This story was re-broadcast during our 5/23/20 episode. It originally aired in March 2019.
On Valentine’s Day 1970, a new novel by Erich Segal hit bookshelves. It was called "Love Story," and it was based on the screenplay for a movie that hadn’t even been released yet. The 125-page book sold more copies than any novel that year. Joe Bertagna, then a college hockey goaltender, remembers it.
"It was the type of book you could start reading when you got on an airplane and finish it before the plane took off," Bertagna says.
The movie was released later that year.
Like the book, the movie was panned by critics as shallow and pointless. Spoiler alert: It’s the tale of college students Oliver Barrett IV and Jennifer Cavalieri. He plays for the Harvard hockey team, she studies music at Radcliffe. They fall in love, get married — and then she dies.
But the filming of the movie presented a challenge. And that challenge had to do with hockey.
A Casting Call
One day in early 1969, Harvard hockey coach Bill Cleary was in his office. He got a phone call from film producers Howard Minsky and David Golden.
"And they said ‘Lookit — we got this movie we want to make. Erich Segal gave me your name and number, and we’d like to come up and talk to you,’ " Cleary remembers.
Erich Segal and Bill Cleary’s brother, Bob, graduated Harvard in 1958. Bill and Bob had played on the Harvard hockey team and led the 1960 U.S. Olympic hockey team to a gold medal.
"They needed people that could skate," Bill Cleary says. "So I said, ‘Hey, we got the Harvard hockey team.’ "
The producers said the Cleary brothers would also get to appear in the film — Bob as a referee and Bill as the body double for leading man Ryan O’Neal. And they would advise the skaters in the hockey scenes. Bill Cleary imagined a big Hollywood payday.
"So I said to them, ‘Give me half of 1 percent of the revenues,’ " he remembers.
Minsky and Golden said "No." Bill Cleary settled for a contribution to Friends of Harvard Hockey and new blazers for the team.
Love At First Skate
In December of 1969, filming began at Harvard’s home arena. The skaters included players from Harvard. There was one Boston University player who could speak French. He was cast as a French-Canadian opponent who gets in a fight with Oliver Barrett.
Joe Bertagna was an 18-year-old freshman goalie for Harvard. He skated onto the set wide-eyed and ready to go.
"You’re excited to be part of it, but then when you’re actually showing up, it was very tedious project," Bertagna says.
"You’d shoot a scene, but then you’d wait," Cleary says.
"They might adjust the camera angle or the lighting, and you were there all day," Bertagna says.
"Some of the shots we went through 15, 20 times," Cleary says.
The movie’s first hockey scene shows a Harvard rush. The action is shot from just above the ice surface.
"The camera was at ice level," Bertagna remembers.
"I actually ran that — it was like a sled almost," Cleary says.
The “sled” was simply a camera mounted on a piece of plywood. Cleary’s job during that scene was to push it the length of the ice as it trailed the skaters. He had to do that a lot. Because one player — he’s not sure now who it was — had a hard time following the script.
"And he was going in on the goaltender, and he was supposed to score," Cleary laughs. "But he missed so many times. I'm saying, ‘Put the puck in the net, will you?’ "
Brushing With Barrett
Cleary had a much tougher time with the film’s costar, Ryan O’Neal.
"Oh, he couldn’t skate, and he couldn’t handle the puck or anything," Cleary says.
"They’d shoot him from the waist up, and he’d be moving his eyes and his head like he was scanning the ice," Bertagna says. "If you saw him from the waist down, his knees were together. He was over on his ankles. He was a Southern California guy who didn’t know how to skate."
There was another problem: Ryan O’Neal had a full head of wavy, blonde hair. The 35-year-old Cleary was follically-challenged. But someone in the wardrobe department came up with a solution: customize Cleary’s Crimson hockey helmet.
"So they sewed the wig in it so I could look like Ryan," Cleary laughs.
The helmet was bushy and blonde.
"When they called for his scenes, I remember, they’d put the helmet on, and some guy would come out with a brush or a comb, and they’d comb the wig," Bertagna says. "You know, we were still relatively new to Billy as his players. And to see our coach getting his hair combed — or his fake hair combed — we got a pretty good kick out of that."
They may have had the same hairstyle, but Ryan O’Neal didn’t share Bill Cleary’s views about one of hockey’s unwritten rules.
"Someone comes up to me and said, ‘Ryan is walking on the cement with skates,’ " Cleary remembers. "And I gave him a little heat about it. I said, ‘You don’t do things like that.’ "
But Cleary says O’Neal walked on the concrete the next day, too.
