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Battle over Fawcett portrait
03:48 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O'Neal were the "Brangelina" of their day

Jurors delving into their private lives and their relationship with artist Andy Warhol

At issue is ownership of a Warhol portrait of the actress worth millions

O'Neal says it's his, Fawcett's alma mater says she bequeathed it to them

Los Angeles CNN  — 

They were the quintessential Hollywood couple – she the “angel” with the dazzling smile, golden mane and poster-girl figure, he the golden boy whose onscreen “Love Story” was doomed by cancer.

But were they a couple at the end, after infidelity tore them apart and their own battles with cancer brought them back together?

And did she intend for him to keep a portrait of her that’s worth millions so he could remember her always? Or did she simply leave it to her alma mater, along with her other artwork?

These are the questions jurors must answer as they journey into the private lives of Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal and their relationship with the late pop artist Andy Warhol.

The jury of six men and six women is revisiting the final days of the gorgeous girl from Texas who sold 12 million posters, starred in the first season of the hit 1970s TV show “Charlie’s Angels” and became one of the last century’s most cherished pop icons.

O’Neal, a heartthrob in the 1960s and ’70s who was nominated for a best actor Oscar for his performance in “Love Story,” is expected to take the stand again this week and tell jurors about his real-life love story with Fawcett.

He wasn’t alone in his feelings for the blond actress. “Everybody was in love with Farrah,” he observed sadly, as he left court one day last week.

Ryan O’Neal: Andy Warhol portrait of Farrah Fawcett ‘is mine’

So far, jurors have heard the stories of four men, including O’Neal, who in the end were in the orbit of a woman beloved by many but truly known by just a few. Not surprisingly, those men didn’t get along, and the rivalry between them is fueling a fierce court battle over love, loyalty and a star’s legacy.

The trial testimony has touched at times on the rewards and challenges of fame, but it also has focused on more universal themes: How does one determine who owns a piece of art worth millions when it was given as a gift? And in a time when one’s romantic status can be categorized as “It’s Complicated,” what defines a couple?

Contested in 2013: A portrait from 1980

At issue is ownership of a 40-inch by 40-inch portrait created in 1980 by an artist famous for rubbing elbows with the fabulous.

Warhol, who died in 1987, coined the notion that everyone gets 15 minutes of fame. His celebrity portraits – Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley and others – sell for an average of $7.8 million apiece. In all, his artwork has fetched $1.7 billion at auction, second only to Pablo Picasso, according to testimony.

The portrait at the center of the dispute is a silkscreen on canvas, and Fawcett is shown in three-quarter profile. Her eyes are painted a bright turquoise, her lips a shiny red. Her hair is tucked behind one ear.

“This painting makes your eyes pop,” appraiser Lee Drexler told jurors on Friday as a copy of the Warhol in question was projected on a screen in the courtroom. “This is magnificent. It’s a gorgeous painting.” She set its value at $12 million.

The portrait hangs in a beach house in Malibu, California, in the bedroom of O’Neal, Fawcett’s on-again, off-again boyfriend of 30 years. A nearly identical portrait hangs in Austin, Texas, at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, Fawcett’s alma mater. Warhol only made two.

The university’s museum has Fawcett’s favorite, and it used to hang in her living room. In that portrait, her eyes are greener, and her hair is lighter. The university claims Fawcett bequeathed both paintings in a trust she created before she died of cancer on June 25, 2009. The school is suing O’Neal for his Warhol, and he’s countersuing for a tablecloth Warhol decorated with painted hearts during a dinner with the couple.

O’Neal, 72, told jurors last week that Warhol gave Fawcett one of the portraits and gave him the other. He denied he “stole” the Warhol from Fawcett’s condominium after she died, saying he took it home with the permission of the estate’s trustee. It had hung outside her bedroom. The trustee also is expected to testify for the defense.

The university rested its case on Friday. Its witnesses say Fawcett owned both portraits and had no intention of giving one to O’Neal.

But O’Neal insists the bedroom portrait is his, and Fawcett’s longtime friend and hairdresser agrees. Mela Murphy, who left her job as Katie Couric’s hairstylist to help care for Fawcett, said the actress told her so.

She told the story of how Fawcett, by then bedridden, insisted Murphy leave initialed Post-it notes on things she wanted. It was the last thing Murphy wanted to do, but she pretended to do it to get Fawcett to stop talking about it, she testified.

