Classic Hollywood: Tatum O’Neal’s life is no Hollywood fairy tale, but it does have a happy ending

Oscar-winning actress Tatum O'Neal
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Tatum O’Neal has gone through good times and bad times, but she’s still here. And as feisty and candid as ever.

She has a small but pivotal role in “God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness,” the latest entry in the successful faith-based movie franchise that opens Friday. She also started an interview podcast, “Tatum, Verbatim,” last year; she’s currently looking for a new producer.

“I’m gonna find a new home for it,” the open and engaging actress said in a recent interview in Beverly Hills. “I don’t want to stop. I thought it was a great thing for me. I love interviewing people.”


In “God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness,” she plays the nemesis of a pastor (David A.R. White), a university administrator who wants his church removed from campus.

“They were lovely to me on this movie,” she said. “They treated me with so much respect. I hope if they make another one, they’ll think of me.”

White, who is also a producer on the film, said that when O’Neal’s name came up for the role, he thought, “This feels right.”

“She couldn’t have been nicer,” he added. “I think sometimes when people go through these different addictions, their spirit has softened a lot to where now they want to love people, and that’s kind of what I feel like Tatum is at.”

For most of O’Neal’s 54 years, her life has been an open book.

She’s the youngest actress ever to win an Academy Award. She captured the Oscar for supporting actress at age 10 for Peter Bogdanovich’s beloved 1973 film “Paper Moon,” which also stars her father, Ryan O’Neal.

Best supporting actress ("Paper Moon") Tatum O'Neal, April 2, 1974, at the 46th Academy Awards.
(Ben Olender / Los Angeles Times )

But her life has been no Hollywood fairy tale.

In her 2004 memoir, “A Paper Life,” and her 2011 follow-up, “Found: A Daughter’s Journey Home,” she talks about living with her younger brother Griffin on her mother Joanna Moore’s ramshackle ranch after the actress and Ryan O’Neal divorced. Tatum alleged that she was beaten by her mother’s teenage boyfriend and molested at age 6.

She and her brother went to live with O’Neal when she was 8, but they had to deal with her father’s volatile temper. At age 14, she became involved with a married stuntman on the set of “International Velvet.” Later, her father left her and her brother alone as teenagers after he moved in with Farrah Fawcett.

She was no stranger to drugs before she married tennis star John McEnroe in 1986; the couple had three children, Kevin, Sean and Emily. After they separated in 1992, O’Neal became hooked on heroin and lost custody of her children.

But she got clean and got back her children. Save for a relapse in 2008, when she was arrested for trying to buy cocaine, O’Neal has been sober. She even tried to reconcile with her father on the 2011 OWN reality series “Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals.” It didn’t work and they remain estranged.

But Tatum O’Neal remains sympathetic to her father.

“I learned a lot from my dad — all the good things I learned about myself,” she said. “I think my dad got sick of being the caretaker. I think he wanted his own life and his own career and his own stuff. I’m over it now. I wasn’t for a while. He’s never really forgiven me for talking about it. I hope one day he will be able to let us be close again. It breaks my heart, actually.”


Nowadays, women in Hollywood have been emboldened to talk about sexual abuse and harassment by the #MeToo and Times Up movements. O’Neal said she had no such support when she wrote her first book.

“I remember Katie Couric said, ‘So, if you were on these drugs, like you said you were, how do you remember all that stuff that’s in your book?’ I said, ‘Katie, how do you forget? How do you forget being molested?’”

She’s happy to see women protecting women now “and standing by them instead of tearing them down.”

Though O’Neal has continued to work, most notably as Denis Leary’s alcoholic sister from 2004-11 on FX’s “Rescue Me,” she says it’s not as much as “I need to and not as much as I want to.”

O’Neal wants to know why it’s “OK to marginalize a woman who’s been around as long as I have, who had an addiction issue, and not do it to my male colleagues? Why is it fair that we’ll give a male colleague 10 chances, and a woman like myself has to do the best audition that I’ve ever done to get anything. I can’t be off a little bit.

Oftentimes, I fail because I know how high the pressure is. But I won’t stop, because my mother was marginalized by her addiction.

— Tatum O’Neal

“Oftentimes, I fail because I know how high the pressure is. But I won’t stop, because my mother was marginalized by her addiction. She was totally made fun of and cast aside. I just said I’m not gonna allow that to happen to me.”

“I think she is a real survival story,” said daughter Emily McEnroe, 26, an actress who also appears on her mom’s podcast. “In terms of where she’s at in her life right now, we have never been closer.”

Her mother, she noted, “taught herself everything.”

“She wasn’t given the tools to be a great mother, to be emphatic and to rise above everything,” McEnroe said. “And yet she did. That’s the real kind of unbelievable feat in my eyes. We talk about that a lot. She figured it out. She’s a great mother. She’s doing amazing.”

O’Neal talks fondly about her Oscar-winning turn in “Paper Moon” as a tough orphaned girl who teams up with a charming con man (played by Ryan O’Neal) who may or may not be her father.

“It was hard work, but I loved working,” Tatum O’Neal said. “I was laughing the whole time.”

Bogdanovich would act out the scenes for her, she said, and “I would copy him. I’m a good little mimic. I didn’t like it when directors didn’t do that.”


That was the case on the 1976 hit comedy “The Bad News Bears,” directed by Michael Ritchie. “He was like, ‘Do it, kid.’ I was like, ‘What? What do you mean? What I am supposed to do?’”

So, during the “Bears” shoot, she was frequently on the phone with Bogdanovich. “I was like, ‘Peter, I just don’t know what to do.”’

O’Neal’s hoping to go back to her comedic roots.

“I’m dying to do a comedy,” she said. “I’m working right now on a pilot for streaming. It’s an interesting, dark comedy.”