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Farrah/O'Neal lawsuit$

Montage illustration by Chris Mann/Retroality.TV

By Chris Mann

As the ever-beloved Farrah Fawcett is yet again immortalized in likeness—this time as a wholesomely sexy Barbie doll commemorating her iconic 1976 swimsuit poster and benefiting an Alana Stewart-helmed cancer foundation in her name—the late TV angel’s embattled lover, Ryan O’Neal, keeps fighting to hold onto her multimillion dollar image while trying to salvage his own.

Last month, the University of Texas System sued O’Neal for possessing an estimated $30M Andy Warhol portrait of Fawcett—one of two in existence—that they say she bequeathed to them. In turn, the actor sued his longtime foe Craig Nevius, alleging the “delusional” Farrah’s Story producer—who helped Fawcett secure the rights to her record-selling poster—stole from and sold out Farrah and defamed and distressed O’Neal with “lies” that led to UT suing. O’Neal, claiming the “second Warhol” is legally his, is seeking more than $1 million in damages.

Nevius assisted UT in part by pointing out that O’Neal’s daughter (and OWN “soaprah” co-star), Tatum, divulged in her recent memoir, found, that Dad had the Warhol—which media reports have since called “missing” and “stolen.” “That was a ‘thank-God-we’ve-caught-you moment,’” Nevius told ABC News in June.

Not exactly the kind of “a-ha moment” Oprah likely bargained for when signing father and daughter to their (forced?) reconciliation series, The O’Neals. But with Tatum claiming Ryan “brutalized” her, abandoned her for Farrah and exposed her to "lots of drugs" growing up—charges pretty much echoed by her brother Griffin (who instead said his dad gave him cocaine at age 11)—should unseemly O’Neal allegations at this point leave anyone with an O face?

(O’Neal previously called Tatum’s drug and abuse claims, outlined in her 2004 memoir A Paper Life, “malicious lies.” And when asked about Griffin’s charges that, upon Fawcett’s terminal cancer diagnosis, “vulture” Ryan’s “only goal was to make sure he would be in (Fawcett’s) will,” the O’Neal patriarch snapped to Vanity Fair in 2009, “I hate him! He knows I have money. I made a tremendous amount of money on real estate; more than I deserve.”)

Ryan’s attorney requested a 10-day extension to file his response to UT’s suit, originally due by Aug. 1. Nevius’ legal answer to O’Neal’s suit may hit next week as well. Expect serious fireworks—especially now that a UT System rep says the university has “photographic and videographic evidence” of Fawcett referencing her ownership of both Warhols shortly before she passed.

“(A)t no time have I ever claimed that Ryan O’Neal stole the portrait of Farrah Fawcett,” Nevius wrote in a statement published last month on The Morton Report web site. “(I)n terms of me being the one to cause Ryan’s public humiliation, well, has he watched his own reality show? … (I)t’s hard for me to believe that I am the cause of this man’s ‘mental anguish and emotional distress’ when, according to his reality show, he has recently been in therapy for personal and relationship issues dating back before I ever met him.”

O’Neal’s ever-growing legal, personal and public-relations battles became even more entangled this week with the heroin- and gun-related felony arrest Tuesday of his troubled son with Fawcett, Redmond, 26, and the possible future arrest of the long-estranged Griffin, 46. Hours after Redmond was busted, Griffin reportedly caused a head-on car crash that sent him to the hospital with moderate injuries. Police later discovered drugs and a loaded weapon in Griffin’s car and are seeking a warrant to arrest him.

The O’Neals are “falling apart,” Ryan told TMZ after Redmond entered a not guilty plea in court Thursday. “But we’ll come back.”

The former Peyton Place and Love Story star’s comeback—or, more precisely, rebranding—in recent years as a reality docudrama fixture has been fraught with controversy and challenge. Ironically, though, his most persistent conflict during his made-for-TV reinvention hasn’t been with his tragic offspring but rather with the man whose association with Fawcett put O’Neal back in homes in the era of celebreality.

But O’Neal won’t be referring to Craig Nevius as the executive producer who directed him in TV Land’s 2005 reality show Chasing Farrah. Nor will he acknowledge him as the filmmaker who won the showbiz-leery Fawcett’s trust so much that she named him her “loyal friend and protector,” spokesperson, agent, manager and, ultimately, the business partner who would help execute her vision for her groundbreaking cancer documentary. (That project— filmed in part by Farrah friend Alana Stewart and originally titled A Wing & A Prayer—was Fawcett’s would-be work of art. Nevius says she didn’t want the innovative docufilm in any way featuring “talking heads” and focusing on her “love story” with on-again, off-again flame O’Neal.)