“I said, ‘OK, I put one on Mr. O’Neal’s Warhol.’ She said, ‘Oooooh, I don’t know. You’re going to have to fight him for that.’ ”

Another witness, a nurse, testified at a hearing outside the jury’s presence that Fawcett told her the Warhol portrait outside her bedroom belonged to O’Neal. She came forward last week after reading about the trial, and Judge William MacLaughlin ruled that the jury could hear from the nurse this week even though she is a surprise witness.

It’s just the latest twist in a case that has been full of them.

‘Ryan and Tatum’ miniseries brings portrait to light

Ryan O'Neal is expected to testify again this week as the trial over an Andy Warhol portrait of Farrah Fawcett continues.

The University of Texas might never have learned the second portrait existed if not for the 2012 miniseries “Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals” on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network. The Warhol was spotted in a scene from the reality TV show, hanging over his bed at the Malibu beach house in a scene from the show.

Three men – two with no love lost for O’Neal – cooperated with the university’s investigators. They are a reality show producer, a Fawcett fan turned personal assistant and Fawcett’s college boyfriend, a former University of Texas football player who says she was “the love of my life.” All three supplied information to the university’s investigators and testified last week.

The producer and the college boyfriend harbor deep grudges against O’Neal, and the assistant is friendly with both men. O’Neal’s lawyer, Marty Singer, refers to them as “the troika.”

Greg Nevius is the producer. He is a protege of B-movie director Roger Corman and is involved in several lawsuits against O’Neal. He acknowledged that he has sent the university’s lawyers and investigators more than 100 e-mails and also has filed reports against O’Neal with the LAPD, the IRS and the California Attorney General.

Much of the ill will has to do with Nevius’ diminished role in a documentary about Fawcett’s battle with cancer. “Farrah’s Story” aired on NBC, but Nevius said it was never her intention to be filmed while dying. She had hoped to present a documentary about alternative cancer treatments. Nevius claims in one of his lawsuits against O’Neal that the actor and others “hijacked” the documentary and its original vision from him.

He was asked on the witness stand if he accused O’Neal of stealing the Warhol and whether he called him a criminal. “Yes,” he replied, “and I stand behind that.” O’Neal is suing him for defamation, and that case is ongoing.

The former boyfriend, Greg Lott, admitted he once confronted O’Neal with a camera crew and posted the face-off on YouTube. Lott said he resented O’Neal because he prevented him from seeing “the love of my life before she died.”

What’s love got to do with it?

As individuals, Fawcett and O’Neal were extraordinary. As a couple, they were the stuff of dreams, the “Brangelina” of their time and fodder for the tabloids.

Fawcett grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, and attended Catholic schools before heading to the University of Texas in 1965, where word spread fast that “there was this beautiful girl in the freshman class, that she was extraordinary, even by University of Texas standards,” as Lott recalled. Students voted her one of the most beautiful girls on campus, and her photograph was sent to a Hollywood agent.

Fawcett found a summer job in Los Angeles after her junior year and never returned to campus. Her career began, as many did, with commercials – for skin cream and toothpaste – before moving on to guest spots on television shows such as “The Flying Nun,” “Mayberry R.F.D.,” “I Dream of Jeannie” and “The Partridge Family.” She married actor Lee Majors and appeared with him on several episodes of “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

She posed in a red Speedo tank suit for the now-famous poster in 1976 – the same year she was chosen by Aaron Spelling to play the part of investigator Jill Munroe on the television show “Charlie’s Angels.” The show was an instant smash and launched the genre popularly known as “jiggle TV.”

She famously told TV Guide in a 1977 interview: “When the show was number three, I thought it was our acting. When we got to be number one, I decided it could only be because none of us wears a bra.”

Women everywhere imitated her hairstyle, and there were Farrah dolls, shampoo, even bubble gum cards. But she made more money from the poster than she ever did from “Charlie’s Angels.”

She began seeing O’Neal in 1979, while she was separated from Majors. They didn’t officially divorce until 1982. Like Majors, O’Neal was somewhat older than she was and had an established Hollywood career.

The son of a Hollywood screenwriter, O’Neal aspired to be professional boxer but his good looks drew him into television. From 1964 to 1969, he starred on the ABC nighttime soap sensation “Peyton Place” with Mia Farrow, but his career really took off in 1970 when he was cast with Ali MacGraw in the movie “Love Story.”

