What can you say about an obscure classics lecturer whose first novel -- a real tearjerker -- sold 11 million copies and made him an instant celebrity? Or about a slightly stooped and reserved law professor whose thoughts on a revolution of American consciousness made millions of Americans suddenly conscious of him?

That they collided head-on with fame. That they lived out the latest version of the American Dream: To Be Someone. That they freed themselves from anonymity, became the liberated rich they'd warned about, pulled a thread of immortality.

Now 17 years after stealing the national spotlight, Erich Segal and Charles Reich both squirm at the mention of the days their stars shined that bright. Out of awe and out of pain.

"I look back at this with disbelief," confesses Segal, author of Love Story, the novel about a WASPy Harvard jock who falls hard for an Italian 'Cliffie, marries her and then she dies. Reich, too, talks of 1970 as a year of more personal trauma than recognition. "A little of this fame thing goes a long way if you don't know how to deal with it," he says of the media madness inspired by The Greening of America, his book predicting a youth rebellion would undermine "corporate mindstate," replacing America's preoccupation with efficiency, achievement and status with a sense of beauty, community, humanity. "I was amazed at how difficult it was to handle and how many mistakes you can make."

It happened the same year as Kent State and the bombing of Cambodia. In 1970, Segal was a 31-year-old maverick of the Yale classics department, known among colleagues for his hip translations of Aristophanes and other ancients. Undergrads jammed the aisles of the auditorium where his animated and energy-packed lectures on comedy and tragedy were the stuff of pedagogic legend. A dedicated academician, Segal nonetheless hoped for an identity that urdled ivy-covered walls. He had already cranked out a Hollywood script or two and, in 1967, had made repeated transatlantic jaunts to help the Beatles rewrite the screenplay for "Yellow Submarine."

Ten years Segal's senior, Reich had clerked at the U.S. Supreme Court in the '50s, a protege of Justice Hugo L. Black, and was on the faculty of the prestigious Yale Law School. Through his standing-room-only course for undergraduates called "The Individual in America," the gangly and oddly endearing professor gained campus renown as a reluctant prophet. Yalies called him "Charlie" and saw him as an intellectual crossbreed of Emerson and Whitman, with a predilection for the expression "Oh, wow." High-mindedness made him appear to defy gravity when he'd stroll through the Yale courtyards.

That fall, their books soared simultaneously to No. 1 on the best-seller charts, fiction and nonfiction respectively. The mix of popularity and controversy primed America's star-making machinery and both became hot media properties. "We were riding to the top at the same time," recalls Segal. That's where the poignant similarities ended abruptly.

Overnight, Love Story was embraced by millions of sobbing readers. Segal found it impossible to grant the endless interview and appearance requests, but he tried. One magazine sent a reporter to his Yale apartment late one night. She asked for an exclusive. Segal told her he was having dinner. She asked what he was having. He told her beans and franks, and sent her on her way. The next issue of the magazine featured the exclusive: Erich Segal unchanged by fame. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

"Have you ever experienced wind turbulence in an airplane?" Segal asks from his home in London. "All of a sudden ... Wow! It hits you. That's what happened to me." On the Yale campus, he doffed his professorial tweed for black leather. He broke a record for appearing on the "Tonight" show with Johnny Carson four times in four weeks. Paris or London over the weekends was standard operating procedure. "At that stage of the game, I could walk through customs at airports without a passport," he says. "I would be greeted by customs officers not anxious to stamp my passport but to shake my hand."

Segal admits his self-intoxication bordered on megalomania. In TV interviews, he smugly quoted his accountant: "He told me today I am a millionaire." He mentioned that airline stewardesses slipped him their apartment keys, and he boasted that the Beatles wrote the song "Hey, Bulldog" for him, titling it for the Yale mascot.

By the time Segal offhandedly compared Love Story to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, things started to skid. Once-loyal students bristled at his proclamations that he was "kind of a folk hero at Yale ... " Colleagues groaned when he called himself the F. Scott Fitzgerald of his generation. Members of the National Book Awards committee called Love Story a "banal book" and threatened to resign if it wasn't bumped from its fiction award nominations.

Like the tragic heroes of the classical world he lectured about, Segal fulfilled his fall from grace where it hurt the most -- in the classroom. Within the year, the classics professor who once said, "You're only as good as yourwas denied tenure at Yale.

"Fame by its definition is excessive," says Segal. "But I didn't do what I should have done. I came to a point where I just was on stage too long. Bart Giamatti {later Yale president} finally sat me down and said, 'You've got to stop this and get your head together.' Charlie Reich even came over and said, 'Cool it.' But Charlie is living proof that even his own advice didn't serve him that well ... Our respective falls proved there is no way to escape the curse of fame."

While Segal sprinted for stardom, Reich pulled a Garbo. He attempted to turn fame into an evasion of publicity rather than an invasion of privacy. He went into hiding and ignored the countless requests for interviews. So desperate were the media for a piece of Charlie Reich that when he turned down its offer, the "Today" show scheduled Yale's chaplain William Sloane Coffin as a friend of Reich's.

Meanwhile, Reich's concept of a new consciousness had stirred widespread reaction, from scathing rebuke to adulation. Historian George F. Kennan criticized it as an attack on reason. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith sympathetically wondered who would mind the store if the youth generation copped out on America's institutions. Time columnist Stewart Alsop called it "scary mush."

"I let this fame thing happen for a few months and then it was more than I could take," says Reich from his home in San Francisco, where he eventually retreated. "I went into hiding for a long, long time. It is only now that I am beginning to reemerge."

