Ryan O'Neal wins lawsuit over Andy Warhol portrait of Farrah Fawcett

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- In actor Ryan O'Neal's world, events don't unfold in mundane fashion. There is usually drama -- the kind that sustains reality shows and draws gossips and tabloid journalists like ants to a picnic.

The kind that makes for a helluva story.

O'Neal, you see, was on the operating table when a jury found in his favor after a three-week legal battle that also put his 30-year romance with "Charlie's Angels" actress Farrah Fawcett on trial.

So he wasn't in the courtroom to hear the verdict Thursday. He wasn't there to thank the nine jurors who said he would not have to turn over his prized Andy Warhol portrait of Fawcett to her alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin.

When the big moment came for the heartthrob star of "Peyton Place" and "Love Story," a surgeon was carving up the face that launched thousands of '60s schoolgirl crushes.

"I got the call on the table," O'Neal told CNN. "It was a text from Patrick," his sportscaster son.

O'Neal relived the moment during a wide-ranging, hour-long phone call Friday night from his Malibu home, where he is recovering from the surgery.

"She's looking down on us now," he said in a near whisper, leaving us to wonder whether he was referring to the portrait, which hangs over his bed, or to his "angel" gazing down on him from heaven. After all, he has said in court that he looks at the portrait and talks to her sometimes when he misses her. And he and his sons have often referred to Fawcett as watching over them -- even guiding the outcome of the case -- from above.

Before we could inquire, O'Neal was back on the subject of the operating room news bulletins. Patrick's texts came in two words at a time:

"We won."

"9-3."

O'Neal was awake, he said, but his face was numb and he couldn't say a word. The surgeon continued to slice into his cheek, removing skin cancer cells -- the penalty a 72-year-old Irishman pays for not wearing sunscreen at the beach.

But O'Neal's mind suddenly was on his Warhol, not his carcinoma.

"I started to cry," O'Neal said. "There was blood -- and tears -- running down my face. I just lay there and cried."

Were they tears of joy? Relief? A little of both? It was hard to say, exactly. He pulled himself together and asked the doctor how many stitches he'd gotten. Fewer than 100, he was told.

"Then I drove myself home."

His face was bandaged and he looked like a prizefighter who'd gotten the worst of it. As he drove from his doctor's office, he thought about stopping for dog food, but he didn't want to scare anybody.

He walked into his Malibu beach house, fed the dogs, and climbed the thick wooden stairway to the master bedroom where the portrait hangs, just as it did from 1980 to 1997. Just as it has since shortly after Fawcett's death from cancer in June 2009.

"I think you get to stay for the holidays," he said to the iconic blonde staring coolly down at him with those turquoise eyes painted by Warhol.

"I'm going to pay a lot more attention to her now," he told CNN. And then he laughed, because O'Neal has a way of resorting to humor to relieve the tension of emotionally fraught moments. Fawcett -- like all good actresses -- "just found another way to resurrect herself," he joked.

Earlier in the evening, he had pulled together an official statement with the help of one of his lawyers, Todd Eagan. It said:

"I know Farrah would have wanted this portrait to remain in our family as an heirloom to be handed down" to the couple's 28-year-old son, Redmond. "I'm grateful the jury agreed," the statement said. "Now we will have this incredible gift from Andy Warhol as a keepsake and a memory of our beloved Farrah."

The trial was tough for O'Neal to sit through and lasted longer than anyone had anticipated. The testimony ranged into areas that had little to do with the central issue: Whether Fawcett -- or O'Neal -- owned the striking 40-by-40-inch Warhol silkscreen when she died. The canvas, showing Fawcett in three-quarter profile with shiny red lips, had been created in 1980, at the peak of her fame. The TV news magazine "20/20" was there for her sitting.

The testimony at the trial was cruelly personal, with witnesses for the university's side casting doubt on O'Neal and Fawcett's love for each other. When the time came for O'Neal to defend himself, many of Fawcett's closest friends -- who are now his friends -- rallied behind him.

His lawyers, Marty Singer and Eagan, were able to show that their witnesses were the true members of Fawcett's inner circle. Team O'Neal portrayed the university's witnesses as disgruntled former employees, hangers on and the type of "super fan" that basks in a celebrity's reflected glow by performing menial tasks.

If those witnesses sometimes made O'Neal angry, his own witnesses moved him to tears. He said he was especially touched that Jaclyn Smith, Fawcett's co-star in her 1976 breakout hit series "Charlie's Angels," showed up in court and vouched for him at an impromptu news conference on the courthouse steps.

The

University of Texas sued O'Neal for the portrait in 2011, claiming it was part of Fawcett's estate. In her will, Fawcett bequeathed "all of her artwork and objects of art" to her alma mater.

The university already had one Warhol portrait -- the "hers" from the his-and-hers set that always had hung in her living room. Officials were not aware there was a second one in O'Neal's possession until three men -- Fawcett's college boyfriend, a reality show producer and her fired personal assistant -- began feeding them information.

