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Erich Segal

Book and film writer

Born: 16 June, 1937, in New York.

Died: 17 January, 2010, in London, aged 72.

ERICH Segal was an Ivy League professor and the respected author of a scholarly work on Ancient Roman theatre when he suddenly became one of the most commercially successful writers in the world with the phenomenal success of Love Story, the book and the film, in the early 1970s.

Even before Love Story, Segal was establishing a name for himself in showbusiness. He was lyricist on several revues and musicals, a couple of which drew on classical subjects for their themes. And his status as one of the writers on the Beatles animated feature film Yellow Submarine (1968) brought him a certain celebrity status at Yale University, Connecticut, where he taught.

Students would bring their dates to his campus house and impress them by pointing it out as the place where the Beatles writer lived.

Segal initially wrote Love Story as a film script, but could not find a studio to back it, so he decided to turn it into a novel. In the meantime Ali MacGraw, an old friend from student days, became involved. Her acting career was taking off and she persuaded Paramount Pictures to make it.

By the time the book came out in early 1970 the film was in production, with MacGraw as Jenny Cavilleri, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, and Ryan O'Neal as the young socialite Oliver Barrett IV, whose family are shocked at his choice of fiance and disown him. Just when it seems things can get no worse, Jenny is diagnosed as being terminally ill.

It was a classic, old-fashioned weepie, the success of which took everyone by surprise. It was the best-selling book in the US in 1970, selling millions of copies around the world, and the highest-grossing film of 1971, costing around $2 million and grossing more than $100 million in North America alone.

But Segal's celebrity status did not go down well at Yale. For a while he turned his back on popular culture to concentrate on his academic career. But he faced resentment and outright hostility. After writing a sequel, Oliver's Story, he moved to England, where he was an honorary fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford.

He was born Erich Wolf Segal in Brooklyn, New York, in 1937, and came from a long line of rabbis, though he showed an interest in drama and the arts from an early age and resisted pressure to follow in the family business.

He studied classical literature at Harvard University in Massachusetts. He adapted his dissertation for commercial publication as Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus (1968) and it is regarded as a major work in its field. He also translated several of Plautus's comedies.

He met composer Joe Raposo at Harvard and worked with him on revues. Sing, Muse!, a musical comedy set during the Trojan War, was staged off-Broadway in 1961-62. Richard Rodgers approached Segal to collaborate on a project called You Can't Get There from Here. It was never staged, but the announcement of the collaboration brought him to the attention of the Beatles and helped secure the Yellow Submarine gig.

Love Story was inspired by a conversation he overheard in 1968 about a girl who supported her husband through graduate school and then died. "I sat down and started writing immediately," he later said. "The story poured out of me."

It was short and simply told, famously beginning: "What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me." By the end of those opening sentences he had many readers in tears. Possibly the most popular line (and probably the daftest) was: "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

Around the same time Segal also wrote the scripts for the college drama RPM (1970), with Anthony Quinn and Ann-Margret, and Michael Winner's underrated film The Games (1970), a study of the contrasting preparations and characters of four Olympic marathon runners. O'Neal played the American hopeful.

Segal later said in an interview that he had been on the point of getting "tenure" at Yale but was then told it was not going to happen because he had published "one book too many".

Segal, who received an Oscar nomination for the Love Story script, taught at other American universities and in Germany and bowed to pressure to produce a sequel novel and film, Oliver's Story (1977). O'Neal reprised his role as Oliver in the 1978 film version, with Candice Bergen as the woman trying to help him come to terms with Jenny's death.

Other films include A Change of Seasons (1980), with Shirley MacLaine and Anthony Hopkins, and Man, Woman and Child (1982), an adaptation of his own novel, with Martin Sheen. His novels include The Class (1985), Doctors (1988) and Prizes (1995).

Segal continued to write after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease more than 25 years ago. He is survived by Karen, a former book editor and his wife of 35 years, and by two daughters, Francesca and Miranda.

 
 
 

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