Instead, O’Neal—who, in Fawcett’s final months and with Stewart’s involvement on-camera and off as the project’s newly-promoted producer, overtook and repackaged the “video diary” as NBC’s “news special” Farrah’s Story—now brands Nevius in a legal filing as “a delusional fan” who is “obsessed” with Fawcett and “jealous” of O’Neal and Stewart. So “deeply jealous” of O’Neal, he alleges, that Nevius made “false, malicious and defamatory accusations to the media and (UT) … in an attempt to ruin O’Neal’s reputation and strip him of the Warhol portrait while drawing attention to himself.”

Exactly how a jury would assess O’Neal’s reputation—pre and post-Nevius-claims—is, in this scandal-loving new-media age, anybody’s guess. Ryan has twice been arrested himself—in 2007 for firing a gun in a dispute with Griffin (these charges were later dismissed) and in 2008 with Redmond for felony drug possession when authorities found meth in his Malibu home during his younger son’s probation check. Ryan pleaded guilty and was ordered to partake in a drug awareness program. His attorney, Mark Werksman, told People magazine at the time that the actor "found it extremely frustrating and upsetting" to be charged. “He's not a drug user and he doesn't want to be thought of as a drug user.”

Around the time of Ryan’s second arrest, he attempted to force Nevius to turn over A Wing & A Prayer to him and another executive producer. When Nevius refused (he says according to Fawcett’s strict instructions “never (to) give anyone—including Ryan—the footage or the contract”), O’Neal reportedly called him and threatened, “I’ll kill you with Farrah, and then I’ll kill you in real life.” O’Neal told The New York Times recently, “I may have said ‘I’ll kill ya,’ but I said that as a joke.”

Nevius offered up a most unflattering essay on O’Neal days after The O’Neals premiered on (oh, the irony) Father’s Day. “Now, as the two year anniversary of Farrah's passing approaches—she died on June 25, 2009—I realize that the woman I remember is the one that Ryan O'Neal has forgotten,” Nevius wrote on The Morton Report, referencing the O’Neal’s recent interview with Piers Morgan, in which the actor blamed his family for Fawcett’s cancer.

“At least that's how it appears to me as he boldly and recklessly steers the promotional tour for his new reality series, The O'Neals, into the very dark but familiar territory of exploiting Farrah's tragic death just as he did two years ago,” Nevius wrote. “But this time through, he's not treading lightly but plowing forward in what appears to be a shocking attempt to bury his own children under a heap of undeserved guilt. All the while he positions himself as the put-upon father who, as hard as he claims to have tried, simply could not keep his kids happy as they went to war with Farrah to win his attention, affection and approval.”


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Among Nevius’ bold claims in this piece: “(Not) that Ryan didn't profoundly contribute to Farrah's pain and suffering during her illness. Because he did … A few months after Farrah began chemotherapy, Ryan became increasingly jealous and, at times, even angry at the outpouring of love and sympathy that she received from all over the world—not to mention his own children.”

Interestingly, O’Neal doesn’t mention the Morton Report piece in his complaint. Instead, he offers a few character assassinations, er, characterizations of his own. He claims that when Nevius met Fawcett in 2005, he “claim(ed) to have production experience (and) surreptitiously ingratiated himself into Fawcett’s life, contacting her multiple times per day and taking it upon himself to act as her personal assistant without pay.”

Ouch again.

O’Neal continues, “Unfortunately, when Nevius showed Ms. Fawcett and NBC his work on the documentary, it was clear that he was unskilled and that his work was amateurish and sensationalized—his cut of the documentary looked like tabloid journalism, contrary to the wishes of Ms. Fawcett, and could not be broadcast on national television. As a result, Ms. Fawcett requested that O'Neal take creative control of Farrah's Story, thereby ending Nevius' creative involvement with the documentary. In part because of Nevius' emotional instability, the last time Ms. Fawcett saw or spoke with Nevius was in the early spring of 2009, shortly after he had delivered his cut of the documentary.”

(Two years later, The New York Times would characterize O’Neal’s takeover of the project thusly: “After Mr. O’Neal and NBC gained full control of the documentary, the film took on the feel of network celebrity fodder—at once more glossy and more morbid.”)

O’Neal told the New York Post in May 2009 that Fawcett wanted Nevius off the project in mid- to late-April because he persistently pushed for a storyline indicting paparazzi and tabloids for her deteriorating health. "He was obsessed with this angle, that the media was haranguing Farrah to the point where she couldn't recover,” O’Neal said. "Harangued? Who isn't harangued? We all get harangued. At most, that's a sidebar. This is a story about Farrah struggling for her life."

