Fifteen Minutes

Farrah Fawcett’s Alma Mater Battles Ryan O’Neal over Warhol Pic

Andy Warhol made two portraits of the Charlie’s Angels star in 1980. Now, her her alma mater is battling her ex, Ryan O’Neal, for ownership of the multimillion dollar work. Christine Pelisek reports.

11.25.12 9:15 AM ET

In February of 1997, former Charlie’s Angels star Farrah Fawcett arrived at the home of her longtime boyfriend, actor Ryan O’Neal, to find him in bed with another woman.

The couple split up over O’Neal’s infidelity—but O’Neal, of Love Story fame, seemed surprised when Fawcett boxed up some of the belongings he’d kept at her place and sent them to his Malibu beach home. “I was with her 18 years,” he said at an August deposition hearing. “I only got four boxes, mostly shoes and videotapes.”

The following year, O’Neal said he took down a large silkscreen portrait of Fawcett by Andy Warhol that was hanging in his bedroom and gave it to Fawcett for safekeeping, because he had a new girlfriend and didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable. “Farrah seemed to be staring down at her,” O’Neal said during the hearing.
“Keep this for me,” he says he told Fawcett. “I’ll be back.” Fawcett allegedly responded: “I don’t want it, because I like it that she’s uncomfortable.”

Today, it’s O’Neal, now 71, who’s being made uncomfortable by that Warhol portrait of his ex, who succumbed to cancer in 2009. The painting is at the center of a legal battle that has pitted the Bones actor against Fawcett’s alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, over who owns the pricey Warhol portrait, estimated to be worth millions.

Warhol created two portraits of Fawcett in 1980, one year after she began dating O’Neal, then the father of three children including actress Tatum O’Neal, who starred with him in Paper Moon (Fawcett and O’Neal also had a son together, Redmond). O’Neal claims that his old chum Warhol, who passed away in 1987, wanted Fawcett to have one of the portraits and him the other.

The University of Texas at Austin, where Fawcett went to college and was named one of the “Ten Most Beautiful Coeds on Campus” during her freshman year, disagrees. The university contends that the portrait and its near identical twin belong to them because Fawcett donated her entire artwork collection, which included a number of her own art pieces, to her alma mater when she passed away at the age of 62.

A trial to determine the ownership of the Warhol is scheduled to begin in a Los Angeles courtroom on Nov. 27, with a cast of characters that will include Fawcett’s former assistant, the trustee of her estate, and her former business partners.

O’Neal says he and Warhol were already friends when the artist called him up in New York in 1980 and asked him if he could create a portrait of Fawcett in connection with a 20/20 feature about him. O’Neal said Fawcett—who won a People’s Choice Award for Favorite Performer for her role as Jill Monroe in 1977 after starring in one season of Charlie’s Angels—would do it as long as Warhol created two portraits, one for O’Neal and the other for her.

O’Neal said he tagged along for Fawcett’s photo shoot at Warhol’s New York studio, and later returned with the actress to pick up the two art pieces. O’Neal said he hung his portrait at his Malibu home from 1982 until 1998, when he left it with Fawcett for safekeeping as he started a new romance.

According to O’Neal, he and Fawcett rekindled their romance in 1991 and remained a couple until her death in 2009. He says he kept the portrait at his beach home as well as Fawcett’s house, in part to protect it from the salty Malibu ocean air.

After Fawcett’s death, O’Neal, who had struggled with drugs and the law and had been arrested twice—once for assaulting his son, Griffin, and the other time with his son Redmond after police found meth in his house—said her trustee gave him authorization to retrieve his personal belongings from her home, including the Warhol. “It was mine,” he stated at the hearing. “And somehow I felt it was the only thing that I wanted of her now if I couldn’t have her.”

O’Neal later insured the portrait for $900,000, and said he wanted it to end up with Redmond. “It goes to Redmond,” he said. “It’s his mother.”

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The university doesn’t believe O’Neal has the right to decide who gets the portrait. In a series of court filings, the university contends that O’Neal’s relationship with Fawcett was a figment of his imagination, and ended when he cheated on her in 1997. The university says Fawcett listed the Warhol on her insurance for the last four years of her life, and renewed the policy covering the portrait just three weeks before her death.

