By rights, last Friday night should have been the happiest night of Farrah Fawcett’s entire life, a heartfelt celebration not only of her 60th birthday but also of her dramatic recovery from cancer.
Her palatial Malibu mansion, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, was filled with light and love, as – surrounded by friends and family – Farrah joyously celebrated her clean bill of health.
But her contentment was shattered in the early hours of Saturday morning when her boyfriend, 65-year-old Ryan O’Neal, grabbed a gun, waved it in the direction of his son, Griffin, 42, and a shot rang out.
Although Griffin emerged unhurt, and O’Neal claimed that he fired the gun at his son by accident, police held him on suspicion of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
And whatever the result when the case comes to court, there is no doubt that the burly actor narrowly escaped killing his own son. The only question now is whether he intended to cause him harm, or it was an accident.
And in this regard, it must be said, the evidence is not on Ryan’s side.
For the shooting incident is merely the latest horrific episode in his 42-year reign as a cruel and abusive father not only to Griffin, but to his daughter, Tatum, as well – a reign of terror which might reasonably earn Ryan the title of the worst father in Hollywood history.
The star who won fame as the romantic hero of the 1970 film Love Story has a long history of abuse and cruelty to his children. It includes him knocking Griffin’s teeth out when he was only 14, and continuing to batter him for years afterwards.
And it includes his beating Tatum when she was in her early teens, and even encouraging her to snort cocaine so she could lose weight.
Throughout his life, O’Neal’s temper has been as violent as it was unreasonable: on one occassion he hit Tatum simply for being late for a tennis game. Indeed, given the appalling way he treated them as children, it is a miracle the two still agree to see him at all.
For there are no excuses for O’Neal’s shocking acts of violence and cruelty towards his family – certainly not any unhappiness in his own childhood.
Far from being born into poverty, Patrick Ryan O’Neal was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth.
His father, Charles O’Neal, was a prosperous Hollywood screen writer and his mother, Patricia Callahan O’Neal, a relatively successful Hollywood actress.
Ryan and his brother, Kevin, grew up on one of the most star-studded streets in Hollywood, Cold Water Canyon, boasting spectacular views of Los Angeles and the surrounding areas, later following his father to Germany, where he was running a radio station.
But although he was pampered, protected and well-educated, brawling was in Ryan’s blood from the very outset.
At seven, Ryan’s father built him a boxing ring in their back garden and, as a boy, he fought in Catholic Youth Organization and Police Athletic League Tournaments in Santa Monica, California, winning prizes for his skill and aggression.
Sadly, as his children would grow up to learn, he loved fighting outside the ring as well.
As early as 1960, when he was only 18, Ryan spent 51 days in prison for assaulting a stranger at a party. Fortunately for him, his clean-cut blond good looks and innocent blue eyes cloaked the incipient violence in his nature. And it was these dashing looks that won him his first part in a TV show, The Many Loves Of Dobie Gills, that same year.
Soon, he was a matinee idol, a magnet for beautiful women – and in 1963 he married one of them, actress Joanna Moore, mother of both his children.
On the surface, O’Neal and Moore were a golden couple. But under-neath the glittering facade, Ryan’s dark side was ready to erupt – and erupt it did, ending in him battering his hapless wife. Just four years later, they divorced.
Within weeks, Ryan married again, this time to yet another beautiful actress, Leigh Taylor-Young, his co-star in the cult TV soap opera Peyton Place.
Tatum and Griffin were initially dumped with their mother, but she proved unequal to the task of looking after them, and Ryan took custody.
By now he was the feted and adored hero of classic weepie Love Story, in which he and Ali MacGraw played a young couple in the throes of a doomed romance.
But at home, even then, Ryan was more villain than hero. “My father terrorised me, but Griffin was his real whipping boy,” Tatum remembered in her memoirs. “Everything Griff did seemed to provoke my dad, especially winning at pool.
“Being an excellent pool player, my father insisted on worthy opposition, but he was also too competitive to tolerate losing. Then he’d often let loose with fists and sometimes even with pool cues.
“Most of the time I couldn’t protect Griffin from my father. He was always covered with bruises, which he’d account for with crazy stories about falling downstairs with his hands in his pockets.”
But if the children cowered from his fists, they were also in thrall to his career. When Tatum was ten, O’Neal cast her as his precocious side-kick in Paper Moon, in which he played a confidence trickster.