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We may never see Nevius’ edit of the film or know what the terminally ill and at times heavily medicated Fawcett thought of it—or wanted after seeing it. But given the unprecedented access she gave Nevius to her private life—and her apparent permission and approval for him to make many of her intensely personal struggles public—it’s hard to imagine he would deliver a take on her vision that opposed the wishes she had voiced.

Was Nevius’ edit sensationalistic “tabloid journalism” or hard-hitting docu-journalism about tabloids whose cover headlines screamed—much to the fighting-for-life Fawcett’s pain and disdain—“Farrah Begs: Let Me Die!”

O’Neal now alleges that Nevius retaliated after Farrah cut him off. “Sadly, Nevius’ malicious behavior is nothing new, and it is consistent with his prior despicable conduct. In 2009, Nevius intentionally sold private, personal medical information about Ms. Fawcett’s battle with cancer to tabloid journalists, distributed film footage of her battle with cancer and other materials proprietary to Ms. Fawcett and third parties, and embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from the company that Ms. Fawcett established.”

These charges are more or less duplicated from a complaint filed last year by O’Neal’s business manager and Fawcett’s estate trustee, Richard “Bernie” Francis, who sued Nevius on behalf of Farrah’s estate. That suit was settled this spring, The New York Times reported, without Francis’ allegations being proven:

“For the next 18 months, Mr. Nevius pursued his lawsuit against Mr. O’Neal, Ms. Stewart and Mr. Francis full-time, hoping to regain control of the company he and Ms. Fawcett formed and produce the film he says she wanted. Mr. Francis countersued, accusing Mr. Nevius of being a hanger-on who ingratiated himself with Ms. Fawcett and embezzled money from their company. (He and Mr. O’Neal never offered proof, and Mr. Nevius denies the allegations.)”

The charge that Nevius sold Fawcett’s private medical information to the tabloids is most ironic. In June 2008, Nevius wrote a Los Angeles Times editorial exposing UCLA Medical Center for breaching Fawcett’s privacy and calling out the National Enquirer for inducing the breach by paying a UCLA employee (who was later indicted) for Farrah’s private medical info . In “Chasing Farrah Too Far,” Nevius even details a run-in with an Enquirer reporter who tried to persuade him to discuss Fawcett’s health. Clearly, the late actress authorized her producing partner’s revelations—including her specific exchanges with U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O’Brien’s office—in that essay.

Nevius also worked with Los Angeles Times reporter Charles Ornstein to document Fawcett’s sting of UCLA in the only media interview she gave following her cancer diagnosis. Nevius’ company, Windmill Entertainment LLC., released film footage of Ornstein’s August 2008 interview to various media outlets around May 11, 2009—the date the Times published Ornstein’s piece. About two weeks earlier, per Fawcett’s 2008 agreement with the newspaper, Nevius gave written permission to the Times to publish the interview within five days of Farrah’s Story broadcast premiere on May 15.

The producer says that O’Neal’s recent legal action against him is “a desperate attempt … to further harass me into silence. I believe this is less about the portrait of Farrah Fawcett by Andy Warhol than it is about certain actions and events that occurred during the last few years of Farrah's life which I have knowledge of and that he (and others) would prefer me to never speak about.”

Nevius is likely referring in part to The Farrah Fawcett Foundation, the charitable organization receiving an undisclosed royalty from the sale of the new Farrah Barbie. Last year, he released a statement to X17 Online “publicly calling on the Attorney General to investigate the ‘Farrah Fawcett Foundation’ and interview a handful of Farrah’s trusted friends and associates with respect to Farrah’s knowledge and intent regarding this so-called ‘charity.’”

This spring, a Facebook group called “Farrah Fawcett: We Want the Truth” encouraged fans to write the attorney general to investigate the foundation and the final months of Fawcett’s life. So far, no active investigation has been reported.

Last year, Nevius questioned the foundation’s origins—and its officers’ roles—in a legal response to Francis’ suit against him. He claimed Fawcett “was not aware of the Foundation’s existence during her lifetime or of Mr. Francis’ attempts to usurp her estate.”

“On information and belief, (Alana) Stewart … appointed herself ‘president’ of the Farrah Fawcett Foundation, a charitable foundation funded by Ms. Fawcett’s assets, and Mr. Francis named himself ‘chairman of the board/treasurer,’” Nevius claimed. “On information and belief, Kim Swartz, an attorney for Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP, who has been fired by Ms. Fawcett, also installed himself as ‘director.’ On information and belief, Mr. Francis and Ms. Stewart are using the Foundation to divert Ms. Fawcett’s assets away from other rightful beneficiaries. On information and belief, although Mr. O’Neal has no official title with the Foundation, he recently announced that he would be ‘working with the Foundation.’”