But Singer, well known as Hollywood's "pit bull lawyer to the stars," was able to cast doubt on their motives. All held grudges against O'Neal -- especially the reality show producer, who exchanged as many as 100 e-mails with the university's sleuths while suing O'Neal and others over his diminished role in a documentary about Fawcett's battle with cancer.

"Marty Singer is a great lawyer," O'Neal said, comparing him to a heavyweight champ. "I call him Sonny Liston."

The producer, Craig Nevius, told the university that O'Neal stole the Warhol, which was hanging outside Fawcett's bedroom at the time of her death. The estate's trustee testified he gave O'Neal permission to take it, and several other defense witnesses testified it was common knowledge the second Warhol was O'Neal's.

As Nevius fed information to the university -- and the tabloids -- Singer sued him for defamation on O'Neal's behalf; that case is set to be heard in the spring. Nevius in turn filed criminal reports with the Los Angeles Police Department, the California Attorney General and the Internal Revenue Service.

On the witness stand, Nevius sniffed that Fawcett no longer cared for O'Neal and certainly didn't want him to have "her" Warhols. He testified about a telephone conversation he overheard; he said O'Neal asked Fawcett to leave him a Warhol so he'd have something to remember her by. Instead, she suggested he take some "Charlie's Angels" trinkets.

"It was hard to keep me in my seat for that," O'Neal told CNN. "That was just a blatant lie."

Nevius also testified that Fawcett no longer cared for O'Neal after she caught him in bed in his beach house with a much younger woman. And Fawcett's college boyfriend said they rekindled their romance after the breakup. He insisted he was her true love until her death, but that O'Neal prevented him from seeing her.

"That's what hurt about having these guys get on the stand and dismiss me," O'Neal said. He acknowledged he was unfaithful to Fawcett in 1997. At the time, they weren't getting along, he said, at odds over almost everything, including how to raise Redmond.

She was devastated, writing in his journal that she felt hurt, disgraced and pitiful.

"She was not perfect to live with," he explained, acknowledging that it really wasn't an excuse. "I got the sense she really didn't like me anymore. This woman was nice to me and she liked me."

But because they shared a son, they never lost touch. Eventually, he said, he came to realize that Fawcett was his true soul mate. He reached out to her in 2001, when he was diagnosed with leukemia. He was 60, and he thought he was a goner.

He says she forgave him, and they reconciled.

"We always thought it would be me who died and she would be there for me and I would die first," he said. But he found a miracle drug, Gleevec, which he takes to this day.

When she was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, he was the first person she called.

"When she got sick, I saw another side of her, a wonderful, strong, clear side," he said. "As she got sicker, she got stronger. I loved her more and more, even though I knew it would hurt me. I loved her more and there was less and less of her. It would break your heart."

He said he still grieves for Fawcett and can't imagine being with anyone else.

"How could anyone doubt that these two people loved each other?" Singer asked in genuine amazement in an interview with CNN.

"He truly loved her and cherished that portrait because it depicts her," Eagan, his partner, agreed.

In the end, the majority of the jurors did believe him, despite the natural tendency to suspect the sincerity of anyone in the acting profession. The jurors asked to hear O'Neal's testimony a second time, and returned their verdict less than two hours later. Nine of the 12 sided with him. In civil cases, the jury does not have to be unanimous; the parties just have to convince nine of the 12.

O'Neal said the jurors later told his lawyers that they had been at a standstill, with the vote stuck at 8 to 4, but one woman in the minority couldn't make up her mind. She and three other jurors decided to go to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels on a lunch break to pray. The cathedral, a few blocks from the courthouse, is where Fawcett's funeral was held, O'Neal said.

After praying, the undecided juror agreed with the others that Warhol had indeed given one portrait to O'Neal and one to Fawcett.

On the day after his victory, O'Neal finally was able to stay

home and let his face -- and his heart -- begin to heal.

"Today has been full of rich conversations and congratulations," he said. "It's been years since anyone has been happy for me. I thought it was my turn, frankly, to have a little good luck. It's about time. I thought I was snake bit."

But if his enemies wanted to cause him grief and stir up trouble for him, they managed to succeed, O'Neal pointed out.

"I paid $1 million for a painting I already owned," he said, referring to how much money this court battle has cost him. "I bought it and now I want Redmond to have it."

One million dollars. That's how much the appraiser hired by his lawyers suggested it might fetch in the marketplace, but attorney Singer thinks the portrait is now worth much more. Art appraisers talk about a work's "provenance," its back story, and this Warhol's provenance is now freshly torn from the headlines.

So in the end, the legal scuffle may have served only to increase the monetary value of a work of art that O'Neal's enemies tried so hard to wrest from him. He says the Warhol is priceless to him, and that's why he fought so hard to keep it as a cherished reminder of his departed angel.

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