not very well. They dominate you, the media. You don’t know what they want to ask and I don’t have the answers. I don’t have answers.

Tavis: But that’s what I’m getting at, though. Beyond the media, how have you navigated that journey personally?

O’Neal: Gone into hiding is one way you do. You isolate yourself because it’s safer. I don’t know. It’s hard.

Tavis: But does that help, though? What does hiding do?

O’Neal: Nothing. It doesn’t do anything. But what does going out in public do? Maybe perpetuates the image. I don’t know.

Tavis: What I’m trying to get at, Ryan, is how you come to terms with that. I mean, if you know there are issues there, I’m just trying to get a sense of how over this life you have come to terms with that reality.

O’Neal: But, Tavis, I haven’t. Not yet, not yet.

Tavis: Okay, that’s a fair answer. Do you think you will?

O’Neal: Probably not.

Tavis: Are you okay with that?

O’Neal: I’ll have to be.

Tavis: No, you don’t.

O’Neal: Well…

Tavis: You don’t have to be okay with that.

O’Neal: Yeah, I’ve had to kind of quit trying.

Tavis: That answer strikes me as really strange. I mean, if it’s your honest answer, I accept that.

O’Neal: Well, today it is.

Tavis: Yeah. Do you recall the very first time you laid eyes in person on Farrah Fawcett?

O’Neal: Um-hum.

Tavis: Tell me about that moment when you first – I ask that because I remember the first time I saw Farrah Fawcett [laugh]. But you tell me the first time you saw Farrah Fawcett.

O’Neal: I saw Farrah Fawcett originally when she and her boyfriend, Lee Majors, came over to my house for a birthday party that I was having for my ex-wife, Leigh Taylor-Young. I had had my back fused, surgically fused, third and fourth lumbar of my back, so I was wearing a brace.

Lee and Farrah came into the house and I was trying to change my clothes because the brace was uncomfortable. I had known him for years and he had a new girlfriend and she was smiling and she was quite lovely. She was about 20 years old.

Then I didn’t see her again for many years, ten years, and Lee and I went to his house to play some racquetball. He actually had a racquetball court in his house. She met us in the driveway and she smiled and it was heavenly. The heavens opened.

She was beautiful. She’d become a great beauty and so warm and caring and fed me and was just wonderful. We sat around and drank a little bit and I could see that their marriage was over. It was over, and they talked about it being over. I guess that triggered something in me.

Tavis: You talk in the book – and this is the difficulty of doing these book tours. If you open the door to this stuff in the book, then obviously you’re gonna get asked about it. You should know that by now, I assume.

O’Neal: I’m braced [laugh].

Tavis: I’ll fast-forward here. You hear over dinner, over a conversation, that the marriage is basically over. What as a man gives you the right then to move in on that?

O’Neal: I don’t have a right. So he was leaving to go to Canada and to make a film and, before he left, he said, “Take Farrah to dinner. She’s lonely, she has nobody there. Take her to dinner. Take her out.”

I said, “Really?” He said, “Yeah, because Tatum’s up in Toronto where I’m going.” Tatum was 16. “I can always see Tatum”, which I found a very strange thing to say. But I didn’t call her. I felt uncomfortable doing that. I thought it was presumptuous.

But I had played some music for her once by Ry Cooder, a blues guitarist, composer, and I looked in the newspaper and it said that Ry Cooder was playing at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

Now she had commented how interested she was in his music, so I thought, okay, I’ll try it. So I called her and asked her if she’d like to see Ry Cooder. She said okay.

Tavis: And?

O’Neal: That was it. We never separated from that moment on, from Ry Cooder on. We never left each other’s side for like 18 years.

Tavis: Beyond your being handsome and her being stunning to look at, beyond the obvious – when you walked in the studio, I told you I loved the cover of the book. The cover photo is amazing.

O’Neal: *Unintelligible.

Tavis: That’s why, *unintelligible. So anyone who sees the two of you together can see the aesthetic beauty that the two of you possess. Beyond good looks ’cause over time that fades, beyond good looks, what was it that attracted you to her?

O’Neal: Well, it didn’t hurt.

Tavis: ‘Cause I used to look at her asleep and she was beautiful, beautiful, just fast asleep, you know. I would stare at her. I was mesmerized by her beauty because there was an inner beauty that came out, that was even more powerful than her looks which were just natural. She was just a natural.

Her mother’s part Indian, you know, so I think that there was even a little – perhaps there was a touch of that. We found ways to get over that and have a relationship, yeah. We didn’t look at each other as two beauties. There was always something wrong with one or the other of us [laugh], something.

Tavis: Tell me about the rest of the relationship, though. What made it work for the time that it did work beyond the beauty? What made it – what’s the heart picture?

O’Neal: You have to find ways to keep it exciting, to keep it going. She had never really thought about acting, really thought about it. It had sort of been moved by agents and managers and suddenly she was in “Charlie’s Angels” and she came to life on that show.

