By Eric Levin
June 04, 1984 12:00 PM

When Ryan O’Neal turned 43 last April, his son Griffin called him to say happy birthday. “He was surprised,” Griffin recalls. “He couldn’t believe that I actually remembered.” The call had not been easy to make. Bound by the rules of Habilitat, the private drug and delinquency rehabilitation center he entered last June, the 19-year-old could not make a phone call without first asking permission in writing. Then Ryan had been hard to track down; he was not at his Malibu Beach house, not at the house of his steady, Farrah Fawcett, not with Griffin’s sister, Tatum, not with Griffin’s grandparents or uncle. Finally, Griffin made one more long-distance call and found Ryan and Farrah dining at the home of Sue Mengers, the O’Neal family’s agent. It was his first conversation with his father in two months, and the next thing Griffin knew, “My dad started to cry on the phone. He listened. He misses me. And I miss him. I told him I loved him. It’s been a long time since I let him know, and I meant it.”

The gulf had grown very wide. In the months before his arrival at Habilitat nearly a year ago, Griffin was screeching out of control until one night his father slugged him. That punch knocked out two of his front teeth and triggered ignominious headlines. After the punch, Griffin caromed and skidded a few weeks more, dropping Quaaludes the way health fanatics pop vitamins. He finally crashed in a cell in Los Angeles County jail. Since no one came to bail him out, he languished for three days before the police released him, unable to prove whether a parking meter found in his apartment was in fact stolen. For a year Tatum, who is one year older, had been urging him to get treatment. A friend of hers had recommended Habilitat. He was ready. “I was always looking for a good time,” says Griffin. “Fast driving, fast living—it wasn’t there. I wanted more.”

He got more than he expected. When Griffin entered the $800-a-month center (Ryan is picking up the tab), he told his family, “I’ll be back in three to six months.” Griffin’s first shock when he reached the 1.5-acre compound came when he learned that the program takes 18 to 24 months to complete. Then he had to contend with the induction interview, an exercise in ego demolition calculated to shake up the newcomer. Habilitat staffers have a name for the newly arrived resident: “Chopmeat.” It is no misnomer.

Griffin found himself facing four dour men with T-shirts and tattooed arms. “They said, ‘Why are you here?’ I said, ‘I want your help.’ They said, ‘Good, you’re going to get it. Now what can you give us?’ ” He told them about his piano playing, his two movies and his noted friends. One man looked at the gap in Griffin’s teeth and said, “If you’re so terrific, why don’t you whistle for us?” Griffin was dumbfounded and scared. Suddenly “they were screaming at the top of their lungs what a degenerate I was, and I started crying.”

Before he could recover, the men asked what kind of drugs he used. “Quaaludes.” “How do you know they’re Quaaludes?” Griffin shot them an impatient glance. “Because they’re Lemmon 714 and Rorer 714.” “Oh, you’re a chemist,” came the reply. “You have a laboratory, you analyze the pills, find out what they’re cut with, and then you take them.” “No,” said Griffin warily. “So you’re ingesting something that could be cyanide, and in essence you don’t really care whether you live or die, do you? If you’re that stupid, what are we going to do with you here?”

Says Vincent Marino, 45, founder and director of Habilitat, which has 115 residents (27 female) and a staff of 41 (almost all ex-users), “That’s where his shocker came, because he thought he had all the answers for everybody, as with most of the people that come here.” At the end of the interview, Griffin was told, “This place is not a democracy. Your only right is to walk out of the gate you came in.” As “a lesson in humility,” his head was shaved.

In his first year Griffin has acquired at least four things he didn’t have a year ago: a bridge to replace his knocked-out teeth, eyeglasses (he never realized he was nearsighted), a high school diploma (actually, a general equivalency degree) and 30 pounds of muscle on what was once a boyish, 126-pound, 5’7″ frame.

In the year or so he has remaining in the program, the staff of Habilitat will try to help him attain some of the things that had always eluded him: attention, recognition, discipline, affection. The staff says he is doing well. If there is a lot to build on—Griffin is a veritable Roman candle of energy and imagination—there is also a lot to overcome.

