Ryan O’Neal stood there with his ear on the phone, conflicted. He had recently reconnected with an old friend Lee Majors when he was in Toronto visiting his daughter Tatum O’Neal on the set of her movie. They had hit it off and O’Neal started visiting Majors’ home, getting reacquainted with his pal from two decades ago — and his wife, Farrah Fawcett.

But he couldn’t believe what Majors was saying to him in this phone call. “She’s all alone up there,” Majors, who had flown back to Canada, said of Fawcett as O’Neal recounted in his 2012 book Both of Us: My Life with Farrah. “Why don’t you take her to dinner one night?”

For a man to ask another man to take his wife out to dinner alone was already surprising, but Fawcett wasn’t just a friend’s wife to O’Neal — there had been an undeniable connection the moment their eyes met in 1979.

O’Neal witnessed Fawcett and Majors’ troubled marriage

Just days before, O’Neal had trekked up Antelo Road near Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles with Majors and saw a “beautiful girl” waiting for them. “She’s delightful, full of childlike warmth,” O’Neal wrote in his book later, reminiscing of that first day he saw Fawcett. “There is no pretense or cattiness about her whatsoever, she’s vibrant and wholesome, refreshing in this town.”

Fawcett and Majors were perfect hosts. “We played racquetball and had dinner, and she burned her hand making cappuccino,” O’Neal told Vanity Fair. “I thought she was dear. And that was all.”

After an enjoyable meal — which Fawcett made of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy — she asked him to come back the next evening. O’Neal was supposed to go to Las Vegas to watch a boxing match, but Fawcett convinced him to watch it on TV and come back to their home.

That second night, O’Neal was apparently already considered part of their inner circle, as Majors and Fawcett started breaking down their relationship.

“They were saying the marriage was over, and I was saying they were terrific together,” O'Neal recalled to Vanity Fair. “She said, ‘Lee, remember when we were first married, and we were in Nevada, and you'd leave me in some dinky cabin and go to a bar? You'd tell me to get undressed and get in bed and wait for you, but you never came back.’ His answer was ‘Same man now as I was then.’”

Farrah Fawcett and Lee Majors circa 1978
Farrah Fawcett and Lee Majors, circa 1978
Photo: Reed Saxon/IMAGES/Getty Images

O’Neal invited Fawcett to a concert but Majors wasn't happy about it

It wasn’t long after this that Majors had asked O'Neal to take Fawcett to dinner, but it just didn’t sit right with O’Neal. A week later, he saw there was a Ry Cooder concert, according to his book (Vanity Fair says it was a J.J. Cale concert). Knowing Fawcett was a fan gave him the excuse he needed to invite her to the show.

“I thought I’d hear from you,” Fawcett answered the phone. O’Neal extended the invite, but Fawcett said she’d have to call him back with an answer.

Eventually she agreed to go, but talked to Majors right before. “I let him know that Ryan asked me out. He said, ‘I told him to. But you're not going.’”

Around this time, Majors started calling O’Neal’s house and hanging up — finally one time saying, “Stay away from my woman!”

Instead, O’Neal — who had been divorced from Joanna Moore in 1967 and Leigh Taylor-Young in 1971 — confessed his love for her. “It was a situation I'd never been in before — committing to a woman before I'd even talked to her about it,” he told Vanity Fair.

Fawcett and O'Neal had their share of headline-making drama

That tumultuous start foreshadowed much of how Fawcett — who separated from Majors in 1979 and divorced him in 1982 — and O’Neal’s eventual relationship turned out to be.

Fawcett was known for her one season on Charlie’s Angels from 1976 to 1977 and O’Neal was still best known for his 1970 Oscar-nominated role in Love Story. While their love for one another was electric, it also came with high-powered drama that played out in the public sphere because of their names.

There were times they were the idyllic couple, showering each other with love in front of the press, like their constant kisses witnessed by the Sun-Sentinel. “Farrah and I have no plans to marry — nor do we have plans to separate,” O’Neal said. “Don’t fix what ain’t broken.”

They were also brutally honest and real. “We fight,” Fawcett said to the Sun-Sentinel. “But my opinion is valid and I stand behind it now.” They had one son together, Redmond O’Neal, born in 1985 and thought about having more. “Ryan wants another, but I have mixed feelings,” she unabashedly dished.

And when it came down to it, they were protective of one another. “When Ryan and I were just starting out and we were in the height of passion, he had convinced me not to wear makeup or worry about my hair — he said I was beautiful without all that,” Fawcett told Vanity Fair. “And we ran into Jay Bernstein, my former manager. Ryan said, ‘How does she look?’ Jay said, ‘To tell you the truth, a little tired.’ I thought Ryan would jump over the table and strangle him.”

But then there was the drug abuse and family drama (like the time O’Neal reportedly shot his son) — and that infamous 1997 infidelity incident when Fawcett walked in on O’Neal and The General’s Daughter actress Leslie Ann Stefanson — which he admitted to a Los Angeles court in 2013.

That was the breaking point. Or so it seemed. After two decades together, they split in 1998. But O’Neal thinks it may have been other things, including her menopause and his attitude.

“I believe Farrah was going through some kind of life change,” he told the magazine. “I didn’t have a change of life. I was always a jerk. But they’re hard work, these divas — I was sick of it, and I was unappreciated. I just don’t think she liked me very much. So I excused myself.”

They reunited when O'Neal was diagnosed with cancer

The break may have been what they needed — since it made each of them realize how essential the other was in their lives. And when O’Neal was diagnosed with leukemia in 2001, they reunited.

After all, they realized the truth: “We pulled apart, but we never popped loose,” he said.

Fawcett took on the role of caretaker and O’Neal was soon in remission. As fate would have it, the tables turned: Fawcett was diagnosed with anal cancer in 2006 — and O’Neal dedicated himself to taking care of her.

“The hair is gone,” he told People while he was watching over her. “Her famous hair. I have it at home. She didn’t care. I rub her head. It’s kind of fun, actually, this great, tiny little head. How she carried all that hair I’ll never know. She doesn’t have a vanity about it.”

Even then, looking ahead, he wasn’t sure how he’d cope. “It’s a love story. I just don’t know how to play this one. I won’t know this world without her,” he said. “Cancer is an insidious enemy.”

Fawcett and O'Neal were going to get married the day she died

Marriage was never something either of them needed. There was the time they were on their way to a church in Nevada, but got a flat tire — and never felt the need to walk down the aisle again.

But in those final dire days, O’Neal proposed again. Fawcett accepted again. But this time it was more than just a flat tire. “The priest at St. John’s Hospital arrives to marry us — but administers the last rites instead,” he wrote in his book, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Fawcett passed away on June 25, 2009, leaving behind her love of the last three decades.

Looking back, it’s hard for him not to have regrets of what could have been. “I would have been much kinder, more understanding, more mature,” he told People, saying he wished he could have a do-over. “I’d lose some of the savagery. I don’t know how she got cancer; maybe some of it was me.”

But ultimately, he said, “There was never a day I didn’t love her.”