To the north, white sails emblazon the green-blue water of Kaneohe Bay. To the south, the Koolau Mountains lift their grassy shoulders to the sky. Either way, the view from Habilitat, a private drug and delinquency rehabilitation center on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, is not hard to take. That’s fortunate because for approximately the next two years Griffin O’Neal may be seeing little else. Since early June the 18-year-old son of actor Ryan O’Neal has been rising at 6:45 a.m., showering, straightening his narrow bed in a dormitory and marching downstairs to breakfast in the communal dining hall.
Griffin has never known anything like Habilitat’s regimentation. All incoming males are given a military haircut, mail and visiting privileges must be earned, and any flashy possessions or unnecessary garments brought to the center are immediately shipped home. Until he arrived at the one-and-a-half-acre facility, flying alone from L.A. and being met at Honolulu Airport by T-shirted members of the staff, Griffin rode an emotional roller coaster. He feuded with his temperamental father, sought support and guidance from his famous sister, Tatum, 19, flirted with drugs and found an insufficient anchor in his nascent triumphs as an actor.
He belongs to one of Hollywood’s more celebrated and unruly clans, the O’Neals, whose tempers erupt like solar flares and whose attachments are strong. “There is no doubt they are close,” says one observer. “But it is a frighteningly volatile sort of love.” For Griffin, it often was a confusing affection. The path that led him to the drug-rehabilitation center surely has been trod by the children of many Hollywood celebrities. Since his early boyhood, by all accounts, he was both loved and neglected, indulged and ignored. His sister is relieved that he finally is hospitalized. “He had to have help,” says Tatum. “He needed to be in a situation where he was not indulged, where he couldn’t do just anything he wanted, and where someone would slap his hand if need be, to tell him ‘no.’ ”
The troubles that landed Griffin in Habilitat’s 24-to-30-month program began to peak in May. Police were summoned to a ranch house in Bel Air owned by Farrah Fawcett, Ryan’s steady since 1979. They reported a “verbal dispute” and chalked it up to an attempt by Ryan to “discipline” his son. A source relates that the argument erupted over some stereo equipment missing from the house. Griffin, at 5’7″ and 135 pounds, attempted to take down his father with a wrestling hold. (The boy had just finished playing a wrestler in his second film, Hadley’s Rebellion.) Ryan, 42, countered as Ryan often has since competing in the Los Angeles Golden Gloves of 1956 and ’57. Though six inches taller, at least 30 pounds heavier and presumably 23 years wiser, Dad, sources say, threw a punch with his left fist that knocked out two of Griffin’s front teeth. The boy fled to a friend’s house, where he blurted that he never wanted to see his father again.
Exactly two weeks later, police were called to a Malibu beach house whose occupant complained that the young tenant in the adjoining apartment had been “tearing his room apart” after ignoring two requests to leave. Inside the trashed room, amidst shattered window glass, officers found Griffin. They booked him on suspicion of receiving stolen property when they discovered an L.A. parking meter lying on a table. Given the opportunity to make a phone call at the Malibu sheriff’s substation, Griffin became enraged when he was unable to reach the number he dialed and ripped the receiver off the pay phone. Since no one posted bail for him, he languished behind bars three days until police, unable to prove the meter was actually stolen, released him. Shortly thereafter, reparations were made to the telephone company and Griffin was packed off to Hawaii.
The latest incidents were just the tip of a wayward iceberg. “My brother has the blues,” explains Tatum. “This path of destructiveness is just his way of begging for affection. It’s like anorexia in that he’s crying out for love and affection, but in the wrong way. I know Griffin better than anyone. He is brilliant and intense, probably the best actor in our family. But he has these terrible moods.” Actress Lisa Lucas, 23, who worked with Griffin on Hadley’s Rebellion until the film wrapped in May, adds, “Griffin’s wild but not dangerous, although he seems to be in space somewhere.” Chad McQueen, 22, Steve’s son and another Hadley’s co-star, says, “He’s going 100 miles per hour all the time.” The meaning is not just figurative. “Griffin loves to drive cars fast,” says Fox Green, stunt coordinator on Hadley’s. “He’s had eight or 10 wrecks. I told him, if you don’t get your act together, you’re going to wind up like James Dean.” (Griffin’s license had already been revoked for speeding and driving without a license, and he sometimes hitched rides with members of the Hadley’s crew.)
