For decades, the psychodrama that has defined the father-daughter experience for Ryan and Tatum O’Neal has played itself out across movie screens, award shows, tabloids, and the bestseller list; and now, at long last, like a train arriving at a depot years late but nevertheless as expected, the two have arrived on TV in the form of a reality series. On Sunday, June 19, “Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals” premieres on OWN, one of a handful of tantalizing celebrity reclamation projects the Oprah Winfrey Network is serving up as blueprints for ordinary folks needing to reboot part of all of their lives.
The Judds led the way, followed by Shania Twain, Sarah Ferguson, and now the O’Neals. The not-so-subtle message is that celebrities, though beautiful, privileged, and rich, have broken lives, too, and the O’Neals offer proof they may be even more broken than yours. The two, who look fantastic for all they’ve been through – for Ryan, that includes a bout with leukemia, the death of his longtime companion Farrah Fawcett, and a 2008 drug bust with his son Redmond; Tatum’s resume, in addition to an Academy Award, includes years of drug and alcohol addiction, jail, rehab, and marriage and divorce to tennis great John McEnroe- agreed to let cameras capture their effort to come together after 25 years of estrangement. “Did you see any of this project?” Ryan asks when I chat with him about the show. He’s at home in Malibu. I tell him that I did, indeed, see a preview of the first episode. “It gets better,” he says. “Or worse. I’m not sure which.”
It’s pretty intense. My hope was that it wouldn’t get too intense. And look what happened.
How is your health these days? Pretty good. I’m in remission. I have been for some years. I take something called Glevack. It’s been like the magic bullet.
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You look great onscreen. That’s the makeup. Don’t be fooled.
How old are you? I was 70 in April.
Not to dwell, but you look great. I don’t know why that is. I swear.
Let me get back to the show. Quite simply, how did this come about? Who knows? I was only along for the ride in the beginning. Far – Tatum’s agent – I called her Farrah by the way. Isn’t that awful? I call her Farrah. I have to catch myself. I don’t know why that is. Freud would know.
Back to the story. We went to dinner with her agent. He noticed that people were really responding to seeing us together in this restaurant. When we got there, there was one paparazzi guy out in front. But when we left the restaurant after a night of laughing and kidding around there were 20 paparazzi gathered and they were all excited. Her agent is watching all of this and on the ride home he said, “Why don’t you guys do a series together?” Tatum had an idea for a sitcom that she had been working on for me about a young actress who was a star as a child who comes back to live with her father in Hollywood after years of separation. It sounded kind of interesting. So I was – I went along with it. Then everything evolved to what you saw.
How was it having cameras follow you? I assumed it would be a nightmare. It wasn’t.
Have you seen the show? Only the first four..
What was your reaction? I got lost in the story and I didn’t realize it was me. Then I was like, oh my God, this is me. That was kind of a shock.
What was the hardest part to watch? Anything in the doctor’s office. That’s powerful stuff.
Because you are having to confront real issues? See, Tatum and I have our problems. We have our disagreements. She sees our life one way. I don’t see it that way at all. So that’s – and that’s our difference. As long as we stay away from those spots along the way that hurt her so, that I didn’t recognize. We’re fine. She’s a big handsome woman now and happy and proud. But if you take her back in time, she can – she has an extraordinary recall. And when we sit down with the psychologist these things start to come up.
So you two get into it? Yeah, we got into it and we came out the other side sort of. Maybe we need a second season.
What’s the status of your relationship now? It’s pretty good. It wasn’t for a while after we finished shooting. There was – I thought she pulled a fast one on me and so we stopped speaking for several weeks until they said, so we’re all going to New York to promote the show, aren’t we? And I said I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, and I explained that, you know, we’re not talking. But she came to my Memorial Day party with her sponsor, and she was terrific. then the following day we did the cover of People. That went well because she had come out and broken the ice. So we didn’t – listen, you know how Oprah brings everybody together. We’re fine.
What did you learn from doing the show? Oh that I’m funny. I always tried to be funny. I’ve always tried to lighten the situation by being funny. Sometimes I was, sometimes I wasn’t. But I thought I brought a little humor to the story.
Yours and Farrah’s son, Redmond, has had his share of troubles. How is he doing? He’s fair. He’s starting to actually grieve, which is too bad. I wish the idiot had gotten past it by now. But sometimes there’s a delay. He just wouldn’t concentrate on it, and now he is, and everything is starting to affect him. He has said some very sad things. I mean, it occurs to him he was in jail when she died.
Is he in the series? There are a couple of times you see him in the house here with me. We’re training on the heavy bag upstairs, on the balcony and we hit that and we talk a little bit. But he is not an actor. He is still embarrassed about things that have happened in his life. He’s not ready, you know – and I don’t push him.
You’re pretty brave to have done this show. I did it for her and I think that we will be all right as a result. How could we not be? I didn’t take her to bed, you know. I didn’t do something terrible. Here was the problem. I met another woman. And [before then] Tatum had been my woman, frankly. She was my girl. I took her everywhere. I took her around the world. You know, and then suddenly – this new wonderful girl that I met by accident, this was the one I could love forever. And I wanted Tatum there too. I wanted her to be part of it. But she grew resistant. She put me in a position to have to choose. Well, I’m not going to choose her. Please, this is Farrah Fawcett. I had gone to heaven. You’ll see this in the show. I said [to Tatum] wait for me. I’ll be back. And I’ll get you. Let me just get a foothold here. You know, God bless Farrah for – God bless her, she accepted me and then she had to accept – you know, the boys were wonderful. They adored her, but Tatum, Tatum turned and left. She turned her back. And I was – it throttled me. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know how to feel. But it was all poisonous. Until I see Farrah and I swear the day got lighter. That was her power over me. I couldn’t – why wouldn’t Tatum see that? And then that whole business with John McEnroe, you know, he hated me too. What did he hate me for? I thought he was a wonderful tennis player. Kind of a loud mouth, but I thought he was a wonderful tennis player. I was ready to be a pal of his. Play doubles with my knee. And no, he rejected me. They wouldn’t let the children see me. They made me into a bad guy. But I know I wasn’t because Farrah didn’t think I was. She was starting to love me…I’m telling you things that aren’t in the show, by the way. As a matter of fact, they do a dirty trick on me. She says – I don’t think you’ll see this, she says, he only talks about Farrah. He only thinks about Farrah. Farrah this and Farrah that. And you cut to me and I’m talking about Farrah. I’m getting her bathing suit and we’re going to the Smithsonian. So they do a cutting trick, you know. So it looks like that is all I talk about. But that isn’t the case, you know. It’s just ah, the editors. The editors.
Do you think other people will learn something from watching this series? I hope so. If they do, we’ll have done our job – and Oprah will have worked her magic again.