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Ryan O’Neal & Francis Ford Coppola’s Sons Once Went Boating Together — One of Them Survived

Esther NJeri
Oct 22, 2021
01:30 P.M.
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Many movie fanatics worldwide enjoyed watching the 1986 film "Gardens of Stone," but very few people were aware of the tragedy that surrounded the movie's production.

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While on a small break during the shooting of the movie "Gardens of Stone," Ryan O'Neal and Francis Ford Coppola's sons Griffin and Gian Carlo faced one of the worst boating nightmares of their lives.

Unfortunately. the two cruised their boat between two vessels and into a towline that saw the director's son and the young actor caught up in a bizarre boating accident that cost a life.

Left: Ryan O'Neal on an interview with Rotten Tomatoes | Source: YouTube/Rotten Tomatoes Right: Francis Ford Coppola on MSNBC | Source: YouTube/MSNCB

Left: Ryan O'Neal on an interview with Rotten Tomatoes | Source: YouTube/Rotten Tomatoes Right: Francis Ford Coppola on MSNBC | Source: YouTube/MSNCB

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HOW THE TRAGEDY BEGAN

The year was 1986, and the director of "The Godfather," Coppola, had his team ready and had begun shooting the war drama film "Gardens of Stone" at Arlington National Cemetery.

Gian Carlo, then 23, his fiancee Jacqueline De La Fontaine, and Griffin, 22, were Washington. D.C for the movie. Gian Carlo was working the videotape camera while Griffin had been cast for a minor role of Albert Wildman in the film.

On that fateful day, La Fontaine did not accompany the two as they took a break from shooting and rented out a small motorboat to spend the Memorial Day Holiday sunbathing near Annapolis on the South River.

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Ryan O'Neal arrives at LACMA 2012 Art + Film Gala at LACMA on October 27, 2012 in Los Angeles, California | Photo: Getty Images

Ryan O'Neal arrives at LACMA 2012 Art + Film Gala at LACMA on October 27, 2012 in Los Angeles, California | Photo: Getty Images

Cruising the waters at between 15 and 20 knots, the young lads were having the time of their lives, soaking up the sunshine but oblivious of the danger that lurked just ahead.

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Three hours after leaving the shore, the boys approached a large vessel towing another disabled boat to the marina. Unbeknownst to Griffin, who was captaining the 14 foot rented craft, there was a towline between the two slow-moving vessels.

Griffin was, however, declared innocent of the more severe charge of boat manslaughter.

Francis Ford Coppola attends the Telluride Film Festival on September 04, 2021 in Telluride, Colorado. | Source: Getty Images

Francis Ford Coppola attends the Telluride Film Festival on September 04, 2021 in Telluride, Colorado. | Source: Getty Images

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Inexperienced in the ways of the river, Griffin made an error in judgment and decided to cut through the two boats, a decision that would prove tragic in the few minutes that followed.

Gian Carlo was sitting at the boat's helm as they sailed through the famous river stretch when it ran into the tow line. The force of the blow hurled him backward, and he hit his head on the deck.

He suffered tremendous head injuries, while Griffin only sustained minor shoulder injuries. As soon as Gian Carlo hit his head, Griffin had started screaming for help, and that's when a witness, Dwight Atkinson, reached out and got to the scene.

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Tatum O'Neal and her brother Griffin attend the Frankie B Fall 2003 preview during the Mercedes-Benz Shows LA fashion week in Los Angeles, California. | Photo: Getty Images.

Tatum O'Neal and her brother Griffin attend the Frankie B Fall 2003 preview during the Mercedes-Benz Shows LA fashion week in Los Angeles, California. | Photo: Getty Images.

Atkinson testified, saying he had been about 200 feet away from the scene and did not realize there had been a severe accident until he heard Griffin screaming out for help. He recalls the 22-year old actor's son screaming in shock and desperation.

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The 5.15 p.m accident happened three miles south of the famous Pier 7 marina on the South River in Edgewater. The emergency medical team got to the scene as fast as they could and attempted resuscitating Gian Carlo.

Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Coppola and Gian-Carlo Coppola attend the screening party for "Runaway Train" on January 7, 1986 at Les Tuileries in New York City. | Source: Getty Images

Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Coppola and Gian-Carlo Coppola attend the screening party for "Runaway Train" on January 7, 1986 at Les Tuileries in New York City. | Source: Getty Images

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When their attempts at reviving him failed, he was admitted to Anne Arundel General Hospital. Unfortunately, barely an hour after the accident, Gian Carlo succumbed to the abrasions to his face and arm and injuries to his head.

COPPOLA SUES GRIFFIN

Following the bizarre speedboating accident, and the death of his son, Coppola sued Griffin for negligence. Circuit Judge for Anne Arundel County, Martin Wolff, presided over the case.

During the trial, a witness, Kenneth Wilkins, who had been towing the smaller boat, said that the two young men had been smiling and did not seem aware that they were about to hit a tow line.

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US movie director Francis Ford Coppola receives the Lumiere Award during the 11th edition of the Lumiere Film Festival in Lyon, central eastern France, on October 18, 2019. | Source: Getty Images

US movie director Francis Ford Coppola receives the Lumiere Award during the 11th edition of the Lumiere Film Festival in Lyon, central eastern France, on October 18, 2019. | Source: Getty Images

This insight would explain why Griffin did not change course or attempt to slow down as they approached the tow line. He faced five misdemeanor counts, among them the negligent and reckless operation of the vessel.

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The charges attracted up to five years in jail time on top of a 1,000 dollar fine. Griffin was, however, declared innocent of the more severe charge of boat manslaughter.

GRIFFIN IS CONVICTED

Following the trial, the court required Griffin to pay a 200 dollar fine and serve 18-month probation accompanied by strict rules. If Griffin violated any of the probation conditions, he stood to face a 30-day suspended jail term.

Actor Griffin O'Neal arrives at the 30th anniversary screening of "Paper Moon" at the Vista Theater August 21, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. | Source: Getty Images

Actor Griffin O'Neal arrives at the 30th anniversary screening of "Paper Moon" at the Vista Theater August 21, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. | Source: Getty Images

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During the trial, the judge noted that good things about Griffin were hard to come by in the reports presented to him, as he alluded to Griffin's reported lies over who operated the boat.

In the spur of the moment, Griffin had told the prosecution that Gian Carlo had been operating the boat but would later change his statement. Asked why he had lied, Griffin said:

''I didn't want to have to tell his mother - didn't want to have to carry that burden, which I will have to do for the rest of my life."

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Griffin would also be required to attend work or school, do at least 400 hours of community service, and submit to periodic drug testing.

COPPOLA ON LOSING HIS SON

Coppola made many mistakes during his long life and had many regrets. On top of the list was his decision to make the movie "Gardens of Stone."

The acclaimed film director and producer says at the time; he had been making at least a movie every year to help him keep his household together.

Actor Ryan O'Neal, his son Griffin O'Neal and actress Farrah Fawcett catch a performance of "Nine" at 42nd Street Theatre on June 16, 1982 in New York City.  | Source: Getty Images

Actor Ryan O'Neal, his son Griffin O'Neal and actress Farrah Fawcett catch a performance of "Nine" at 42nd Street Theatre on June 16, 1982 in New York City. | Source: Getty Images

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But the making of "Gardens of Stone" remains the primary source of compunction for now 82-year-old. He wishes he did not make the movie as it cost him everything. Coppola says:

“I fantasize having not made 'Gardens of Stone.' I wouldn’t have lost my son.”

However, the loss of his son inspired the making of "The Godfather III," which starred Sofia, one of the Coppola children.

Actor Ryan O'Neal attends the curtain call for "Love Letters" at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on October 14, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California.  | Source: Getty Images

Actor Ryan O'Neal attends the curtain call for "Love Letters" at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on October 14, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. | Source: Getty Images

Today Gian Carlo is succeeded by his daughter Gia Coppola, whom Gian Carlo's fiancee, Jacqui de la Fontaine, was pregnant with at the time of his death.

She, too, just like her father and grandfather, is in the entertainment industry and is a screenwriter and film producer in her rights.

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