Griffin’s fast life has been fueled by drugs for some time. “He fell in with the wrong people in this town,” Tatum says. “I mean, when I was growing up that’s all anyone talked about. Drugs were everywhere. You had to make your own choices.” Tatum also thinks that the atmosphere at one of her brother’s private schools (he’s been in and out of several and has never graduated from high school) was lax and conducive to drug use. “It was this supposed ‘alternative’ school, but every kid in L.A. who took drugs went there,” she says. “It was the worst.”
One of his best friends during that period was Peter Bill, the son of producer-actor Tony (The Sting) Bill. At 16, Griffin was living, often unattended, at father Ryan’s Malibu beach house. “It was great for hanging out,” says Peter, now 19 and a summer school student. “We would go surfing and then sit around drinking beer. Griffin and I brought a lot of girls back there, but we never had any real major parties—only about 15 people at a time. Ryan would leave Griffin alone at the house for long stretches, stop in for a day and then be gone again,” remembers Peter. “That went on for about two years.”
“He and Peter were so much a part of one another that they did everything together, which eventually led to drugs,” says Francesca Bill, 18, Peter’s sister and a fledgling actress. She remembers meeting Griffin around Christmas 1981, when both he and Peter were undergoing treatment in a drug-rehabilitation program at Los Angeles’ Westwood Hospital. She was to become one of Griffin’s closest friends and confidantes. Peter and Griffin experimented with cocaine. Bill admits that he and his friend “would smoke pot together. It’s hard to stay on the rails given that sort of freedom.”
Actually, the rails beneath Griffin have never been very steady. He was 1, and Tatum 2, when Ryan left their mother, actress Joanna Moore, now 48. (O’Neal married Leigh Taylor-Young, 39, his co-star in TV’s Peyton Place, one day after his divorce from Joanna became final in 1967.) The children stayed with their mother, but when she developed a dependency on Methedrine from taking diet pills, Ryan tried to win custody. Joanna gained a standoff by subpoenaing a list of women to whom Ryan—even then as much an off-screen Lothario as he was on Peyton Place—had been romantically linked. A mystic given to caftans, tinkling bells and guru-speak, Joanna moved the kids to a small ranch in the San Fernando Valley, which degenerated into a hippie-ish commune of transients. Friends say there was a “Berlin Wall” between the parents—one was either in Ryan’s camp or Joanna’s, never both. What little order Tatum and Griffin knew came in the form of weekend outings with Ryan’s parents, playwright Charles “Blackie” O’Neal, 79, and his wife, Patricia, 75, a former actress.
In December 1971, Joanna entered an L.A. hospital for drug treatment, and Tatum went to live with Ryan in Malibu. Griffin stayed with his mother until 1977, when, 12 years old and seeking what he called “a father figure,” he joined Ryan and Tatum in Malibu.
They made an unusual triangle. Tatum had become an instant celebrity when she won an Oscar opposite Ryan in 1973’s Paper Moon, and their relationship was not typically father-daughter. “She was his female companion, but in a very healthy way,” says Steve Jaffe, Ryan’s former publicist. “She was possessive of him and peculiarly protective in regard to other women around him.” He, in turn, played equally possessive mentor and booster, despite their predilection for explosive screaming matches. Griffin, however, was at sea. As Tatum once told an interviewer, “Griffin’s room is right opposite mine, and he’s forever coming to me for things as though I’m Mommy. And, of course, I have to tell him to clean up his room and do small chores around the house. He hates that. ‘Okay, Mother,’ he’ll shout. Which makes me very upset.” One observer spoke of the “O’Neal dragon”—when two of the trio were quiet the third would inevitably be “blowing fire.” Ryan’s other child, Patrick, now 15, his son by Leigh Taylor-Young before they separated in 1971, seemed relatively unfazed by the turmoil. “Patrick is very different from Griffin, very gentle,” says their grandmother Patricia, a casually elegant woman who lives near Malibu in Pacific Palisades. “Tatum was the princess and Patrick was the baby. Griffin was in the middle. He felt like nothing. He would do anything to be like his father. When they walk down the street together, people think they are brothers. Griffin adores that.”
Griffin seems determined to further the resemblance in other ways. As one of Hollywood’s noted bedwinners, Ryan has squired Ursula Andress, Anouk Aimée, Anjelica Huston and Bianca Jagger, among others, and Griffin has inherited the roving eye. “Every pretty face turns his head,” says Fox Green. Griffin’s friend Francesca Bill says, “He’s tender and caring. But it’s very hard for him to work out when he wants to be tender and when he doesn’t.”
