Iremember taking her hand in the car, both of us joyous and laughing, the wind tousling those famous curls as we drove from Tahoe to Reno, to the church. The night before, someone had given me a Cuban cigar. I removed the gold band, slipped it onto her ring finger, and proposed. She accepted, saying, “So, you think you can make an honest woman of me, do you?”
The lake and the forest have a soothing beauty, magnificent nature in repose, almost as appealing to me as the ocean. Farrah preferred it there: the mountain air, the hikes, and, of course, the rugged horseback riding. It was one of those spontaneous moments when everything seemed aligned, as if nothing could get in the way of our future. We seemed perfect for each other. We had talked about getting married early on, but we were rebels. There weren’t many people in the early eighties who lived such a public life who weren’t married. We were getting pressured to do it, not by her parents, really, or by mine, but from society, so we finally decided to get hitched. Then the flat tire. I flagged down a car whose driver offered to take us on to Reno or back to Tahoe. He would have driven us to Cincinnati if I’d asked, but instead we chose the lake. We thought it was funny, even joked with each other that it had to be “a sign.”
Looking back, I can’t help but wonder how my life with this rare woman might have been different if we had gone through with it that day. Why didn’t I just fix the damn tire and get us to the church? Instead of finding a way to follow through with our plans, we let it go. We laughed about it for years. It wasn’t the hand of God that flattened our tire that day. It was a lousy shard of glass.
She’s married. Her name is Majors. I don’t know her from Adam, well, Eve. Her husband is actor Lee Majors. He starred in a popular television series, The Six Million Dollar Man, and is also known for playing in Westerns. I know him a bit. I first met him at 20th Century Fox when I was making Peyton Place, five hundred episodes at $750 per episode. That’s also where I introduced, pointed out, Frank Sinatra to my costar Mia Farrow. I never played Cupid again. Lee is in Toronto for a movie and I’m there visiting my daughter, Tatum, who’s shooting a film with Richard Burton. She’s fifteen. Tatum and Lee run into each other, and Tatum says, “You know, I’m Ryan’s daughter.”
“Oh yeah, where is he?”
“He’s at the hotel.”
Next thing, he’s calling me. “Come down and have a drink with me,” he says.
So I do. And we get a little drunk together and decide to have dinner. Tatum joins us. Lee and I are both leaving the next day. I’ve been there a week. And he says, “Let’s go home together. We’ll take the same plane.” He changes his flight. Lee is a companionable big guy, worth at least five and a half million. We fly home together and the limo drops us off at my house in town. It’s on Tower Road, up Benedict Canyon and high in the hills, part of the old John Barrymore estate. We let the limo go and take my car. He lives farther up the hill near Mulholland on a street called Antelo Road, which has gates, and there’s this beautiful girl waiting for him. She’s delightful, full of childlike warmth. There is no pretense or cattiness about her whatsoever; she’s vibrant and wholesome, refreshing in this town.
We play racquetball. They have their own court. And then she says, “Stay for dinner,” which I do. She whips up this delicious meal of fried chicken with mashed potatoes and thick country gravy, a Texas treat. Farrah is so sweet to us. Lee’s a heavy drinker, kind of a sad drunk. Their house is handsome, a tasteful blend of western-style accents and fine antiques. There are pictures everywhere, mostly personal photographs. Years later, an earthquake will destroy the place, and the cacophony of glass breaking, which frightened everyone, will turn out not to have been the windows but hundreds of photographs emerging from hundreds of frames. Lee takes me on a tour of the house. He shows me his closet. It’s a room you can walk into, deep and wide. He must have seventy-five pairs of boots. Where does Farrah keep her stuff? I ask myself. We walk down the hall and he opens a door to a room you can barely turn around in. Farrah’s clothing is piled in there. Some months later, Tatum and I will make the switch. Farrah’s duds get the grand space. Lee’s we move to his den.
I had gone to their home for dinner that first night, but the next night I was supposed to travel to Las Vegas for a boxing match. I have a friend, Andy “the Hawk” Price, who was fighting Sugar Ray Leonard. I’m a fight fan as well as an ex–amateur boxer. And Farrah says, in this lilting, ever-so-slight Texas drawl, “Well, isn’t that fight on TV?”