“I was born hyperkinetic,” Griffin explains. “My mom used to have to stick her finger in my mouth because I would grind my teeth in my sleep, and her finger would come out all raw and chewed up.” When Griffin was 1, Ryan left his mother, actress Joanna Moore, who later developed a dependency on Methedrine from taking diet pills. Griffin became a precocious troublemaker. “I used to steal our neighbor’s garage-door opener—he had a couple sets—and I’d hide in the ivy till he came home,” recalls Griffin. “He’d open it up and I’d close it right on his car. I loved that. Nice white Cadillac, you know. I was crazy.” He was also about 4.

Griffin tells such stories glibly; he just cracks them open and spits them out. There was the time he threw his desk at Mrs. Taylor, the fourth-grade teacher; the time he broke his nose scaling a loose brick wall when somebody was chasing him. Stories about his father come out in different tones, by turns defensive, uncertain and wistful. As a small child, “I didn’t see him that often. You know, maybe I did; maybe I just blocked it out. Later, when I was 5 or 6, he’d pick me and Tatum up on weekends and we’d go to the beach.”

Ryan was starring in TV’s Peyton Place with Leigh Taylor-Young, whom he later married; they separated in 1971 after having a son, Patrick, 16. At the end of that year, Joanna entered Westwood Hospital for treatment of her Methedrine habit. Tatum moved in with Ryan in Malibu, but Griffin stayed with his mother after she was discharged. The visits with Ryan became lifelines for Griffin.

At the beach, “I remember he used to put me on his shoulders and I used to cry because I didn’t like the waves,” Griffin says. “A lot of things I was afraid of I later got into. Waves. I became a surfer. Motorcycles. I ended up racing them, slipping two discs in my back racing Chad McQueen [Steve’s son].”

At about age 8, Griffin entered his “Ping-Pong” period. “I’d do something to upset my dad and he’d say, ‘Go stay with your mom.’ I’d do something to upset my mom and she’d say, ‘Go stay with your dad.’ I was like a Ping-Pong ball, bouncing from place to place.”

Through it all, Griffin clung to his insistent Technicolor memories—frolicking on the beach, flipping Frisbees for hours with his father. “Many nights, since I was about 8,” he says, “I lay in bed and cried myself to sleep. Sometimes I still do, because I just wish all those good times, those feelings, would come back.”

At 12, in 1977, Griffin went to live with Ryan and Tatum. Rugged and dashingly handsome, Ryan became an awesome hero to Griffin. Ryan showed him how to box, wrestle and shoot pool. As the boy grew up, father and son competed constantly, and Ryan did little to defuse the charged atmosphere. Eventually, Griffin got good enough to beat Ryan at pool. “Dad got angry at that one, you know,” he says, with a certain relish. When Griffin was a teenager, he and Ryan would do sit-ups on a slant board tilted to at least 45 degrees. “He did 100,” Griffin says. “I had to do 101.”

But there was one person in the family Griffin could not compete with, and that was Tatum. In her 1973 movie debut at age 9, she co-starred with Ryan in Paper Moon, and copped an Oscar. Offscreen Tatum and Ryan made quite a team—fanatically possessive and protective of each other, aggressively jocular and argumentative. Griffin recalls, “I didn’t like to be shoveled off to the side, but I understood, because she had been there longer living with him.” Tatum and Griffin got along fine but, unavoidably, “I was resentful of her success. She had all the recognition, and I had something, I knew I had something and I wanted to work.”

In 1979 he did work, starring as The Escape Artist—a role Tatum helped him land. To director Caleb Deschanel, he demonstrated “an incredibly innate talent as an actor.” In his next film, Hadley’s Rebellion, he did well, but off-camera, recalls producer Steve Feke, Griffin was constantly “cutting you off in mid-sentence, pacing around the room.”

As teenagers, Griffin and Tatum were largely left on their own. While they lived mainly at the Malibu house, Ryan spent long stretches at his Beverly Hills home, which afforded a faster commute to the studios.