But when I met her, she was thinking that she would like to try to be a more serious actress, try to not count on her looks, her hair, whatever it was, but to do parts where none of those things applied.

I thought that was a terrific idea, so I was able to, you know, encourage her that way to find roles where she’s a victim and where she has to pull herself up emotionally. I noticed that she could read a scene and know the scene after reading it once, know the dialog, hers, yours. That’s pretty good.

Once you have the words, then you can try all kinds of different things, so we worked that way with each other. We were a team and that went on for years and I really admired what she was doing. I did truly, and it just strengthened my love for her.

Tavis: The flip side of your admiring that about her was that you confess in the text that there was a point, though, when you felt a little – trying to recall the exact word. It’s not envy, but you’ll take my point – a little jealousy, a little envy about the fact that your career had stalled and hers was still moving.

O’Neal: Well, I didn’t mind the part where hers was still moving, but mine had stalled, yeah. That was troubling for me and I suppose that she felt that, you know, figured to try to help me over it. Listen, nothing’s perfect, you know. Our love was imperfect, but close.

Tavis: See, the reason why I wanted to you, you could turn on any TV station these days and see you on the circuit talking about the book. The reason why I wanted to talk to you, because in all the other interviews that I saw, I still could not come to terms with what motivates you every day you get up.

I ask that because you’ve said earlier that you have been an imperfect father, you were in an imperfect relationship with Farrah Fawcett. At one point, Oscar nominee notwithstanding, the career sort of stalls. I’m just trying to figure out what motivates Ryan O’Neal when you get up in the morning.

O’Neal: It’s depressing.

Tavis: No, it’s not depressing. It’s life. But I am curious. I’m still curious 20 minutes into this interview as to what motivates you.

O’Neal: Well, I have a nice dog now. I brought him.

Tavis: You are not making this easy, man.

O’Neal: I brought my dog. I don’t have those answers, Tavis. I don’t have answers like that. I wish I did. I don’t have a psychoanalyst.

Tavis: When you wake up every day, what do you live for? What motivates you every day?

O’Neal: Well, I wake up on the beach and I look out at the sea and it’s beautiful, but, oh, I’ve seen that every day for 40 years. I don’t have any clue to what drives me.

Tavis: How old are you now?

O’Neal: 71.

Tavis: 71. So what point do you figure that you might be a little bit more introspective? Maybe never?

O’Neal: Soon, soon.

Tavis: Yeah. Time is running out here.

O’Neal: Yeah, I know. I have to go tomorrow and have a treatment for my cancer, a very painful one, they have promised me. So I’m trying to say alive, but why, I’m not sure.

Tavis: Yeah. How does one lose his beloved to cancer and have to battle cancer himself?

O’Neal: Weird, confusing. We have different cancers. Hers was murderous, mine can be treated. I have leukemia and I have prostate cancer and I also have – you can see my nose. I have a skin cancer as well. I don’t know what those odds are now, but it’s a trifecta.

Tavis: But that says something about you, though. Back to being introspective, it says something about your fight-back that you could be at one point battling three different cancers and you’re still here.

O’Neal: Why [laugh]?

Tavis: That’s what I’m trying to get you to tell me [laugh]. I don’t know what you make of that. I’m trying to figure out why you think…

O’Neal: You tell me.

Tavis: I’ll take you up on that.

O’Neal: Do!

Tavis: I’ll take you up on that. If you have survived the parental challenges you faced, if you’ve survived losing your beloved, if you are surviving three different cancers, clearly there’s something left here for you to do. I don’t know what that is, but I think you should try to figure out what that is.

O’Neal: Well, I think it’s fate, what fate has in store, really. In the movies or in an actor’s life, it is the hope that you get a nice part that you can make something out of and that sometimes you will, sometimes you will. So I stay alive hoping that I can prove myself, continually try to prove myself.

Tavis: How’d you get into acting? How’d this all start for you?

O’Neal: I was living in Germany with my parents. My father is a writer. He was working on something over there and the producer of a series lived in the building in downtown Munich and my mother wrote him a letter and signed my name. It was a series about the Vikings. It said I’m six feet and I’m blonde and I could use a job.

So he sent me out to the studio and I got a job as a *unintelligible, which is a German word for stand-in. That’s where it began. I worked on that series for a year as a stand-in and I did swordfights and falls and things like that.

Tavis: And how did the Hollywood thing happen for you?

O’Neal: Well, I was trying to do these stunts, you know, and I was getting hurt all the time because stuntmen are really good and I was just winging it. So I thought, well, maybe acting’s easier than this stunt work because I’m, you know…

Tavis: Of course, Lee Majors played a stuntman.

O’Neal: I know, but that was years ago.

Tavis: I know.

O’Neal: And he had a double [laugh], I think. He was a good athlete, though, Lee. I’d known him long before he knew Farrah. We all were on the same football team. We were on a team. We used to play Robert Blake’s team.

Tavis: He was here not long ago.

O’Neal: Robert Blake, yeah. Interesting man.