"Well, I really unloaded on him," Cleary says. "I said, ‘Who the hell do you think you are? I could care less about you or Hollywood or anyone else!’ "
Cleary says O’Neal avoided him after that. Cleary wondered whether he had stepped on director Arthur Hiller’s toes when he chewed out the film's leading man.
"And I went up and apologized to Arthur Hiller," Cleary remembers. "He says, ‘Oh, no, I am glad you did it. He’s getting unbearable.’ "
"I thought the hockey scenes were pretty good."Joe Bertagna
Scenes were shot at Harvard’s arena for two different games: a home game against Dartmouth and an away game — sort of — against Cornell.
"They probably had 200 extras," Bertagna says. "And, depending on where the scene was being shot, those people moved from section to section. And the same people, they would either wear a white and green scarf if they were Dartmouth fans, and a white and red scarf if they were Cornell fans."
The shoot wrapped up after three days.
"They were long days, let me tell you," Cleary says. "It was a wonderful experience. And I have a little bit more appreciation what it takes to make a movie."
A Finished Film
On Dec. 16, 1970, "Love Story" opened at cinemas across the country. Bill Cleary and Joe Bertagna attended the premiere at a Boston-area theater along with about 1,500 of their closest friends.
"I thought the hockey scenes were pretty good," Bertagna laughs.
But once the thrill of seeing himself on the silver screen — albeit briefly — had worn off for Bertagna, reality set in.
"I thought it was a little sappy," Bertagna says. "I mean, it was kinda simply tugging at the heartstrings — and a story that wasn’t completely believable."
There were some editing issues, too. Like when Oliver Barrett has an in-game conversation with Jenny Cavalieri. Barrett sits in the penalty box wearing No. 7 — the same number worn by body double Bill Cleary.
"And then the camera shows No. 7 skating by," Bertagna says. "So they missed that one."
But since when did continuity problems or general sappiness derail a half-good tearjerker romance? "Love Story" was a box-office smash. It’s taken in over $100 million since its release. Cleary chuckles when he acknowledges that his proposed cut of half of 1 percent would have been over $500,000. But it did give him and Bertagna an experience they’ll never forget.
"How many times does an individual get to make a movie or be a part of it?" Cleary says.
"We haven’t made any since, Billy," Bertagna says.
"No, we haven’t," Cleary says. "And I don’t think it’s gonna happen again, Joe."
"I tell people I didn’t want to get typecast as a goaltender, so I’ve been rejecting scripts ever since," Bertagna jokes.
The Love Story Continues
Even so, Bertagna hasn’t managed to shake his 15 minutes of fame. Once, in the early ’90s, he recognized a familiar face at a state dinner in Washington, DC.
"We knew her as ‘Pinkie’ — it was her nickname when she was at school," Bertagna says.
From 1969 to 1973, Pinkie Bhutto was an undergrad at Radcliffe College — the school Jenny attended in the movie. Pinkie loved hockey and knew all the Harvard players. She would later be more widely known as "Benazir" — and also as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Bertagna spotted her from across the room.
"So I started walking towards the table, and she’s sitting with Vice President Quayle and his wife," Bertagna says. "And I could see she recognizes me. And she gets up and she extends her hand. ‘Oh, Joey, so good to see you. Let me introduce you to the vice president.’
"So Vice President Quayle stands up, and she says, ‘Mr. Vice President, this is Joe Bertagna. He was the goalie in “Love Story.” ’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘That’s it? I mean, my life has been reduced to that?’ And I shook the vice president’s hand, and I went back to my table at that point."
Bill Cleary is enshrined in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. In 2016, he and his wife went to see "Love Letters," a play starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal.
"And it was great — Ryan and Ali were terrific," Cleary says.
After the show, Cleary went backstage.
"I went up to the fellow at the stage door, and I explained to him how I did the skating for Ryan," Cleary says. "I said, ‘I don’t know if he wants to say hello.’ "
Cleary says he hadn’t spoken with Ryan O’Neal since he scolded him way back in December of 1969. But O’Neal emerged, smiling.
"He said, ‘Do I remember the time you chewed my a-- out,’ " Cleary laughs. "Now, that’s how many years ago? And he can still remember it."
"Well, you got your point across," Bertagna quips.
"I think I made the point," Cleary says.
"He was so, so nice. I was pleasantly surprised."
Maybe Bill Cleary shouldn’t have been surprised. Because, after all … love means never having to say you’re sorry.
This segment aired on March 30, 2019.