“I never went to school,” admits Griffin. “I never could sit still that long.” A near-hermit, Griffin rarely went anywhere. The action came to him. At any hour of the day or night, the phone might ring and a voice on the other end—one of his circle of about 40 confederates, some wealthy kids, some hitchhiking beach bums—would bark, “Yo, Griff! Be there in 10.” The parties were never big—about 15 people maximum—but they were long and loud.

In 1979 Ryan fell for Farrah Fawcett, later sold his Beverly Hills house and made her place a second home. “I adjusted, I liked Farrah,” Griffin says. “I felt she helped my dad, kept him calm.” Did she give Griffin any motherly support? “You got to understand,” he says. “To deal with my dad was one big responsibility.”

Tatum felt Ryan’s absence too. It was a 45-minute drive from Malibu to the Hollywood Professional School where the teenagers were enrolled, and Tatum drove them in her white BMW. But some mornings, when the kids were “real depressed” and “wishing Daddy were here,” they’d just “turn the car around and take off. Palm Springs, Big Sur, Aspen, anywhere.”

Griffin persuaded Tatum to spend $16,000 to modify her $30,000 Porsche 911 SC so that it could outrun anything, especially a patrol car. When he borrowed it without her knowledge one night, he covered the 400 miles to San Francisco in 3 hours, 30 minutes. On the way back, he discovered that even if patrol cars couldn’t clock him, radar could. He was ticketed for doing 168 in a 55-mph zone. But what really did him in were his 27 speeding summonses. In December 1982 Griffin’s license was revoked for a year and a half.

Early in 1983 “Daddy O’,” as Griffin sometimes refers to Ryan, got fed up and banished his prodigal son from the beach house, renting for him a tiny Malibu cabana. Griffin had been living on charge accounts sent directly to the family business manager. He had them at a food market, a gas station, a delicatessen, an expensive boutique, even a stereo store. But when Griffin’s food bills hit $1,500 a month, Daddy O’ cut him off cold turkey—except then Griffin couldn’t even afford cold turkey. He subsisted on sauerkraut. A dealing friend kept him in Quaaludes.

The climax came last May. To keep Griffin out of trouble, his father invited him to the set of Irreconcilable Differences, the first movie Ryan had made in two years. When they got back to Farrah’s that night (she was in New York starring in Extremities) Griffin dropped a number of Quaaludes and fidgeted in front of the TV. Soon Ryan appeared in racquetball togs and wanted to play. Ordinarily, Griffin would have loved nothing better than to bang the hell out of the ball, head to head with his famous father. “But I wasn’t in any condition to play,” he says.

Ryan was insistent. To keep his father at bay, Griffin lashed out. “I’m going to my mom’s,” he said. That lit Ryan’s fuse. He went downstairs to the racquetball court and “banged a few balls around.” When he returned Griffin was still there, hostile and confused.

“I didn’t want to start up,” he says, “because you don’t want to start up with my dad on these kinds of things.” He picked up his skateboard and headed out the door. Ryan pushed him out, yelling, “Go to your mom’s, then!”

Outside, Griffin realized he was in no condition to skateboard on twisty Mulholland Drive. He barged back in, saying he was taking his Austin. Ryan sat him down. “He tried to talk to me,” Griffin admits. “He said, ‘You’re going to die if you don’t be careful. What are you doing? I love you, man. You can’t do this.’ I didn’t want to hear it.”

Griffin lunged for the door. Ryan grabbed him, spinning him around. That was the last straw for Griffin. He ran at Ryan in something like a fireman’s carry and drove him backward into a set of glass shelves. They fell to the floor in a rain of broken glass and shattering plates. Griffin scrambled to his feet and made for the door. Instantly, Ryan caught up and his fist flashed.

Griffin spat out two bloody teeth and started to laugh nervously. Ryan started to cry. “He couldn’t believe what he’d done,” Griffin says. He grabbed the teeth and said, “Put ’em back in, maybe they’ll stick.” Soon they were crying in each other’s arms.

Griffin stayed the night. Father and son took a hot tub together and doused each other with apologies and endearments. For the first time in a long while, Griffin felt oddly calm, close to his father. Looking back, he says, “If he hadn’t hit me, and I would have left, I might have been dead. Because I had Quaaludes in my pocket and I was going to get nuts.”