Yet he wasn't so much running from fame as he was running from himself. "In The Greening of America, I talked about personal change," says Reich, who within five years had written his second book, The Sorcerer of Bolinas Reef. It was a tale of loneliness, fear of intimacy and self-hate, from the days of his "out-of-step childhood" to when his love of law turned down a dead end. "I knew nothing about personal change myself. So I really put myself through the wringer."

"Fame gives and fame takes away," Leo Braudy says of the traps and trappings that accompany fame. An English professor at the University of Southern California, he is the author of The Frenzy of Renown (Oxford University Press), an examination of fame's decline and fall -- from the Golden Age to the golden arches, from larger-than-life individuals to tens of millions served in an era of mass publicity. "What appeared at the beginning of the modern era as the frenzy of a few is by now a low-grade fever in millions more," writes Braudy, who believes that as western society has rapidly grown more complex, the dream of fame has become obsessive.

"Not everyone can be famous," says Braudy, "but much of our daily experience tells us that we should if we possibly can, because it is the best, perhaps the only way to be." It was Braudy's own scrape with fame that motivated his writing the critically acclaimed book.

In 1970, Braudy was also at Yale, in the English department. Within the year he discovered that his journalist ex-wife had written a book manuscript about the breakup of their marriage. In what Braudy calls "the confessional years" of the '70s, he practically welcomed the possibilities. Dancing through his head were visions of talk show appearances and interviews a` la Segal and Reich -- "a degree of fame that comes with being put into a book."

What he found was that "the heart of what it meant to 'go public' was to be entrapped by the gaze of others, to be reduced by their definitions."

When Frenzy was published last November, the Los Angeles Times called the author a "reluctant celebrity." Says Braudy, "I protected myself. The book is about standing back from what fame has meant in order to show how its pursuit has both inspired and warped individuals and cultures." Braudy says Segal and Reich's encounters with renown were difficult because both were unprepared and unlikely candidates. Segal once admitted he had been "a wonk" who never even dated during his undergraduate years at Harvard. And Reich was intensely private, a recluse to the world of thoughts where he could escape the weighty psychological baggage he dragged with him from childhood.

Part of fame's paradox, says Braudy, is that while "the desire for fame shapes our aspirations, when it happens we have a kind of revulsion to it. That's what happened to Charlie Reich in a way. Your self which you thought would be enhanced by fame is rapidly eroded instead.

"Erich was more theatrical as a lecturer than Charlie," recalls Braudy. "Fame in our modern age of media belongs to performers. The basic problem of modern fame, if you are not a performer, or not your explicit professor, is that need to create some kind of ballast for that loss of self, for that loss of privacy ... For performers who couldn't bridge the gap between what they were selling and what they 'really were,' the collision was inevitable."

Because Segal and Reich's actual identities were academic, bridging the gap proved especially tough, says Braudy. "The struggle for people like Charlie and Erich is that it tends to take you out of whatever institutional identity you have and put you in this world of famous people.

"One way of dealing with fame is to reassert your institutional identity, which is what Erich tried to do by maintaining his academic work. But he had a lot of trouble doing it. I can remember he virtually had what you could call a fame breakdown."

Segal recalls guest speaking on Greek tragedy at another university during his early weeks of celebrity. Only minutes into his lecture, he noticed one student, and then another, get up and walk out. Says Segal, "Afterwards I overheard one teeny-bopper say, 'He was funnier on Johnny Carson.' Fame has been an albatross. It took almost as much away from me as it gave to me. It gave me a notoriety that changed my relationship with students for all time."

Reich, on the other hand, backed off from academia. "He saw fame as a freedom, a release from his institutional identity," says Braudy. "Part of what Greening of America was about was a turning away of expected norms of behavior."

The real pressure and problem of fame in modern society, says Braudy, is that norms of behavior of even John Q. Public take into account a publicity machine so vast that, as Andy Warhol said, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. "The media right now so blows people out of proportion that it is like a balloon," he says.

Philip Kotler teaches that benefiting from fame means managing fame. He is the coauthor of High Visibility (Dodd Meade & Co., $22.95), a book to be published next month that analyzes the systematic manufacture and marketing in America's celebrity culture. Reducing fame-making to bottom-line jargon, the professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management says neither Reich nor Segal properly managed "their product life cycle.

"Even if you're well known, you have to manage your exposure and avoid two extremes -- overexposure and underexposure. Erich Segal may have gone into verexposure. Everybody heard his story very fast and then there wasn't enough to keep drawing on ... As for Charles Reich, people were waiting to hear from him. There was a latent audience and Charlie didn't show up. He didn't understand America and fame well enough to know that you can't be a prophet today in America without a microphone."

In San Francisco last week, Charlie Reich sounded like he might be in the market for a microphone. He's teaching critical legal studies one semester a year at the University of San Francisco, leaving time, he says, for thinking. Thinking about another book, another stab at writing the social history of America as it unfolds. At least a year from publication, his thesis sounds like it could be called "The Uprooting of America."

"One of the problems with fame," says Reich, "is they try to pigeonhole you ... like I'm stuck with The Greening of America for the rest of my life. I want to go further than that. I wouldn't want to be stuck with Love Story either."

Segal is 100,000 words into his fifth novel and has been back teaching a semester each year at Yale as an adjunct professor of classics -- what he calls "a kiss and make up," the end of a lover's quarrel. And his albatross? "Yesterday, I signed a contract for another Polish paperback version of Love Story," he says, pausing to search for an analogy for fame.

"Fame is like a suntan," he finally says. "You glow for a while ... wait a minute, I like this. This is good ... You glow for a while and you either go inside or you get burned to a crisp." Don Oldenburg was a student of Erich Segal and Charles Reich at Yale in 1970.