Erich Segal: Classics professor who shot to fame as the writer of 'Love Story'

Erich Segal, professor of classics at Yale, made an unlikely icon for the Age of Aquarius. But as the author of the worldwide best-seller Love Story, in effect the novelisation of the massive hit movie, and previously as one of the writers of the Beatles' animated film Yellow Submarine, Segal was a celebrity of the pop culture mainstream, though critical response was almost invariably harsh. By contrast, his scholarly reputation was first-rate, though the perception of easy success in the mass market worked against that, and his popularity with students in the wake of his celebrity often seemed to irritate his fellow academics.

Love Story, charting the romance between an upper-class Harvard ice hockey star, Oliver Barrett IV, and a working-class Radcliffe girl, Jennifer Cavalleri, began life as an idea for a novel, and then became a screenplay Segal couldn't sell. But while he was rewriting the screenplay as a novel, the actress Ali MacGraw, who had known Segal as a student and was hot after her success in Goodbye, Columbus, persuaded her new husband, Robert Evans, to buy it for his ailing Paramount studio. MacGraw played Jennifer, with Ryan O'Neal cast as Oliver. A mix of tear-jerking melodrama (Jennifer's death is foretold in the famous first line, "What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?"), campus realism and simple, sometimes awkward story-telling, including the instant aphorism, "love means never having to say you're sorry" (in fact, a slight misquotation), moved the audience inexorably to its tragic end.

The novel appeared first, and spent a year on the bestseller charts. The film, for whose screenplay Segal received an Oscar nomination, benefited from the book's success and was a massive hit. Released in the US in December 1970, and often cited as the first modern marketing "blockbuster", it turned Paramount's fortunes around. The paperback edition of the novel merited a print run of over 4 million copies, at the time the biggest in American history.

Segal was born in Brooklyn, the son of a rabbi. He was a precocious student at Midwood High, which he was allowed by his parents to attend only if he studied at the local Jewish theological seminary at night. He took summer classes in Switzerland and entered Harvard fluent in four modern languages as well as in ancient Greek and Latin. He graduated in 1958, honoured as both class poet and Latin orator at commencement.

While working on his master's thesis, he and a classmate, Joseph Raporo, wrote a musical comedy called Sing Muse, based on the story of Helen of Troy. After being performed at Harvard, it had a short run off-Broadway. While staging numbers from the play at a backers' auction in New York, one producer asked if Segal would act in the play. "Are you kidding?" he allegedly replied. "I wouldn't perform in a play by an unknown author!" Sing Muse might be seen as a precursor to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, based on Plautus, which became a Broadway hit the following year.

Segal taught, and took his PhD in comparative literature, at Harvard; his dissertation on Plautus was published as Roman Laughter (1965). He began teaching at Yale, and his involvement with other Broadway musical projects led to his assignment to work on Yellow Submarine.

He wrote two films before Love Story. A keen runner, who broke the three-hour barrier in the Boston Marathon, he scripted The Games, Michael Winner's story of Olympic marathoners starring Ryan O'Neal. He also wrote Stanley Kramer's clunky story of campus radicalism, RPM, but it was Love Story that made him a celebrity. He was a popular guest on television talk shows, often bantering with critics who skewered his work, and his classes at Yale drew upwards of 600 students. Segal even provided Olympic television commentary for ABC Sports.

He followed Love Story with a similarly tragic screenplay for Jennifer on My Mind (1971), based on a Roger Simon novel. His next book, Fairy Tale (1973), was an amusing take on Jack and the Beanstalk. Eventually he wrote Love Story's sequel, Oliver's Story (1977), and wrote the screenplay for the film, in which O'Neal reprised his role as Oliver with Candice Bergen as his new love interest. In 1980 came a film he wrote called A Change of Seasons, in which Shirley MacLaine fights to reclaim her husband (Anthony Hopkins) from a younger woman.

His novel Man, Woman and Child, which became a much underrated 1983 film starring Blythe Danner and Martin Sheen, was released in the same year. He returned to the best-seller lists with his 1985 novel, The Class, based on his Harvard classmates, and wrote four more novels in the next 13 years.

During the 2000 US presidential campaign, Love Story returned to the news when Al Gore mentioned to reporters that a Nashville newspaper had said that he and his wife, Tipper, had been the models for Oliver and Jennifer. Although Gore said that it was an exaggeration, The Washington Post wrote that the claim was his, and it became part of the election script of "Gore the Liar", who'd also claimed to have invented the internet. Segal confirmed that he had known, and drawn on, both Gore and Gore's room-mate, the football star and future actor Tommy Lee Jones, while creating the characters, but the rest, including Tipper, had been the paper's exaggeration.

Segal continued teaching at Yale into the 1980s, but never received tenure, no doubt because of his celebrity. He also taught at Dartmouth and Princeton, as well as short stints at the Universities of Munich and Tel Aviv. He moved to London with his British wife, Karen James, whom he married in 1975, and became an honorary fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford. He edited a number of anthologies on classical literature and in 2001 published The Death of Comedy, in which he argued that the 20th century had rendered the tradition of comedy untenable. He died of a heart attack after suffering from Parkinson's disease, and is survived by his wife and two daughters, Miranda and Francesca.

Michael Carlson

Erich Wolf Segal: born Brooklyn, New York 16 June 1937; married 1975 Karen James (two daughters); died London 17 January 2010.

Comments