Though his early career seemed to hold the promise of major stardom for actor Ryan O'Neal, matters didn't pan out and he has become more famous for his long-term live-in relationship with 1970s poster girl-turned-movie star-of-the-week actress Farrah Fawcett than any of his '80s and '90s films. Still, O'Neal is an appealing actor and his clean-cut good looks and reddish- blond hair give him an exuberant boyishness that belies his age. His first major role was that of Rodney Harrington on the television soap opera Peyton Place (1964-1969).
O'Neal is the son of screenwriter Charles O'Neal and actress Patricia Callaghan O'Neal. A California native, he spent much of his childhood living abroad. As a young man, O'Neal sometimes got into trouble and at one point served a 51-day jail sentence for assault and battery after getting into a fight at a New Year's party. Before becoming an actor, O'Neal was a lifeguard and an amateur boxer who was a one-time Golden Gloves contender. In film and television, O'Neal started out as a stunt man on Tales of the Vikings, a German television series. His parents were working on the same show. Upon his return to the States, O'Neal continued finding work in small parts on television shows, getting his first regular acting job on the Western Empire (1962). Following the demise of Peyton Place, O'Neal made his feature debut in The Big Bounce (1969), but did not get his big break until he was chosen from 300 auditioners to play Oliver Barrett opposite Ally McGraw in Arthur Hiller's maudlin adaptation of Erich Seagal's best-seller Love Story- (1970). The film was a smash hit and landed O'Neal an Oscar nomination. Two more starring roles followed this success but it was not until he played an uptight professor who finds himself beleaguered by a free-spirited, love-struck Barbra Streisand in Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up Doc? (1972) that he rivaled the success of Love Story. It has been in light, romantic fare such as this that O'Neal has excelled. His next popular role was that of an exasperated con man in Paper Moon, the charming comedy that netted his co-star and real-life daughter, Tatum O'Neal, an Oscar. O'Neal then played the title role in Stanley Kubrick's slow-paced epic Barry Lyndon (1975). By the late '70s, O'Neal's career had gone into decline and he had begun appearing in such dismal outings as Oliver's Story (the 1978 sequel to his first big hit) and The Main Event (1979) which reteamed him with Streisand. The '80s were even tougher for O'Neal, even though he appeared regularly onscreen. In 1989, O'Neal turned up in the wrenching made-for-TV-movie Small Sacrifices, which starred his lover Fawcett. Two years later, he and Fawcett starred in the short-lived television sitcom Good Sports. He followed that up with a part in the body-switch comedy Chances Are. In the nineties he appeared in the showbiz satire Burn Hollywood Burn, and the quirky detective tale Zero Effect. As the 21st century began he could be seen opposite Al Pacino in People I Know, and in the 2003 comedy Malibu's Most Wanted. After seven years away from screen, he appeared in 2012's Slumber Party Slaughter.
Before hooking up with Farrah in the early '80s, O'Neal was married to actresses to Joanna Moore and Leigh Taylor-Young. His children from those marriages, Tatum and Griffin O'Neal, are both actors as is his brother Kevin O'Neal.