I say, “Yes, it is.”
And she says, “Why don’t you see it here? You can play racquetball and watch it with us.”
“Hm,” I think, “hm . . .okay.” I’ve just come back from Canada. I don’t really need to get on another plane, so I return a second night. She greets me at the door with this winsome smile and says, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t go?” And that night there’s drinking. She doesn’t drink but he does. I drink a little. I’m watching them, and after dinner they start to talk about their relationship. I’m sort of encouraging them, saying things like “You’re a wonderful couple.” He’s a man of few words, a monosyllabic cowboy type. He’s not naturally funny, so his attempts at humor are the comic equivalent of cauliflower. Farrah is more natural, open, and she doesn’t have any compunction talking about their problems. She says when they were staying in Nevada, he had a boat on Lake Mead. He was a TV star at this point, not the Six Million Dollar Man, but he was in a successful Western series with Barbara Stanwyck and Linda Evans called The Big Valley. It ran three or four seasons. This was before Farrah’s fame from Charlie’s Angels and the poster that had made her the fantasy of every teenage boy in America. Lee would call her from a bar near the hotel and say, “Get undressed, I’m coming home.”
“So I’d get undressed,” she tells me. “I’d wait for him, and wait for him. He wouldn’t arrive so eventually I’d get dressed again.” She says this more in resignation than bitterness.
“That’s the kind of man I am,” he responds. “You knew that when you met me.”
I can see that the marriage is not the happy mating it once was. If reality shows had existed back then, this relationship would have been perfect fodder. The one I’ve agreed to do now with my prodigal daughter, Tatum, is alarmingly fraught. But that’s all in the future. Back in the fall of 1979, I’ve just met the woman who will become the love of my life and I shouldn’t be put off by that kiss I just saw Lee give her at the front door. I don’t say anything. I just listen and then I go to my home in town, only a few blocks away. Two days later, I’m at my house in Malibu, and Lee pops over for a visit. We walk on the beach for a bit, and then he says, “Let’s go see Farrah.”
“Where is she?” I ask.
“She’s shooting a Charlie’s Angels. She’s at Disney Ranch.”
By this time, Farrah was no longer a regular on the show. She had quit Charlie’s Angels three years before after a bitter dispute with creator Aaron Spelling over percentages on merchandising. She wanted 10 percent, which is what she had gotten for the famous poster, and Spelling wasn’t about to give in to her or the other Angels, so Farrah, in what was back then a very gutsy move, left the series. Spelling sued and it was settled out of court. As part of the settlement, Farrah agreed to appear in four more episodes, one a year for four years, one of which she was shooting that afternoon. Although she was now being paid one hundred thousand dollars for each of the episodes, compared to five thousand dollars per episode when she was a regular cast member, she didn’t escape unscathed. Spelling Productions tried to have her blackballed in Hollywood. It would take some time before the studios and production companies were willing to take a chance on her again. But that was the Texas country girl in Farrah. It wasn’t the money; it was the sense of fair play. She was a stickler for traditional values, which appealed to me, especially after the unconventional women in my more recent past.
Disney Ranch is a long haul on the 405 freeway. There is this huge back lot that productions can lease for location shoots. We drive out there about five in the afternoon and when we arrive, there she is on horseback. She rides beautifully, confidently, and she gallops over to us. She once raced Lee and won hooves down. We chat for a while and offer to drive her home. She has a scene to finish so Lee and I go into her trailer to wait. Once inside, he starts looking through her things, determined to discover some secret.
He doesn’t mind that I see him doing this.
More evidence that everything isn’t exactly perfect for them.
On the way back home—and this is when I get my first true sense of her—she’s in the backseat, Lee and I are in the front, we’re in my Mercedes, I’m driving, and I put on this tape of a musician I like named Ry Cooder. He’s a wonderful guitarist and blues singer. As the music plays, she leans forward and I can feel her behind me, her clean, fresh fragrance, her aura, the warmth of her breath on my neck. I’ve known her for several days now, have experienced her at her most delicious, happy and smiling. I can tell that she likes me—she doesn’t love me, she likes me—and she keeps moving in closer, and I get this helpless sensation. I didn’t feel it with Ursula Andress or any of the other women from my past, but I do feel it with her and it’s unnerving.
