Ryan O’Neal became a superstar in 1970 for his role as Oliver Barrett III in the weepy blockbuster, Love Story. He portrayed the handsome, devoted young husband to a young wife (played by Ali MacGraw), who died of a mysterious disease that took no physical toll on her beauty. In the movie’s most tear-jerking scene, O’Neal’s grief-stricken character holds MacGraw as she lies in her hospital bed. Now, some 40 years later, in a symmetry both pathetic and creepy, the 68-year-old O’Neal reprised the role in real life as the concerned consort during Farrah Fawcett’s final days in late June. But rather than gracefully fade from the screen, credits rolling, O’Neal and his troubled clan are capitalizing on the death of the former golden girl and playing out their messed-up dysfunction in a raft of media outlets only too happy to exploit the exploitation—from Larry King Live to Vanity Fair’s current issue.
And a grotesque spectacle it is. Hollywood has always been home to brawling, addiction-prone families—from the Barrymores to the Lohans. The O’Neals fit somewhere in the middle, in terms of both talent and strife: they’re lesser Barrymores, upscale Lohans. Predictably, child stardom figures into the equation: Tatum O’Neal, Ryan’s only daughter, won an Oscar at age 10 for her performance in the 1973 movie Paper Moon in which she co-starred with her father. So does drug use and addiction. Griffin, O’Neal’s 44-year-old son, has said his father first gave him cocaine when he was 11. Tatum O’Neal is a former heroin addict. In 2007, O’Neal was arrested for allegedly assaulting Griffin with a deadly weapon and negligent discharge of a firearm, charges that were dismissed. “He was a very abusive, narcissistic psychopath,” Griffin told Larry King earlier this month. In September 2008, O’Neal was arrested along with his and Fawcett’s 24-year-old son Redmond, after police found methamphetamine at the actor’s Malibu home during a probation check on Redmond—who had been arrested for DUI and drug possession. Redmond is now in jail for parole violation.
Ryan O’Neal appears committed to sealing his reputation as Hollywood’s worst father, a dubious achievement given competition like Jon Voight and Michael Lohan. He admitted to Vanity Fair that he was so frazzled at Fawcett’s funeral that he hit on Tatum, now 45. “They had just put the casket in the hearse and I was watching it drive away when a beautiful blond woman comes up and embraces me,” he said. “I said to her, ‘You have a drink on you? You have a car?’ She said, ‘Daddy, it’s me—Tatum!’ ” Tatum O’Neal, who wrote in her own tell-all she walked in on her father having sex with one of her friends, was nonplussed when she was asked about the incident: “That’s our relationship in a nutshell,” she said. “You make of it what you will.” O’Neal told Vanity Fair writer Leslie Bennetts he’s happy to be estranged from his four children. “I’m a hopeless father. I don’t know why. I don’t think I was supposed to be a father. Just look around at my work—they’re either in jail or they should be.”
O’Neal first gained fame on the television series Peyton Place in the late ’60s. His career peaked with Love Story, for which he received an Oscar nomination. He continued acting throughout the ’70s in high-profile movies like Barry Lyndon and the less successful Love Story sequel, Oliver’s Story. By the end of the decade, however, his leading-man film career was over. His relationship with the former Charlie’s Angels star, still in her golden-girl glow, was beginning. The actress left her husband, Lee Majors, who introduced her to O’Neal. In Vanity Fair, Bennetts refers to O’Neal and Fawcett as “the Brad and Angelina of their day” but the tumultuous Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton union would have been a better analogy. In 1998, the couple, who never married, split; O’Neal left Fawcett for a much younger woman. O’Neal blames Fawcett’s menopause for the break-up in Vanity Fair: “I believe Farrah was going through some kind of life change,” he says. “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.” Of the woman he left her for, O’Neal makes a discomfiting confession: “She was more a daughter to me than a lover, and my own daughter had flown the coop, so here was this replacement.”
Illness reunited them. When O’Neal was diagnosed with leukemia in 2001, Fawcett was there for him. O’Neal reciprocated by staying by her side when she learned she had rectal cancer in 2006. In June 2009, on a Barbara Walters’ “exclusive,” O’Neal announced he asked Fawcett once again to marry him. He reported that she finally said “yes” and stated somewhat bewilderingly that the wedding would happen “as soon as she can say yes.” Griffin told Larry King his father was angry at Fawcett for upstaging his own illness: “the attention was diverted to Farrah. He didn’t like that.” In Vanity Fair, O’Neal seemed to brag that he contributed to her cancer: “I’d love to do it over. I would have been much kinder, more understanding, more mature. I’d lose some of the savagery. I don’t know how she got cancer—maybe some of it was me.”
Fawcett’s message to O’Neal about their 30-year relationship read aloud at her funeral was more cryptic than loving: “When I figure out what it is all about, I can tell you.” The actress named their son the sole beneficiary of her US $6-million estate. In Vanity Fair, Redmond displayed contempt for his father’s motives: “My dad’s only goal was to make sure he would be in the will. It was so disgustingly transparent as soon as he found out she was terminal. I consider him a vulture presiding over a carcass.”
O’Neal, whose career has been relegated to supporting roles on television, appears to enjoy basking in the spotlight—albeit a bloated version of his former big-screen personae. On Good Morning America recently, he spoke of the letters he has received about Fawcett: “She was the rock,” he said. “I’m the new rock. I’m using what she taught me.”
O’Neal’s moment in the spotlight will likely be extended—at least until the Emmy awards. Fawcett received a posthumous nomination as the producer of Farrah’s Story, a harrowing documentary about her struggle with her illness. In it, she appears before the cameras after having shorn her signature locks. In an “exclusive” interview O’Neal gave to People in May, he announced she had cut it all off: “The hair is gone,” he said. “Her famous hair. I have it at home.” Tellingly, the actor cast back to his own glory days to describe his complex relationship with Fawcett: “It’s a love story. I just don’t know how to play this one.”