Tavis: Yeah. First TV interview he’d done in a long time.

O’Neal: Very interesting man. I’ve known him a long time. So I thought, well, maybe I should try acting. It looks easier than these stunts, you know, falling off horses and things like that, catching fire. They used to set me on fire and push me off the sides of ships and stuff and Viking vessels.

Tavis: You really have survived a lot.

O’Neal: Yeah, sure, so far.

Tavis: Since we mentioned Lee Majors again, how did you and Farrah connecting change your relationship with Lee?

O’Neal: Well, it ended it. Actually, in a restaurant one night, he was there. We were there; he sent us a bottle of wine. It was nice of him. He’s a good guy.

Tavis: How many years had passed before that bottle of wine?

O’Neal: Few, a few years, yeah. But he had since remarried and children and he carried on. It was my turn. He had his.

Tavis: That sounds kind of flippant.

O’Neal: Flip?

Tavis: That sounds flippant.

O’Neal: I am flippant. That’s one of my charms [laugh].

Tavis: I know there are countless people, including yours truly, watching this program right now who have had to endure losing a loved one to cancer. I don’t know that there’s anything more excruciating than watching somebody go through that process except going through that process.

O’Neal: I watched it close up.

Tavis: How do you put into words what that process was like?

O’Neal: Well, for a while, we pretended it wasn’t happening. We didn’t ever talk in terms of the end. It was always that she was a survivor, you understand. She was a survivor. It was just in the cards that she would survive this. Then there was a sudden realization that maybe she wouldn’t.

The interesting thing for me was that I got closer to her because of her poise. It was magnificent because it was killing her, it was eating away, it was terribly painful, yet she was cavalier so that it wouldn’t affect us, the ones who loved her, it wouldn’t affect us.

She never wanted to see us down, so she tried to pretend that everything would be okay. I looked at this and I just thought she’s a hero in my eyes.

These are things I – you know, it’s like when you discover that she can know a scene overnight. All these things over the years, you discover something new about her, something enriching, and she was slipping through my fingers.

I had done this in the movies. I had done this. I had played this part of losing his woman to cancer, but it wasn’t the same. She went home to Bob Evans, Ali MacGraw. Don’t do it. That’s all I can say. Don’t do it.

Tavis: I feel the pain of you having to even relive that moment in this conversation. I wonder whether or not watching how courageous she was in her battle has made you more courageous in your fight now against cancer or has it scared you more, given that you know the end could be?

O’Neal: I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid because the worst that could happen is I will join her if her mother’s not around [laugh]. That’s part of the deal.

We have a son, a delicate son, a troubled son, and I have to be here for him. I have to. He can’t lose us both right now. That’s what I strive to be, is his father and his mother, everything that he needs to pass this awful disease he has, and I will.

Tavis: I want you to know under this clock, it took you 30 minutes, almost an entire show, but you answered that question. I knew there was an answer to it.

O’Neal: But slow. I’m Irish, a little slow.

Tavis: You take a while, yeah, but I knew there had to be an answer to that question.

O’Neal: That’s an answer.

Tavis: That’s the answer I wanted. I appreciate that. Before my time runs out in a minute here…

O’Neal: That’s all? I’m just getting warmed up.

Tavis: I know. Come back again.

O’Neal: I will.

Tavis: What did you make of the strangeness, the bizarre nature of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson?

O’Neal: On the same day.

Tavis: The same day. I still can’t…

O’Neal: Well, you know, I knew Michael because he was friends with Tatum and I thought he was a delicious boy, a wonderful boy. He was about 16 then, but he was a magnificent kid. I loved when he came over. He would come over all the time. He had such a crush on her.

They would talk on the phone for hours, you know, and I’d ask her what it was like, what it was like. I thought he was a champion. He was a champion. And for him to go like that, I just thought it was a dirty trick, a dirty trick.

Because when you watch his documentary and you see the life in him and you know that at night they were injecting him with IVs and things so he could get some sleep, you wouldn’t see that in any of the documentary footage.

You didn’t see a tired guy or somebody trying to kill – you saw a man full of life and full of such talent and everybody talented around him. They all came up to a level for him. It’s bizarre, it’s bizarre.

But you know, Farrah was a funny woman because I asked her about her hair once. “You have all this hair” and she said, “Well, that’s so that nobody can see me. It hides me and I can’t see them. I can’t see people looking at me, and maybe they’re not looking at me. Who knows?”

So I think that she was relieved that Michael took the play away and she could slide in quietly and the focus went to him. I’m sure that’s what she thought.

Tavis: The new book by Ryan O’Neal is called “Both of Us: My Life with Farrah”. I know that even when you write these books, these conversations can be painful and difficult, so thank you for sitting for this conversation.

O’Neal: I appreciate it, Tavis.

Tavis: Thank you, Ryan.

O’Neal: Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you so much. That’s our show for tonight. Keep the faith.

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Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

like you. Thank you.

Last modified: May 14, 2012 at 1:02 pm