Fawcett and O’Neal never married, but they were one of Hollywood’s golden couples at a time when that truly mattered. People magazine was just coming into its own, the tabloids existed but were much tamer and nobody had heard of TMZ or Twitter yet.

They lived together, sharing space at his Malibu beach house and her home in the hills above Bel-Air. Their son, Redmond, was born in 1985.

The final years together

Farrah Fawcett posed in this red Speedo for a poster in 1976 that sold 12 million copies.

The nature of their relationship during the final years of Fawcett’s life is key to the case involving the disputed Warhol. Lawyers for the University of Texas and their witnesses say Fawcett and O’Neal shared little more than parenting duties after 1997. But O’Neal and his lawyers say they were very much together after she rushed to his side when he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2001.

“They were a couple,” lawyer Marty Singer insisted. “They weren’t married, but they were living together.”

Each side used an edited clip from the 2004 reality show “Chasing Farrah,” produced by Nevius, to demonstrate the point.

One segment shows Fawcett and O’Neal tossing a Frisbee on the beach. She falls into the surf laughing, and he comes after her with a Boogie Board. She rides it into shore. Later, they are sitting at a table, and he talks about how love is based on respect and admiration. He says he admired her work in the off-Broadway play “Extremities.”

Fawcett gets up and starts dancing to Meredith Brooks’ 1997 song “Bitch,” which includes the lyrics, “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover.” She invites him to dance, and he joins her, giving her a twirl and a dip.

They appear to be a couple – at least for the camera.

But in another clip from the same show, Fawcett is seen scanning a tabloid story that brings up the possibility of reconciliation with O’Neal and jokes about how “sweet” it is. “It was their seventh highest rated cover ever, us breaking up,” she says. “Now that we’re not together, people want us to be together.”

Fawcett and O’Neal broke up in 1998 after she walked in on him in bed with a much younger woman at his Malibu beach house. The Warhol portrait was hanging over his bed at the time.

By October 1998, Lott, the college boyfriend, was back in the picture – at least for a little while. The evidence in the case includes two love letters to Lott from Fawcett, who addressed him as “My darling Greg.”

“Happy New Year. Happy new life, our happy new life together,” she wrote in late 1998. In another, undated note, she wrote, “To say I miss you is the greatest understatement. I already ache for you but I don’t want you to see me crying … You are my North, my South, my East, my West, and you know the rest. I love you forever and more…”

Fawcett had both Warhols with her when she moved into her Los Angeles condominium in 1999, according to Lott. The Warhol O’Neal has now had hung there for a while but ended up in storage because she felt it was “pretentious” to hang two portraits of herself in a small condo. It returned to the condo after the 2004 reality show.

O’Neal says he and Fawcett reconciled in 2001 when he was diagnosed with leukemia. She helped care for him. He says she forgave him.

But Nevius, who spent time with Fawcett during production of the reality shows, says she told him she never really let O’Neal back into her life as a lover. “They were co-parents,” he said. “They were a former couple who were very flirtatious.”

According to testimony, O’Neal was the first person Fawcett called when she received her cancer diagnosis in 2006. She called her father next, and then her son. If O’Neal wasn’t her significant other, his lawyer insists, he certainly was significant.

Mike Pingel, the personal assistant, testified that O’Neal was a frequent visitor to Fawcett’s condo in 2007 when he worked for her. O’Neal would arrive carrying a bag, but “he didn’t have a drawer.” He did buy a television set for the bedroom so he could watch sports. The staff referred to it as “Ryan’s TV,” he said.

But Lott also was calling Fawcett on a daily basis, Pingel said.

So far, the issue of ownership of the Warhol seems equally murky.

Although Fawcett often referred to both portraits as “my Warhols” and said things such as “I have two,” she never used the word “own,” the university’s witnesses acknowledged.

The judge has questioned whether O’Neal’s relationship with Fawcett when she died has anything to do with who owns a Warhol worth millions.

The university’s lawyers also wonder what love’s got to do with it and suggest the question will, in the words of attorney Eric Nichols, “lead us down a rabbit hole.”

But O’Neal’s lawyer, Singer, says, “It matters a great deal.” And he’ll get the chance to show the jury why when his client takes the stand this week and tells a real Hollywood love story.