According to a business entity record published on the California Secretary of State’s web site, “The Farrah Fawcett Foundation” was first filed with the state on Nov. 20, 2006. The foundation is also referenced in Fawcett’s amended Living Trust, dated and signed Aug. 7, 2007. Charitable trust registration records on the California attorney general’s web site show the foundation was registered with their office on Jan. 25, 2007.

Oddly, however, registration records on the attorney general’s web site indicate the foundation’s 2007 and 2008 IRS returns and the registry’s annual renewal report for 2007 were filed by Francis on May 15, 2009—the night Farrah’s Story premiered. Six weeks later, Fawcett died. The first public mention of The Farrah Fawcett Foundation appears to be on the date of her death, when O’Neal released a statement requesting donations be sent to the foundation “to support cancer research.”

Also curious: A 2010 report quoting Lee Majors’ manager, Denny Bond, as saying the decades-estranged Majors and Fawcett, who reunited via phone just months before her death, planned to reunite on a Vegas stage in Love Letters and were planning “a Los Angeles charity performance for her soon-to-be-established cancer foundation.”

The foundation is again in the news thanks to Barbie and Stewart. “Farrah created the foundation two years before she died and her aim was really to help in cutting edge research and to help people that are actually struggling with cancer now,” Stewart told Fox News this week, “so that’s really the mission of the foundation. It’s really wonderful for her memory and for her legacy and for her fans.”

In June, the foundation joined forces with Brand Sense Partners, LLC and Robert A. Finkelstein. Ltd. “to identify and execute new business ventures to perpetuate the star’s legacy and to support her non-profit foundation’s mission of raising funding for alternative methods in cancer research, prevention and awareness,” a news release states.

Stewart told the Los Angeles Times that more projects are in the works to keep Fawcett’s legacy going, adding she often asks herself, “What would Farrah do?”

If Farrah’s story behind the poster behind the commemorative doll is any indication, Fawcett would fight to control her image—and its copyright—and take legal action to keep others from exploiting either at her expense.

“The poster” that launched her star and solidified her image as the wholesome TV angel with a celestial body and a twinkling smile was entirely Fawcett’s creation. So says photographer Bruce McBroom. And so asserted Fawcett in a suit she filed in February 2009 alleging the poster’s publisher and related business entities invaded her privacy and unjustly enriched themselves by misappropriating her name, image and likeness.

“Plaintiff solely chose the photographer, Plaintiff solely created overall styling, Plaintiff solely determined the wardrobe (i.e. specific swimsuit used), Plaintiff solely created the hair styling, Plaintiff solely did the makeup used, Plaintiff solely directed photographic content (including, but not limited to, the angle of the photograph as well as the pose and posturing of the model), Plaintiff solely determined the location where the photograph was taken, and Plaintiff solely approved the background used in the photograph.”

Plaintiff also retained exclusive copyright ownership of the entire shoot—at least according to her suit—and received 10 percent of merchandising royalties totaling $400,000. Refusing to be “owned” apparently led Fawcett to bolt from Charlie’s Angels after one season in 1977 when its executives refused to give her a 10-percent cut of the show’s massive merchandising.

Strangely, though, according to U.S. Copyright Office public records, the poster’s publisher, Pro Arts, had registered “Farrah” under its name in 1976—and for more than 30 years, it claimed the copyright, even though Fawcett apparently owned it. Her suit was dropped in May 2009, two months after the registration suddenly changed to her name, according to U.S. Copyright Office records. Her long ownership fight—which intensified in 2008 and piqued in early 2009 while Nevius was her business point person—finally resulted in resounding victory.

According to the U.S. Copyright Office records, the “Farrah / by Farrah Fawcett” copyright changed one more time—on the day Fawcett died. The same estate that sued Nevius now controls the iconic image whose legal ownership he helped her secure.

One wonders not only what Farrah would do but what she would say about the ongoing battles over her image, her intentions and her legacy that have placed many of those closest to her in perennially defensive postures.

Perhaps she would find inspiration in the ongoing fight by Happy Days cast members to get their due for 35-plus years of the CBS Corp. and others exploiting their names, images and likenesses for profit. A quote from the Seventies sitcom TV icons’ recent court filing seems to say it all:

“Although defendants routinely rebrand their corporate images, they should not be permitted to rebrand the truth.”

Copyright 2011 by Chris Mann