In 1967, I was released from my seven year contract with Fox Studios, where I was starring in Peyton Place, the first television nighttime soap opera. Peyton Placewas a national phenomenon at that time. I had just turned 22, and was newly pregnant. Ryan O’Neal was the father.
Ryan was still married to Joanna Moore, an actress, but had been living separately for two years during which time he had become a very publicized Hollywood “playboy”. He was my first love, and it proved to be a very difficult and life changing one. However, the greatest blessing came from it, my son Patrick O’Neal.
Two weeks after Patrick’s birth, I was informed by Fox that my contract was dropped due to the option they held, called “The act of God” clause.This meant the studio had the right to determine whether my nine months off work for my pregnancy was in the best interest of the show. They decided it was not, and my contract was terminated. This depressed me. I was delighted with my new baby, however I still wanted my work as an actress.
That very same week a close friend of Ryan’s came to play tennis with us. He was a producer, and he told me there was a movie at Warner Bros. starting production almost immediately starring Peter Sellers. It was called I Love You Alice B. Toklas. Evidently they were desperately looking for a young new talent to play the hippie girl in the film. Our friend said it was a terrifically funny comedy and that he could help me get an audition with the producers. Several days later I got the script, and it was indeed very funny. I was nonplussed by the character of “Nancy”.
Although it was 1967, I felt very removed from the hippie phenomenon. I had been working non-stop for two years as a professional actress with a heavy schedule. My focus had been my career. I had never said “groovy” in my life, or worn a short skirt, or smoked anything at all. In fact, I was still wearing little white gloves, stockings and long skirts. I loved only classical music, didn’t drink or swear, and was still a virgin at 21.
In I Love You Alice B. Toklas, “Nancy” was a free spirited character who said “groovy” a lot, smoked grass, and sex was where and when she chose it. Everything was experienced in a haze of delight. She also had a tattoo high on her thigh of a big Monarch butterfly. Needless to say, I was worried. I had no personal reference points for this character. Ryan was helpful. I had no idea what getting “high” was like. He suggested pretending that I was listening to a favorite symphony in my head while saying the dialogue. This would give the impression of being spacy and “high”. It was a great key for me.
We drove to the audition at Warner Brothers on Ryan’s new Harley Davidson motorcycle. I wore the closest thing I could to a hippie outfit. It was a short, leather tunic without the long pants, sandals and bare legs. My hair was very long and straight; I let it flow. My body had rapidly regained its slenderness, and I was very tanned from swimming during the pregnancy. I had not known that Peter Sellers would actually be there, but he was. I was terribly shy then, but I was warmly greeted and put at ease by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, the brilliant writers of I Love You Alice B. Toklas. I was taken into another office where I began reading a scene with Paul Mazursky. Peter watched. There was an energy of excitement in the air. I had an odd sense that my life was changing. After I read, Peter asked if he could photograph me. He placed me by a window and began to shoot. They all seemed excited and happy. I left. Later that same day, our producer friend called and said it looked incredibly good for me. The next day, I was told I’d begin shooting in two weeks.
Making I Love you Alice B. Toklas proved to be a life experience rich with stories to tell. My agent soon became Freddie Fields, a truly legendary agent in Hollywood’s history. I was starring opposite Peter Sellers, a comic genius who fell in love with me, and complicated my personal life with his attempts to deal with my devotion to Ryan. I smoked my first joint on camera having been told it was only Oregano. It was the first contemporary movie where smoking joints, making Marijuana brownies and getting “high” was explicitly and very humorously demonstrated. I Love you Alice B. Toklas became a cult-classic of the Sixties and launched my film career.