LOS ANGELES (CNN) — Actor Ryan O’Neal choked up on the witness stand Wednesday as he told a jury he would be crushed if an Andy Warhol portrait of longtime companion Farrah Fawcett is taken from him and given to the University of Texas.
Fawcett died of cancer in 2009 and left her artwork to her alma mater. The university is suing O’Neal for the portrait, which hangs in the bedroom of his Malibu beach house.
“I talk to it. I talk to her.” O’Neal said, his voice choking with emotion. “It’s her presence in my life, my son’s life. We lost her, and I don’t want to lose that, too.”
He said he would never consider selling the portrait, which has been valued in court at between $1 million and $12 million, depending on whose expert is talking. But O’Neal insists it’s not about the money.
“I plan to keep it in our family as long as there’s a family,” O’Neal told a rapt jury of six men and six women.
O’Neal’s second turn on the witness stand came during the third week of a trial that has focused on art and legacy and the sometimes stormy relationship of a Hollywood golden couple torn apart by infidelity but reunited by their battles with cancer.
A little art history
The Oscar-nominated actor previously testified that the portrait, a 40-inch by 40-inch silkscreen on canvas, was given to him by Warhol in 1980. A nearly identical portrait, which he said was given to Fawcett at the same time, was bequeathed to the university and hangs in its Blanton Museum of Art.
O’Neal testified that he had been friends with Warhol since the late 1960s; they met when the artist painted his ex-wife Leigh Taylor-Young — or rather, he painted a butterfly on her leg.
O’Neal introduced the artist to Fawcett in 1980, shortly after O’Neal began seeing her.
He said the deal for the two paintings was hatched at a Warhol book-signing party in Houston. O’Neal described how Warhol painted hearts on a tablecloth at the Houston party.
“It was a series of hearts coming together, and he could see Farrah and I were falling in love and he wanted to express how he felt about us coming together.” The tablecloth, signed by Warhol, includes the artist’s New York phone number, the dedication “To Farrah F and Ryan O’ ” and “Houston Tx” in a semicircle.
The university has the tablecloth and a napkin drawing of Fawcett’s eye. O’Neal has another napkin drawing of his lips, and he’s countersued the university for the tablecloth. He testified that he did not object when the trustee for Fawcett’s estate signed it over to the university but that he considers the tablecloth his property as well.
“We both ate off it,” he said. He now wishes he’d spoken up about keeping it after Fawcett died.
“I was in a state of shock for some weeks prior to losing her and months afterward,” he said. “It’s for her son. These are keepsakes. This is not art, sorry. They’re heirlooms.”
After the Houston party, O’Neal said he received a call from Warhol, who said he was ready to paint Fawcett and asked if they minded if the television news magazine show “20/20” filmed the sitting. The show was working on a piece about Warhol at the time.
“He said she could keep the portrait he would paint of her and I could keep mine,” O’Neal testified. He said he and his daughter Tatum, then 16, attended the session at Warhol’s New York studio, called The Factory, and described the scene in detail.
“There was no easel, no paint. There was just this strange dentist’s Polaroid camera. He just snapped her at different turns, maybe 25 shots.”
The session was taped by “20/20,” and a producer for the show testified earlier that she did not see O’Neal there.
The actor told the court he was keeping a low profile because Fawcett was getting a divorce from actor Lee Majors and didn’t want to be photographed or seen publicly with other men.
“Are you certain you were there?” defense attorney Marty Singer asked.
“As God is my witness,” O’Neal replied.
“Are you certain Tatum was with you?”
“As God is my witness.”
About two weeks later, O’Neal said, he received a call and he and Fawcett picked up the portraits. He saw portraits of famous people stacked one on top of the other at The Factory — Mao Zedong, Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, “and some people I didn’t recognize.”
He was handed one portrait, and Fawcett was handed the other, he said. Afterward, “we went down to the streets of New York to find a cab where these two paintings would fit.”
Over the years, the couple repeated the story to friends many times over dinner. He said Fawcett never disputed his version of events.
