LONDON — Great wealth became J. Paul Getty III's great curse.
At age 16, he was held for ransom for five months by captors who cut off his ear when his oil-rich grandfather balked at paying.
After his 1973 release, he became addicted to drugs and alcohol, diving deeper into a hippie counterculture that seemed the opposite of his family's capitalistic roots. He was only in his 20s when he suffered a devastating stroke that left him severely impaired and in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He died Saturday at age 54.
Getty "never let his handicap keep him from living life to the fullest and he was an inspiration to all of us, showing us how to stand up to all adversity," his son, the actor Balthazar Getty, said in a statement.
The elder Getty died surrounded by his family at his country estate in Buckinghamshire northwest of London. The cause of death was not disclosed, but Getty had been gravely ill for some time.
Born in 1956 to oil wealth counted in the billions of dollars, Getty's life was upended when he was kidnapped in Rome in 1973. He was a tempting target – his grandfather was often said to be one of the world's first billionaires.
He cut a dashing figure, with tight jeans, open shirts and long, flowing hair – resembling, at times, a young Mick Jagger.
At the time of his abduction, Getty was known as the "golden hippie." He hung out with young leftists and counterculture types in Piazza Navona, Campo dei Fiori and Piazza Farnese in Rome.
At first, some thought the kidnapping was staged to extract money from the grandfather. Friends at that time said the youngster had actually joked about such a tactic.
His mother, American actress Gail Harris, called journalists to her home one evening in the upscale Parioli section of Rome to announce the family had received a ransom demand of $17 million.
Getty's grandfather refused to pay. He was quoted as saying that he had 14 grandchildren "and if I pay for one, then I'll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren."
But his will was broken when a Rome newspaper received a plastic envelope with a severed ear inside and a warning that another would follow if the family didn't pay.
The teenager, missing an ear, was released after five months and was found wandering on a country road in southern Calabria. He was freed for a reported ransom of $2.7 million – far less than the kidnappers' original demands.
Several people were eventually convicted and sentenced to prison. Prosecutors blamed the Calabrian mob.
Most of the ransom money was never recovered.
Once freed from his ordeal, Getty enthusiastically embraced a life of drugs and parties, becoming a well-known member of the hippie subculture. He soon developed habits for drugs and alcohol.
He did not speak out in public and was not really a celebrity, but the fact that a grandson of an oil tycoon had embraced the flower power ethos did not go unnoticed.
Photographs told his story well, and soon enough he was pictured with a striking young brunette – her hair was shorter than his – who would in 1974 become his wife. She was known as Martine Zacher or Gisela Zacher before their union, which produced their son, Balthazar.
While undergoing treatment for alcohol abuse in 1981, Getty suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed, unable to speak and in need of around-the-clock care. Newspaper reports indicated the stroke was drug-related, but details were not released.
Getty's father had struggled with his own well-publicized drug addiction and his stepmother died from a drug overdose.
Getty's wife sued two drug companies, claiming that sedatives prescribed to treat a severe and debilitating medical condition caused permanent brain damage. The couple later divorced.
Getty was rarely seen in public after the stroke, and soon drifted from the public consciousness, too, sometimes remembered as one more hippie drug casualty even as his family name became associated with global philanthropy and the arts.
The family rose to global prominence with the success of his grandfather, J. Paul Getty, who built Getty Oil into a $6 billion fortune – making him one of the world's richest men in his day.
J. Paul Getty was known for his tightfisted approach, reportedly installing a pay telephone in one of his homes so that family and friends would not be able to place long distance calls at his expense.
He also built one of the world's great art collections, which formed the basis of the J. Paul Getty Museum – a cultural centerpiece in Los Angeles.
His son, the late John Paul Getty Jr., made charitable donations that totaled more than $200 million in Britain alone, to causes related to everything from cricket to needy children.
But this charitable generosity did not extend to his own family – the reclusive multimillionaire initially refused to pay for his son's steep monthly medical bills, agreeing to do so only in the face of a lawsuit from his first wife, Harris, with whom he had three other children.
Getty is survived by his two children, Balthazar and stepdaughter Anna, and six grandchildren. He is also survived by his mother and four siblings: Getty Images co-founder Mark Getty, prominent AIDS activist Aileen Getty, Ariadne Getty and his half-brother Tara Getty.
Balthazar Getty has starred in film and TV productions and is currently appearing on the ABC network drama "Brothers & Sisters."
Victor L. Simpson in Rome contributed to this report.