Saturday 18 November 2017

Erich Segal

Author of one of the most adored novels saw some disappointments

Erich Segal, who died on January 17 aged 72, was an esteemed Classics professor who produced the critically-panned, but popularly-adored, novel Love Story, which was turned into a film starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal; he also wrote the screenplay for the Beatles' animated feature Yellow Submarine.

But it was Love Story, the mawkish tale of a poor girl who meets a rich boy and supports him through law school, only to die of leukaemia, that made his name. Segal, who had long combined serious research with lighter-hearted writing, adopted the plot from a conversation he overheard in 1968. The main characters were based on acquaintances.

He initially conceived the project as a screenplay. It was finished in less than a month and dispatched to studios across America, all of which rejected it. "This is soap opera stuff," noted one.

Segal sat down to transform Love Story into a novel, only for his friend Ali Mac Graw to find his original script. She demanded that Paramount turn it into a film with her as the lead. The novel rights were snapped up.

The book was first released in February 1970. The majority of reviewers found it saccharine but unobjectionable. A few, however, seemed to concur with Dorothy Parker's famous remark. "The banality of Love Story makes Peyton Place look like Swann's Way," ran the notice in Newsweek. Inevitably, it was a smash hit.

When the film version was released six months later, the book was still at number one in the bestseller list.

The film could hardly fail, despite the best efforts of The New Yorker, which described it as "the kind of weepie one had hoped might have been laughed off the screen forever".

Erich Wolff Segal was born in Brooklyn, New York, on June 16, 1937. His father was an orthodox rabbi. As well as Hebrew, Erich learned Latin and was proficient in several other languages. He also developed a passion for running.

He studied Classics at Harvard, where he met Ali Mac Graw, who was studying at nearby Wellesley College. The two became, and remained, friends. Working towards his PhD, Segal wrote lyrics and music for revues.

He ventured beyond the campus stage with the shows Voulez-Vous? (cancelled after five nights) and Sing, Muse?, a musical comedy stuffed with classical allusions.

In the late 1960s, Segal was a Classics professor at Yale when Al Brodax, the producer of Yellow Submarine (1968), recruited him to stitch together the screenplay of the Beatles' new film. Flown to London and required to work under intense pressure, Segal joked that he was only allowed out of his hotel for a daily jog.

After the success of Love Story, Segal neglected neither his academic, nor his popular, writing. He was successful in both fields. The Class (1985) and Doctors (1988) were both bestsellers. Despite his success, he remained respected by colleagues and students at Yale and Oxford, whom he charmed with lectures described as "living theatre".

Erich Segal is survived by his wife Karen and his two daughters.

Sunday Independent

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