University, Ryan O’Neal battle over Warhol portrait of Farrah Fawcett
It is a stark image of the screen star, a woman whose playful smile and cascading hair made her a style icon of the 1970s and ‘80s.
Staring straight ahead, Farrah Fawcett’s eyes are pensive, her face still.
A silk screen on canvas, the Andy Warhol painting hangs above Ryan O’Neal’s bed in his Malibu home. The actor has said it’s his favorite place in the house, where he can hear the ocean waves and sometimes talk to the portrait of a woman who died four years ago.
But a legal battle over who owns the 1980 portrait has dragged O’Neal to a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, where ownership of the painting and his relationship with Fawcett have come under the microscope.
The Academy Award-nominated actor insists that the painting was a gift from Warhol and that he considers it a family heirloom. The University of Texas at Austin, however, contends that it belonged to Fawcett, who bequeathed her art collection to the university before she died.
After three weeks of testimony, the fate of the portrait lies with a jury of six men and six women who must determine Fawcett’s intentions. Her donation to her alma mater included a Warhol portrait of herself. Later, the university discovered a nearly identical Warhol in O’Neal’s home.
The defense has dismissed the lawsuit as nothing more than an act of greed.
“During Farrah’s lifetime, she told her closest friends and she told the people who work for her a very simple fact: Ryan owned one portrait and Farrah owned another,” O’Neal’s attorney said Monday in his closing statement.
Spectators included the actor’s sons, Patrick and Redmond, as well as actress Jaclyn Smith, who co-starred with Fawcett in the 1970s hit TV show “Charlie’s Angels” and is backing O’Neal.
O’Neal and Fawcett never married but were treated for years as a Hollywood golden couple in the celebrity press. Their on-again, off-again affair spanned three decades, produced a son, was fragmented by infidelity and reaffirmed as each was stricken with cancer. O’Neal said the 40-by-40-inch painting was his throughout all of it.
“It’s her presence, her presence in my life, in her son’s life,” he said on the stand. “We lost her; it seemed a crime to lose it too.”
The two met when Fawcett, a Texas native, was married to actor Lee Majors. She had studied art in college but left early and shot to stardom with “Charlie’s Angels” and a famous pinup poster of her in a red swimsuit. O’Neal was a big-screen heartthrob, having starred in the hit “Love Story.”
They began dating in 1979. O’Neal was friends with Warhol and would visit the artist at his summer home in Montauk, N.Y. The artist once did a quick sketch of O’Neal’s lips, a drawing the actor still owns. O’Neal is countersuing the university for a tablecloth it has on which Warhol wrote “To Farrah F. and Ryan O.”
“If you look at that tablecloth you’ll see it’s a series of hearts, hearts coming together because he saw that Farrah and I had fallen in love, and he wanted to express what it meant to him,” O’Neal testified.
He said Warhol asked Fawcett to pose for a portrait for an upcoming interview with ABC’s “20/20" news magazine and promised to give the couple copies of the painting. O’Neal said he and his daughter, Tatum, accompanied Fawcett to Warhol’s studio in New York.
“There was no easel, there was no paint, there was just this strange dentist’s Polaroid camera that he snapped,” O’Neal testified. “She turned and turned, he snapped and snapped, maybe 25 shots.... It didn’t take as long as it took to do her hair.”
A woman who produced the “20/20" segment testified in her deposition that she did not recall seeing O’Neal there that day and that she had no knowledge of Warhol promising two portraits.
Days later, O’Neal said he and Fawcett returned and Warhol was waiting with two very similar paintings. The artist handed one to each of them. “I like mine better,” O’Neal quipped at the time.
The university argues that Fawcett owned both portraits, citing a document of ownership the actress signed when the two prints were exhibited at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
The university also attempted to show that O’Neal and Fawcett’s love for each other had deteriorated in later years. It presented testimony from an unusual cast of characters: a college boyfriend with a criminal record who said he had rekindled a romance with Fawcett; the actress’ fired personal assistant who continues to operate the website charliesangels.com; and a reality TV producer who has sued O’Neal.
“Gradually, old issues regarding parenting and his ego came into play and the cancer became an inconvenience for him and they ended up fighting a lot,” said Craig Nevius, who produced the short-lived reality series “Chasing Farrah.”
Both sides acknowledged that Fawcett found O’Neal in bed with another woman in 1997. But the defense says the two reconciled and shared homes after O’Neal was diagnosed with leukemia in 2001 and until Fawcett died of cancer eight years later at 62.
O’Neal’s lawyers countered with testimony from some of the actress’ closest friends. Mela Murphy and Alana Stewart, president of the Farrah Fawcett Foundation, said they had both been told Warhol had given portraits to Fawcett and O’Neal. The couple’s son, Redmond, 28, also testified in support of his father.
In addition, Fawcett’s former nursing assistant testified the actress had distinctly told her O’Neal owned one of the Warhols.
A major disagreement comes down to numbers. The defense’s expert said she had appraised the painting in 2009 and listed its fair market value at $800,000 to $1 million — nowhere near the $12 million figure given by the plaintiff’s expert.
Fawcett would have been disgusted that the issue even entered a courtroom, said O’Neal, 72.
“She would have hated this. It’s embarrassing — her old boyfriend getting on the stand? It’s shameful.”
He said he and Redmond have made recent visits to Westwood Memorial Park, where Fawcett is buried.
Much as he does with the painting above his bed, O’Neal said he talks to Fawcett’s grave: “Please get us out of this mess.”
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.