We drive all the way back to Malibu because Lee’s car is parked at my house. I introduce Farrah and Lee to my fourteen-year-old son, Griffin, Tatum’s brother. He’s thrilled at the chance to meet the TV star whose poster is a favorite among his friends. It’s evening now and we decide to have dinner nearby at Orsini’s. Now Lee drinks and pees all the time, so he’s constantly getting up and leaving the table, which gives me long moments with Farrah. I try to be funny, and then mix in some anecdotes from my years in television. I just get rolling, and he’s back. “Here, Lee, have another beer.” He’s gone a long time, must be standing there like a plow horse. While he’s relieving himself, Farrah talks about throwing him a surprise going-away party at their commodious house in the hills. He’s departing for Canada again in several days to start a movie with Robert Mitchum, and I, selflessly, volunteer to help.
We finish dinner and go back to my house. By now, I’m nervous. Lee drives a Porsche and he’s been drinking all night. As I’m watching him and Farrah climb into this sports car and drive off, I say to myself, I hope he’s okay to drive. Looking back now, I shudder because I didn’t take his keys and insist they spend the night. Thankfully, they arrived home safely.
Farrah’s party for Lee is a big success! She’s a relaxed host. She puts people at ease. The vittles are surpassed only by the interesting guests. It’s an intimate group: Robert Mitchum, whom I’ve admired and secretly envied ever since I saw Out of the Past, the best noir film ever, and his son Jim, with whom I’d attended University High; singer/songwriter Paul Williams and his wife; Jack Palance and his daughter. Farrah is wonderful and we tease each other and flirt. We’ve initiated something. It seems to me we’re obvious but no one, including Lee, seems to notice. The only thing that keeps it from being a perfect evening is the absence of my daughter. Tatum is still in Canada making the film, but I’ve been regaling her over the phone about my dinners with Lee and Farrah. She’s electrified, can’t get enough. I remember that a few years back, Tatum and I were staying at the Pierre Hotel in New York, and she overheard the bellman mention to someone that Farrah was also a guest. My daughter camped out in the hotel lobby half the night waiting for a chance to meet her. They never connected. Maybe this should have been a premonition of things to come, but of course none of that occurred to me at the time. Tatum had always gravitated toward sophisticated women, cool characters whose chic exteriors did little to hide their neuroses. When I dated Bianca Jagger, she became Tatum’s fashion model. Tatum even emulated her characteristic hat and walking stick when she went to the podium to accept her Oscar as Best Supporting Actress of 1974. She was ten. And Ursula Andress never minded Tatum slipping into bed between us. Ursula thought it sweet. It worried me, but I allowed it to go on. I guess I recognized that Tatum was the primo female of the house, a role she would be loath to relinquish to Farrah.
Lee’s now back in Canada, phones me, implores me to call Farrah, make sure she’s okay. “She’s all alone up there,” he says. “Why don’t you take her to dinner one night?” I swear I can’t believe it. “Don’t worry, I’ve got Tatum here in Toronto,” he adds, thinking he’s being witty. A week goes by. I don’t call Farrah. I feel uncomfortable about it. Lee’s an okay guy and she seems susceptible to any emotional offer; plus I don’t want to look like a predator. I hold out, hoping maybe she’ll call me. She doesn’t. As I’m leafing through the newspaper I notice an ad: “Santa Monica Civic Auditorium Sunday night Ry Cooder.” A reason to call. That’s all I need. I pick up the phone and dial. She answers.
“I thought I’d hear from you,” she says, with more self-control than I can muster.
“Well, I have a reason to call you now. Your husband asked me to take you to dinner. I will if you’ll see Ry Cooder with me.”
Excerpted from Both of Us by Ryan O'Neal with Jodee Blanco and Kent Carroll. Copyright © 2012 by Ryan O'Neal. Excerpted by permission of Crown Archetype, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.