Ryan O'Neal

updated 12/18/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/18/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

When Ryan O'Neal was asked to play a priest in a couple of episodes of the hit Fox crime series Bones, he turned it down. There were more pressing things on his mind. Lately, he has been helping care for Farrah Fawcett as she goes through treatment for cancer. But when he told Fawcett that he had passed, she urged him to reconsider. "She wanted to see me as a priest," says O'Neal. He ultimately granted Fawcett her wish, adding with a laugh, "I thought, 'I've already been this noble guy. Now I'm out of here.'" He laughs again at the thought. "I'm making it funny because she does. That's what I admire about her," says O'Neal, 65, who won his own battle with cancer—leukemia—six years ago. "She's been really extraordinary."

O'Neal's first Bones episode airs Dec. 13; the second will be shot later this month. O'Neal's brief return as a working actor interrupted his semi-retirement from Hollywood (his previous gig came two years ago when he played Lynette's father-in-law on an episode of Desperate Housewives). "There's nothing out there for me," says O'Neal of the current crop of acting roles. "I don't want to be somebody's grandfather. There are better grandfather actors than me. In fact, my agents fired me because I refused to go in [for auditions], so I wait around—and dream."

The twice-divorced O'Neal, who has four children including son Redmond, 21, with Fawcett, now spends much of his time running Pro Gym, the Los Angeles workout facility he bought in 1988. The gym is known for its celeb clientele and discretion. "We're quiet. We don't advertise," he says, and the same can be said about his life these days. Most mornings are spent at a nearby sidewalk coffee shop—"my office," he calls it—where he chats with longtime friends and watches "the traffic go by."

And he's keeping a close watch on Fawcett, dividing time between his house in Malibu and her condo in Beverly Hills, where she's recuperating following a painful six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation for anal cancer. After the 17-year, sometimes stormy relationship with Fawcett imploded in 1997, the pair remained friends and continued to raise Redmond together. Their relationship reignited last summer after the surprise reunion of the original Charlie's Angels at the Emmys, then deepened when Fawcett was diagnosed with cancer in October. O'Neal took on the Bones role not only because of Fawcett's encouragement; it also gave him a chance to work with David Duchovny, the former X Files star who lives across from O'Neal in Malibu and directed the Bones episode. On set, O'Neal was treated like Hollywood royalty as he talked sports and told stories from his years on the 1960s primetime soap Peyton Place with Mia Farrow. "I was completely taken in and absorbed by the energy of the man, his talent, his history," says Bones star David Boreanaz. "He's one I've really looked up to."

Although O'Neal doesn't see this as a return to full-time acting—"I'm 65. Why do I have to do something?" he asks—he did relish getting a chance to bask in the energy of the set. "I loved it. It was magnetic," he says. "And then it was over. I had to go back to Farrah's to stay with her for the night."

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