He also described several other dinners the couple had with Warhol. During those dinners, the artist — who was fascinated by celebrities — would whip out a tape recorder, as well as a marker or paint brush, and decorate the napkins and tablecloths. O’Neal said he and Fawcett would always agree to be recorded as long as they could leave with a signed keepsake.
Backing up O’Neal’s story
O’Neal’s story was backed by other members of Fawcett’s inner circle who testified for the defense this week.
They include two close friends: Alana Stewart, the former wife of actor George Hamilton and rocker Rod Stewart; and Mela Murphy, who left her job as news anchor Katie Couric’s hairstylist to help care for Fawcett after she was stricken with cancer. The women, and O’Neal, were at Fawcett’s side when she died on June 25, 2009.
The defense witnesses gave jurors a vastly different version of events than that painted by witnesses called by the university, which claims Fawcett loved her days as a student at its art school and left both portraits to her alma mater.
The university’s witnesses include Fawcett’s college boyfriend, a reality show producer and a former personal assistant. They said Fawcett and O’Neal were estranged at the time of her death and that she never intended for him to have one of the two Warhols.
The university’s star witness was reality show producer Craig Nevius, who said O’Neal stole the Warhol off the wall just days after Fawcett died. He testified that she didn’t want O’Neal to have it. But he also said he blamed O’Neal for “hijacking” a documentary about Fawcett’s battle with cancer. He also acknowledged he had been involved in a flurry of lawsuits against O’Neal and had filed criminal complaints against O’Neal, Stewart and the trustee of Fawcett’s estate.
Bernie Francis, the trustee, had been the couple’s business manager for many years. He testified earlier that he believed O’Neal when he said he owned the Warhol and gave him permission to remove it from Fawcett’s Los Angeles condominium about a week after her death.
‘Their love dates for 30-odd years’
“Ryan said one of them was his, and I trusted Ryan,” Francis testified. “I knew his life, and I knew her life. They were practically a married couple.
“Their love dates for 30-odd years. I was never going to question what Ryan was doing. He said ‘This belongs to me.’ There never was a question. These things went back and forth between them.”
A nurse who cared for Fawcett also said she was told the portrait, which hung outside Fawcett’s bedroom, belonged to O’Neal. The nurse came forward last week after reading about the trial, and the judge allowed her to testify.
“I talked to her one day in the bedroom and then I saw the painting,” Maribel Avila told the jury. “I said, ‘Oh, Mrs. Farrah, you look so beautiful in that painting.’ And she said ‘Thank you.’ Then she said, ‘That painting is Ryan’s. Let me tell you the story.’ And then she say, ‘A friend of mine, you know, his name is Andy Warhol, painted that for Ryan and he did one for me, too.'”
Murphy the hairstylist said Fawcett told her she owned one Warhol portrait and O’Neal owned the other.
“She told me that Andy Warhol had contacted Ryan, and Ryan had asked her to pose for a portrait for Mr. Warhol and she did, and he gave one to her and one to him.”
Another friend, Dave Pinsky, said he heard the same story from both Fawcett and O’Neal. He said he was too polite to interrupt O’Neal, who went “on and on and on” as he told it.
“She told me that she owned one and Ryan owned one. Ryan told me that he owned his and she owned hers. I think Farrah is very smart in her business life, and she agreed to do this so she’d get a portrait and Ryan would get one,” Pinsky said.
Alana Stewart also said she heard the story over dinner.
“Andy had called him when they first started going together. He wanted to paint Farrah. (O’Neal) said, ‘You have to do one for each of us.’ They went to The Factory, walked down 5th Avenue carrying the paintings, laughing and trying to get a cab big enough to carry the paintings.”
Stewart said O’Neal would take the lead telling the story and Fawcett would chime in.
Pinsky and Stewart also testified that there was no estrangement between the couple at the end. O’Neal was a devoted caretaker.
“I would say when she was stricken with cancer, he was basically glued to her side. He was always there for her,” Pinsky said.
“He was doing nothing but taking care of her and being loving to her,” Stewart agreed. “We were all taking turns feeding her when she needed it.”