When he doesn’t, he seems determined to live up to his father’s reputation as a brawler. Says Tatum, “You can imagine their problems together if you think of them as a father who fancies himself a boxer and a son who thinks he’s a wrestler.” Father, after all, served 51 days in an L.A. jail for slugging an unfriendly stranger at a 1960 New Year’s Eve party. He KO’d a New Orleans entertainment writer with one punch in 1964. Photographers have always been in his doghouse, but even friends cannot be too careful. Jaffe sued Ryan following a 1978 L.A. nightclub incident in which Ryan nailed Jaffe with a right after Jaffe accused him of being rude to his steady, actress Susan Blakely. Ryan later apologized and paid Jaffe’s court costs. “It’s bull to say Hollywood made Ryan O’Neal the sort of person he is today,” says an Orange County businessman who attended high school with Ryan. “He was always that way—an obnoxious, pugnacious bully.” To brother Kevin O’Neal, a writer four years Ryan’s junior, “Ryan was not more explosive in high school than anyone else.” Kevin sees those joyriding years in a sympathetic light: “We were high-living, high-rolling kids.”
So was Griffin, who might have proved a handful for any parent. “He used to sneak out of the house when Ryan thought he was in bed,” says grandmother Patricia. “He had the car keys copied and off he would go. Ryan used to get terribly frustrated.” Part of that frustration, say friends, was that he was so rarely around to lay down the law. “I know Ryan really cares about the kids,” says Francesca, “but they would need him, and he would be off making a movie.”
Griffin got his chance to copy that part of his father’s life in 1979 when he landed the title role in The Escape Artist. Tatum, says director Caleb Deschanel, “really helped him get the part” by encouraging him and coaching him on his lines. For his first big role (he had a bit part in 1976’s Nickelodeon with his father and Tatum), Griffin learned magic tricks. He studied juggling, sleight of hand and escape gimmicks to play the son of a deceased Houdini-like master. Still, by August 1982, Griffin’s erratic behavior almost cost him his second role—as the headstrong prep school wrestler in Hadley’s Rebellion. “He couldn’t make eye contact or sit still” during the interview, says producer Steve Feke. It took some arm-twisting by powerful agent Sue Mengers for Feke and director Fred Walton to sit down to a screening of Escape Artist and be convinced.
On-camera, Griffin was “a complete pro,” says Feke. Yet off-camera, he became, in Walton’s words, “a Mexican jumping bean.” No one who worked with him on either film reports seeing any telltale signs of drug abuse. But by June, Griffin’s world clearly was beginning to fray dangerously.
There was the fight with his father, the brush with the police in Malibu. Farrah, who got along well with Griffin (“She always tries to make his favorite things for dinner,” says Patricia, “but like all kids today he likes only junk food”), was in New York starring in Extremities. So Ryan, who had finished shooting a film called Irreconcilable Differences in L.A., arranged to send his son to the Oahu drug center and flew to New York in early July. Patricia O’Neal reports that sending off Griffin “has been a tragedy for Ryan. It’s broken his heart. That’s why he went to New York. He simply had to have a change of atmosphere. And Farrah was there.”
Although Vincent Marino, director of Habilitat, refused to comment on Griffin, informed sources provided a portrait of his new life there. When Griffin breezed in “talking out of the side of his mouth about who he was,” he got a quick dressing down. “If he was who he thought he was,” said one source, “he wouldn’t be at Habilitat.”
There are no gates, fences or lockins at the bayside compound. The median age of the 125 coed residents is 21.8. The staff includes special education teachers who can help some, like Griffin, earn their high school degrees. Habilitat itself has been described as a “survival school,” both an “extended family” and a “city of refuge.”
Marino, a onetime heroin addict and petty thief who spent five years in New York City jails, says he took the best ideas of Daytop Village, Phoenix House and Synanon, “discarded the garbage” and came up with Habilitat in 1971. He lists his inspirations as “Emerson, Edison, Thoreau, Machiavelli, Sartre and Vinnie Marino.” The cost is $800 per month. In Hawaii, costs of other residential programs range from $600 to $1,500.
Like other residents, Griffin is forbidden to engage in any activity he knows well—in his case that includes acting, wrestling, juggling and sleight of hand, driving cars and picking up girls. “The point is to concentrate on what they don’t know,” says a source.
If the technique works, Griffin O’Neal may be ready before his 21st birthday to assume his place alongside his more celebrated kin. Those familiar with his work say he has the makings of a star. And Tatum remains hopeful. “On the one hand, he’s just a baby,” she says of her troubled brother. “By the same token, he’s so wise. Eighty years old at 18. He’s been through everything, seen everything. You look at his eyes, and he knows it all. All he needs is to have his thinking focused.”