‘Love Story’ Legacy: Better laid than never

IT WAS A DAMP, blustery evening in New York — not the sort of night you want to spend on the street. But I was out there, slogging along from theater to theater, checking out the lines that had grown longer every night.

Something downright amazing was going on here, and I was determined to figure it out. The movie had opened about 10 days earlier to awful reviews. Even the ads were panned. Yet night after night the crowds grew bigger, the lines longer.

I approached a young couple standing toward the back of a long line outside a theater on Third Avenue. “How come you decided to see this movie?” I asked.

“Are you kidding?” the boy answered. “This is my third time.”

“You liked it that much…?”

The boy glanced over at his girlfriend, who was talking with the couple behind them. “I didn’t like it at all,” he replied furtively.

“Then why…?”

“Look, every time I take a different girl. Every time I score. This is the most amazing movie. Ask any guy on this line.”

The film in question was called “Love Story,” and my conversation took place exactly 30 years ago. Made for under $ 2 million, “Love Story” was the first of the modern-day blockbusters (it preceded “Jaws”). It became a world-wide sensation, grossing nearly $ 200 million. It also saved its studio, which was facing imminent destruction.

AND IT INTRODUCED the concept of the “date movie” in grand style — indeed, demographic studies around the world demonstrated a distinct bump in the birth rate within nine months to a year following the opening of “Love Story.”

Though three decades have passed, I invoke these recollections of “Love Story” for a reason. With May approaching, the wannabe summer blockbusters are lined up on the runway, most of them $ 100 million action pictures aimed at the broadest possible audience.

Yet the phenomenon of “Love Story” should serve as a vivid reminder that you don’t always need mega-budgets and mega-action to make a noise in the marketplace. Every once in a while you can also “score” with simple emotion.

I was a young production vice president at Paramount at the time “Love Story” came together. From inception, everything about the project seemed surreal, but I decided this stemmed from my lack of experience in the business.

For nearly 10 years I had been a reporter with the New York Times. I assumed this was the way things happened in Hollywood.

“Love Story” came to the studio as a screenplay written by a young Yale classics professor named Erich Segal. It was far from a “hot” property.

Other studios had turned it down as being not only soft but downright “icky.” At a time when movies were supposed to be “hip,” this was the mirror opposite.

Indeed, Robert Evans, the studio chief and I had a tacit understanding that, while we both felt this could be a hit movie, we wouldn’t embarrass ourselves by talking much about it.

The project’s forward movement was, to say the least, bumpy. One director after another not only turned it down but expressed active disdain — Larry Peerce, who had made “Goodbye, Columbus,” Anthony Harvey, who’d directed “The Lion in Winter,” among them.

Ali MacGraw, who’d shown promise in “Goodbye, Columbus,” liked the girl’s role, but virtually every young male star in town backed away from the role of Oliver Barrett, the rich Harvard kid.

HOPING TO LEND the project some respectability, Evans and I encouraged Segal to novelize his screenplay. We even secured a publishing deal with the promise that the studio would contribute $ 25,000 to advertise it.

Meanwhile, Arthur Hiller finally agreed to step in as director, wedging it between two Neil Simon comedies. And Ryan O’Neal, fresh off five years on TV’s “Peyton Place,” was chosen to play Oliver.

These casting inspirations were hardly well received. MacGraw hated the idea of Hiller and threatened to pull out. Hiller, in turn, insisted that the casting of O’Neal would ensure disaster, and he, too, threatened to walk. Besides, the production schedule was too short, he said, and the budget too light.

Publication of the book was kicked off with an interview with the author on “The Today Show.”

Within two hours after Segal finished telling his sob story on national television, there wasn’t a book left in stock at any book store in America. “Love Story” shot to the top of the best-seller list and remained there month after month.

Hiller, a talented and warm-spirited man, brought his film in on budget, but his first cut reduced the studio to tears, and not because of the story.

The movie seemed rushed and several of the key scenes simply didn’t play. The company was sent back to Boston to shoot more footage of the two characters romping in the snow and taking romantic walks around the city.

EVANS SUPERVISED the re-editing so that when a close-up between Ali and Ryan became clunky, there was a cut to an exterior with their lines playing as voice-over. Hence, flubbed lines and flaring nostrils all but disappeared.

With the movie ready for Christmas release, however, crisis gripped the studio. Too many expensive flops had preceded the studio’s new slate. The board of directors wanted to close the studio and sell it to the neighboring cemetery.

Alarmed, a quick promotional reel was put together with the help of Mike Nichols, with Evans talking glowingly of “Love Story,” “Harold and Maude,” “Plaza Suite” and “A New Leaf,” and also mentioning that a movie called “The Godfather” was about to start production.

The board relented. They’d give the studio another couple of months to prove itself.

“Love Story,” of course, changed everything. While critics dismissed the movie, audiences loved it. The Kleenex concession boomed and, judging from the repeat business among young couples, it was clear that this was one “date movie” that delivered. “Love Story” was more than a blockbuster; it was an aphrodisiac.

The spectacular success of the movie hammered home the fact that you didn’t need big action to find a big audience. One would like to think that lesson still applies today.

I took a lot of needling for my role in fostering “Love Story.” “You left the New York Times for this?” my former editor heckled. He was right, of course, but I was a bit smug at the time. “A hit means never having to say you’re sorry,” I assured him.

I had a point, too.

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