In 2003, the university said Fawcett loaned the portrait, along with several other pieces from her collection, to the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh for an exhibition, and signed her name as “Owner” on the loan agreement. The following year, they said, Fawcett met an auctioneer at her storage facility in Los Angeles, where she discussed selling one of the Warhols during a segment of her reality show, Chasing Farrah.

The video-exchange between the auctioneer and Fawcett was passed along to the university by Craig Nevius, the producer of Chasing Farrah, who also worked on the documentary about her fight against cancer. Nevius, who became friends with Fawcett after the reality show ended and helped her secure the rights to her famous red bathing suit poster, is likely to play a key role in the upcoming trial because he says in deposition transcripts that there was no romantic relationship left between O’Neal and her.

Nevius said he overheard to a conversation in 2007 in which Fawcett, who had been diagnosed with cancer on Sept. 22, 2006, turned down O’Neal when he asked for the Warhol.

“I was sitting at the edge of her bed and as she was prone to do with many people, but in particular Ryan, she put them on speakerphone,” Nevius said in deposition testimony. “And she was prone to doing this with Ryan because they had a very volatile relationship, if you want to call it that, as coparents, his romantic interests were still there and they fought a lot and she would put him on speakerphone and roll her eyes and make funny faces as if to say, ‘Do you believe my life? Do you believe what I have to deal with?’ She would say that all the time. ‘Now you understand why I’m the way I am. Look what I have to go through in my life.’”

Nevius said it was during that conversation that O’Neal brought up the Warhol painting. “In case the worst should happen, I would like something to remember you by,” O’Neal allegedly said. “How about giving me one of the Warhols?”

According to Nevius, Fawcett laughed it off and offered O’Neal the contents of her archives instead. “He didn’t want that because he looked at that as a mess,” Nevius said in his testimony. “He looked at all that fan stuff as silly.”

On another occasion, Nevius said Fawcett allowed O’Neal to hide out in her guest room once when he was arrested for possession of meth. “[O’Neal] was walking out of the guest room,” alleged Nevius. “He had just woken up. He said, ‘What’s wrong with you? You don’t shave before you come to Farrah Fawcett’s house? You are doing a Farrah Fawcett production. It’s time to start dressing better.’”

Nevius said he became the regular go-between for Fawcett and O’Neal, and that O’Neal would regularly call him after he got into a fight with Fawcett. “When he got angry with her, really angry with her when she stopped talking to him, he started calling me because he knew I had her ear,” he said. “And he would give me messages to give her and he would lament about why they are not together.”

Nevius said his relationship with O’Neal finally soured when the actor allegedly pushed hard to take over as producer of Fawcett’s documentary about her cancer battle. According to Nevius, Fawcett didn’t want O’Neal involved and told Nevius to just ignore him and be polite.

Nevius alleged that O’Neal became furious when he was shut out and threatened the producer. “He said, ‘Don’t disobey me. You won’t win this one’—whatever that meant, because to my knowledge we had never fought. ‘You know, if you take me on I’ll kill you. I will kill you in Farrah’s life and I will kill you in real life.’”

Asked about the alleged threat on Nevius’s life, O’Neal later told The New York Times that, “I may have said I’ll kill ya,’ but I said that as a joke.”

Soon afterward, O’Neal took over the documentary and Nevius was dropped at the last minute. Nevius never saw Fawcett again.

After the university filed its August 2011 lawsuit against O’Neal, who was then starring in the reality TV show Ryan and Tatum: The O'Neals, O’Neal filed his own claim against Nevius, who he alleged made false claims to Star magazine and on Good Morning America that he stole the Warhol.

O’Neal stated that it was those comments by Nevius that prompted the University of Texas to ask that the Warhol piece be handed over, or an equivalent cash value, which some estimate is as high as $30 million.

O’Neal said Nevius was “deeply obsessed with Ms. Fawcett” and “deeply jealous of her relationship with her longtime romantic partner,” and the university was taking advantage of Nevius’s lies in order to get the portrait back. Nevius has denied the claims.