Her performance was so stellar that when she – and not her father – was nominated for an Academy Award, he hit her in a fit of jealousy.
That, however, was not the worst of the abuse he hurled down on the little girl, who once idolised him because, as she later termed it: “He was so handsome, talented and funny and he was the guy in Love Story. I fell in love with him in a way.”
After she became the youngest person ever to win the Oscar, he turned her into his companion, inviting her to share a bed with him. Though there was no sexual element, it horrified Ryan’s lovers, like James Bond star Ursula Andress, who was reportedly shocked at having to spend the night in the same bed as Ryan and his little daughter.
For Tatum, though, it was just another aspect of her bizarre Hollywood childhood. “I remained Ryan’s companion on the Hollywood party circuit, growing inured to sex and drugs before I was in my teens,” she later confessed.
O’Neil’s vicious temper wasn’t improved by his own propensity for drug taking. When Tatum was molested by his drug dealer while still only in her teens, and complained to her father, Ryan – unwilling to relinquish his drug-fuelled existence, even for his daughter – accused her of leading the drug dealer on, and kept him on his payroll.
But worse was still to come. When in 1975 he played the title role in Stanley Kubrick’s tour de force Barry Lyndon, O’Neal assumed that he was set for superstardom. Instead, the film disappeared without a trace, along with his Hollywood career. And once again, his children paid the price.
“He stared getting crazy and more out of control,” Tatum recalled. Sometimes the abuse was blatant. At other times it was more subtle.
When she was aged 15 and feeling overshadowed by Farrah Fawcett – Ryan’s new girlfriend – Tatum was told by her father that she needed to lose weight because she was looking fat. He advised her to snort cocaine, as that would suppress her appetite.
And when – out of despair at such taunting – Tatum tried to commit suicide by slashing her wrists, Ryan merely declared: “You cut the wrong way.”
It is hard to understand what would keep a young girl so in thrall to such an abusive parent. But the older she grew, the more Tatum saw her father for what he was – a violent bully. Finally, after she was late for a racketball game and – in her words – “he raised his fist and cold cocked me right in the head”, she cut all ties to him.
If she hoped for a less volatile life ahead, she went the wrong way about it. In August 1986, she married tennis star John McEnroe, another man hardly associated with cool self-control. The marriage produced three children, and though Tatum and her father were eventually reconciled, she kept all contact between Ryan and her own children to a minimum.
“I don’t trust him,” she declared, “It’s no big secret in Hollywood that he has a temper, and my children are afraid of him. He hadn’t been physically violent to them, but they’ve seen his temper against me and they don’t like it.”
And what of Griffin, Tatum’s brother, who once took the brunt of his father’s aggression?
After his abusive childhood, he set out to follow in his father’s footsteps in more ways than one. An actor, his career amounted to little more than a few B movie appearances in films such as Assault Of The Killer Bimbos. Like his father, he battled drugs, and like him he has left a trail of destruction behind him.
On a public holiday in 1986, Griffin was driving a speed boat, with Francis Ford Coppola’s 23-year-old son, Gian-Carlo, as passenger. The boat crashed, Gian-Carlo was killed and a judge found Griffin guilty of reckless boating.
Then, in 1992, he pleaded guilty to charges that he shot at his estranged girlfriend’s unoccupied car. At the time, he agreed to spend a year in a drug rehab programme and serve five years on probation.
Now, with this weekend’s shooting incident, Griffin and his father look to have taken their long-term rivalry to new levels of aggression.
For even Ryan’s recent battle with leukaemia (he is now in remission) and his continuing relationship with Farrah Fawcett (whom he has supported throughout her own cancer battle) have clearly failed to mellow him, or abate his dreadful temper.
Part of the reason, those close to him claim, is that Ryan’s career has never managed to reach the heights it had during the early years of Love Story and Paper Moon. In recent years, he has made a few highly forgettable films, and appeared in one episode of Desperate Housewives.
Yet while O’Neal’s fabled good looks have turned to fat, his firm jaw to blubber, he remains a bona fide star and it is a tragedy that the man who was once an idol to millions, who starred in the greatest romantic movie of all time, refuses to get help for his terrible temper.
Instead, he persists in trying to destroy his own reputation, along with the lives of those who love him.
Perhaps with the latest outrage – which Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department yesterday categorically stated was an assault by Ryan O’Neal on his son – justice will at long last be served. It seems that this time O’Neal is about to pay the price for a lifetime of violence and cruelty.