February 06, 1989 12:00 PM

Like a boy on his way to the woodshed, actor Griffin O’Neal, 24, kept his head down and his voice low at his sentencing this month in a Maryland courtroom. Accused of violating probation following his conviction for negligence in the 1986 boating death of director Francis Ford Coppola’s son Gian Carlo, O’Neal put himself at the mercy of the court. “I’m here,” he said quietly, “to pay my dues.”

In May 1986 O’Neal ran a small rented speedboat into a towline between two slow-moving boats on the South River near Annapolis. The rope caught his friend Gian Carlo, 23, in the face, slamming him to the deck and killing him. Although found not guilty of manslaughter, O’Neal was fined $200, given 18 months probation and ordered to perform 400 hours of community service near his home in Los Angeles.

With his probation at an end, however, O’Neal had completed only 60 hours of community service. So Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Martin A. Wolff sentenced him to 18 days in jail. O’Neal, who in 1985 completed two years of therapy in a private drug and delinquency program, also faces a civil suit filed against him by Francis Coppola. As administrator of his son’s estate, the elder Coppola is asking for unspecified monetary damages on behalf of Gian Carlo’s fiancée, Jackie De La Fontaine, and their daughter, Gian Carla, who was born seven months after her father’s death. Since O’Neal has had few movie roles recently and is apparently penniless, the suit may never result in a cash award. “You can’t get blood from a stone,” says Coppola family lawyer Robb Jones. “We just think he has a responsibility given what has happened here, and we want to talk candidly with him about it.”

Meanwhile, young O’Neal seems increasingly isolated. Although his father, Ryan O’Neal, stood by his side at his sentencing in 1987, he was not present at the recent probation hearing. “Griffin’s father has decided he’s going to have to make it on his own,” says Griffin’s lawyer, T. Joseph Touhey. “And let’s face it, the time is right for Griffin to grow up.”

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