The rapprochement proved short-lived. When the police showed up at Farrah’s the next day, Ryan accused Griffin of calling them. Griffin protested his innocence (he says the family dentist guessed what had happened and, unbeknownst to Griffin, called the police). “He didn’t believe me,” Griffin says. Two weeks later, the cops arrested him for trashing his cabana in a temperamental fit. Shortly thereafter, Griffin flew to Habilitat.

At the start Griffin “hated” Habilitat’s regimentation—the 7 a.m. wake-up, the group-therapy sessions, the surprise meetings, the microscopic scrutiny of every waking moment, the rule against flirting with the female residents and the attitude that the place was at heart “an extended family.” He admits, “I condescended. I looked at the other residents like this: I never shot heroin. I don’t have 20 years in jail hanging over my head. Who are you to tell me I’m just a bum?”

The others let Griffin have it. Two or three times a week residents participate in a brutally frank encounter group called a game. As facility director Joaquin Camacho explains, “The game is the heartbeat of the program. There’s no violence permitted here, no threats, no drugs, no booze. All you have is the game.” At first the “noise,” or reactions, Griffin got in games was so critical it “just wiped me against the wall,” he says.

The turning point came last November. Fed up with the stringency of the program and hankering for a good old-fashioned good time, Griffin one day walked off the premises and tried to call an L.A. girlfriend and his father. Neither was home. But when the girlfriend dialed Habilitat to return Griffin’s call, Camacho guessed what was up and hauled Griffin in. Ordered to wait on a high stool reserved for people on their way out, Griffin decided he was going to resist all attempts to “turn him around” and make him stay.

Since Griffin had always affected an I-can-handle-anything-here attitude, residents happening by looked at him in shock. Among them was one of his best friends, a boy he had known in his wild Malibu days. The pal was on a “house ban” and was forbidden to talk to people outside his immediate group. Griffin was off limits.

O’Neal’s friend gaped, and Griffin realized his friend was going to break the ban to speak to him. “People were saying, ‘Don’t do it,’ ” Griffin recalls. ” ‘Let him split.’ But he says, ‘Whoa! This is my friend.’ He comes up to me, and he says, ‘You going somewhere?’ He keeps talking to me, and I’m starting to cry like a baby, because I never felt that concern before. He said, ‘Take what they’re going to give you.’ I said, ‘You got it.’ ”

Since then Griffin’s positive qualities—his humor and creativity, especially in house skits—have come to be more appreciated. He still gets “wiped out” occasionally in games. In a recent game, one resident “indicted” him: “As soon as somebody says something that makes you think, you go talk to somebody else.” Another said: “You feel totally phony to me.”

Griffin has a way to go, but Marino says, “What I like about Griffin is he has character.” Griffin is proud of adopting two newer residents as “little brothers” and seeing them through the first phase of the program.

Griffin’s family has not abandoned him. Tatum writes monthly and calls at least three times a month. Griffin’s mother writes weekly and his paternal grandparents also send letters. Ryan sends an occasional note and calls about once every other month. “He comes across as proud of what Griffin is doing,” says Camacho.

The staff has allowed Griffin to receive two visits from his family. In late October Ryan and Farrah flew in. “They were both very sweet and charming, very down to earth,” says Vickie Marino, 44, Vinny’s wife and Habilitat’s clinical coordinator. Tatum spent Christmas with her brother. “They were like peanut butter and jelly—stuck to each other,” Camacho says. “She has a great love for him but she doesn’t know how to express it. Her way is to insist he stay here. Griffin cares a lot about her. She was the balancing point in his life.”

But the big nut to crack is still his relationship with his father. Griffin owns up to having been a “brat” who “didn’t listen.” He has a harder time confronting the loneliness, rejection and desperation beneath his rebellion. “I didn’t want to mess up the flow of the family,” he says. “I was brought up to act like nothing affects me. To this day I still try to portray that.”

Marino would like to see him drop that image. If he does—and it will take more courage than the fastest curve he ever took—Griffin O’Neal may yet be able to accept what he most wants from his father. His love.