Many moviegoers around the world enjoyed watching the 1986 film “Gardens of Stone”, but very few were aware of the tragedy that surrounded the production of the film.
During a short break during the filming of the movie “Gardens of Stone”, Ryan O’Neal and Francis Ford Coppola’s sons Griffin and Gian Carlo faced one of the worst nautical nightmares of their lives.
Unfortunately. the two sailed their boat between two ships and in a tow rope which saw the director’s son and the young actor caught in a strange boat crash that claimed their lives.
It was 1986, and “The Godfather” director Coppola had prepared his crew and started shooting the war drama “Gardens of Stone” at Arlington National Cemetery.
Gian Carlo, then 23, his fiancee Jacqueline De La Fontaine and Griffin, 22, were in Washington. DC for the film. Gian Carlo was working on the video camera while Griffin was 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 filming and rented a small motorboat to spend the Memorial Day vacation sunbathing near Annapolis on the South River.
Sailing between 15 and 20 knots, the young people were having fun, enjoying the sun but oblivious to the danger that awaited them just ahead.
Three hours after leaving shore, the boys approached a large vessel towing another broken down boat to the marina. Unbeknownst to Griffin, who was in command of the 14-foot leased craft, there was a tow line between the two slow-moving vessels.
Griffin was, however, found innocent of the more serious charge of manslaughter on a boat.
Inexperienced in river lanes, Griffin erred in judgment and decided to cut through the two boats, a decision that would prove tragic within minutes.
Gian Carlo was seated at the helm of the boat as they cruised the famous stretch of the river and when the boat hit the towline the force of the blow threw him back and he hit his head on the bridge.
He suffered massive head injuries, while Griffin suffered only minor shoulder injuries. As soon as Gian Carlo hit his head, Griffin started screaming for help, and that’s when a witness, Dwight Atkinson, reached out and arrived on the scene.
Atkinson testified, saying he was about 200 feet from the scene and did not realize there had been a serious accident until he heard Griffin yelling at the aid. He remembers the actor’s 22-year-old son screaming in shock and despair.
The 5:15 p.m. accident occurred three miles south of the famous Pier 7 Marina on the South River in Edgewater. The emergency medical team arrived at the scene as fast as they could and attempted to resuscitate Gian Carlo.
When their attempts to resuscitate him failed, he was admitted to Anne Arundel General Hospital. Sadly, barely an hour after the accident, Gian Carlo succumbed to grazes on his face and arm and head injuries.
Following the bizarre speedboat accident and the death of his son, Coppola sued Griffin for negligence. The case was brought before Anne Arundel County Presidential Circuit Judge Martin Wolff.
During the trial, a witness, Kenneth Wilkins, who was towing the smaller boat, said the two young men were smiling and did not appear to realize they were about to hit a tow line.
This idea would explain why Griffin did not change course or attempt to slow down as the towline approached. He was charged with five counts of misdemeanor, including the negligent and reckless driving of the ship.
The charges resulted in up to five years in prison in addition to a fine of $ 1,000. Griffin was, however, found innocent of the more serious charge of manslaughter on a boat.
After the trial, the court asked Griffin to pay a fine of $ 200 and serve 18 months probation with strict rules. If Griffin violated any of the probation conditions, he faced a 30-day suspended jail sentence.
The judge, during the trial, said he found nothing good about Griffin in any reports presented to him, referring to Griffin lying about who had driven the boat.
On spur of the moment Griffin told the prosecution that Gian Carlo had operated the boat but would later change his statement. When asked why he lied, Griffin replied:
“I didn’t want to have to tell his mother – I didn’t want to have to carry that burden, which I will have to do for the rest of my life.”
Griffin would also be required to attend work or school, do at least 400 hours of community service, and undergo periodic drug tests.
COPPOLA ON THE LOSS OF HER SON
Over the course of his many years of life, Coppola made many mistakes and had many regrets, and yet, overcoming it all, it was the decision to make the movie “Gardens of Stone”.
The acclaimed director and producer said at the time that he made at least one movie every year to help keep his house together.
But the making of “Gardens of Stone” remains the main source of scruples for 82 years now. He wishes he hadn’t made the film because it cost him everything. Coppola says:
“I fantasize not to have done ‘Stone Gardens’. I would not have lost my son.
Looking on the bright side, however, the loss of her son inspired the making of “The Godfather III”, which starred Sofia, another of Coppola’s children.
Today Gian Carlo is replaced by his daughter Gia Coppola, whose fiancée of Gian Carlo, Jacqui de la Fontaine, was pregnant at the time of her death.
She too, like her father and grandfather, is in the entertainment industry and is a full-fledged screenwriter and film producer.