March 21, 2023 | Sarah Ng

Devastating Facts About Tatum O’Neal, Neglected Child Star

Tatum O’Neal made cinematic history with her staggering performance in the 1973 film Paper Moon. Many remember her as a shy 10-year-old girl—smiling widely and grasping her golden Oscar. But Tatum O’Neal’s story is far more nuanced than her one day of glory. It is a tale both dark and winding, lying outside the spotlight and illuminating an upbringing that no child should ever endure.

1. She Was Destined For Hollywood

In 1963, Hollywood rejoiced in the birth of a baby girl—Tatum O’Neal—daughter of famous actors Ryan O’Neal and Joanna Moore. Living out a real-life happy ending, the couple welcomed another child, a boy named Griffin, only a year later. But behind the scenes, the marriage was turbulent. Tempers flared and personalities clashed. Tatum and Griffin found themselves caught in the crossfire.


2. She Was At Her Mother’s Mercy

What began as a fairytale romance between two high-profile celebrities quickly spoiled in the span of four years. By 1967, O’Neal’s parents secured a divorce and her mother had sole custody of both her and Griffin. But Joanna Moore wasn’t as fit to be a mother as she seemed. Moore was an addict whose actions transformed Tatum O’Neal’s childhood into a living nightmare.

Tatum O’Neal FactsWikipedia

3. She Faced Starvation

Tatum O’Neal watched her mother lose herself to substances and drink. Perhaps most shocking were her accounts of starvation. Both she and Griffin weren’t properly fed or clothed, suffering deeply from their mother’s neglect. She claims that on one harrowing occasion, the two of them—trapped in a garage—resorted to eating dog food in order to stay alive. But the horrors didn’t end there.

Child Stars FactsGetty Images

4. She Ran Away

O’Neal’s mother never actually "mothered," and she often left her children unsupervised. They did anything they wanted, sometimes playing with fire and jumping off the roof, other times running away from home. In her own words, O’Neal recalled, "We went to the bathroom on the floor. We did a lot of crazy things because we didn’t have any guidance at all".

Tatum O’Neal FactsGetty Images

5. She Had A Tragic Childhood

Not only was Tatum O’Neal robbed of her childhood, but she also experienced brutal beatings at the hands of her mother’s 15-year-old boyfriend. The physical and emotional toll of her upbringing was unspeakable. She didn’t go to school. Nobody fed her. Nobody offered her a shred of real love. Even her teeth were rotting out of her head. But there was one thing she still hoped for...her father.

Worst Thing a Guest did factsPxHere

6. She Was Rescued

In 1970, Joanna Moore finally lost custody of her children, and beyond this loss, she never truly recovered her sobriety. In the wake of this separation, O’Neal and her brother were sent to live with their father. Things seemed to be looking up. With her father, she experienced a more attentive parent than ever before. Perhaps she’d finally get the childhood she’d been dreaming of—or not.

Tatum O’Neal FactsWikimedia Commons

7. She Was Under His Thumb

Tatum O’Neal’s father took his kids everywhere he went, but sadly, this didn’t shield them from witnessing his womanizing celebrity life. Ryan O’Neal liked his women and his vices, and so in many ways, Tatum remained exposed to a nefarious adult world. But it was more than that. Her father had a temper, and she often found herself on the receiving end of his wrath.

Ryan O'Neal Facts

8. She Couldn’t Escape

The hurt O’Neal endured ticked every box—physical, emotional, and verbal. With so much hope, she escaped from one dysfunctional house, only to find herself trapped in another; a slightly less dire home, but dire nonetheless. But if there was one thing her father did have, it was influence within the world of acting. And it was his word that changed the course of her life forever.

Tatum O’Neal FactsGetty Images

9. She Won The Role Of A Lifetime

When her father recommended her for the role of Addie in Paper Moon, O’Neal won the part and broke into the world of acting. Working alongside her father seemed like the perfect bonding opportunity. But the reality was anything but. Tatum O’Neal was a revelation in her role—her acting so marvelous that she outshone her father in many scenes.

But Ryan O’Neal wasn’t as proud as others expected him to be. Instead, he was completely jealous—he couldn’t stand being upstaged by his own daughter.

Tatum O’Neal FactsFlickr

10. She Outshone Him

O’Neal admitted that her part in Paper Moon "destroyed" her relationship with her father. When the film premiered, the praise for her performance hung in the air, feeding Ryan O’Neal’s deep resentment. Nobody was talking about his performance. He wasn’t the center of attention anymore. And then came the record-breaking moment when the Academy announced Tatum O’Neal’s Oscar nomination. What her father did next was nothing short of horrifying.

Academy Awards FactsGetty Images

11. She Got Slugged

Although she has no memory of it, others told O’Neal that when her father learned of her nomination, he hit her in the face. But for Tatum, her experiences with his extreme behavior were nothing new. She grew accustomed to the constant rough-housing—the backhanded slaps. On one occasion, she remembers being physically thrown from a car. But this was only the beginning.

Tatum O’Neal FactsFlickr

12. She Lost Her Hair

At her first Oscars ceremony, O’Neal sported a very trendy pixie-cut and a dapper suit. But this haircut didn’t come by choice. When Ryan O’Neal jetted off to film Barry Lyndon, he left O’Neal with Stanley Kubrick’s family, not just for a couple nights, but for an entire year. As a result, she and Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian, spent a lot of time together.

While playing during bath time, Vivian cut all of O’Neal’s hair off.  She had no choice but to attend the Oscars with a brand-new do.

Weird Family Habits factsPeakpx

13. She Saw Everything

Throughout her childhood, Tatum O’Neal’s father took her to adult parties no young girl had any business attending. She went wherever he went, and this included such mature places as the Playboy Mansion. Her exposure to these escapades forced O’Neal to grow up quickly and imparted a trauma that followed her into adulthood. She was desperate to find someone to connect to. Lost in the void of her parent’s inattention, she sought friendship.

Hugh Hefner factsGetty Images

14. She Placed Her Trust In The Wrong Person

When she was 12 years old, Tatum O’Neal went to Europe with her father where he was filming A Bridge Too Far. She also brought along one of her closest friends—18-year-old Melanie Griffith. With a youthful naivety, she whole-heartedly believed that she had found her best friend. What she didn’t know was that Griffith had a secret agenda—one that didn’t involve her at all.

Tatum O’Neal FactsFlickr

15. She Was Betrayed

Unbeknownst to O’Neal, Griffith and her father had an unspoken attraction. Her so-called best friend hadn’t come to Europe to be with her, but instead, was there to be with her father. When O’Neal caught them in the act, she couldn’t believe her eyes. Overwhelmed with feelings of utter betrayal, she made a shocking decision.

Tatum O’Neal FactsGetty Images

16. She Tried To End It All

After finding out about her best friend and her father’s relationship, O’Neal felt more alone than ever. She decided to take her own life by slashing her wrists. When this proved unsuccessful, she decided that the next best route was an overdose. Growing up with her father, she knew exactly where to find substances—her father’s friends. But the person she sought out wasn’t a nice man, and O’Neal’s plan went terribly awry.

Cecil Hotel FactsShutterstock

17. She Was Molested

Although she managed to get her hands on the stuff she was after, her father’s friend also molested her. Sadly, this wasn’t her first brush with assault. When she was only five years old her mother’s boyfriend tried to assault her. In her later years, O’Neal blamed these molestations on neglect—specifically, due to her parents' substance addictions.

But neglect was all Tatum O’Neal knew, and as she grew older, it defined the emptiness of her home life.

Tatum O’Neal FactsGetty Images

18. She Knew It Was Wrong

After this harrowing chapter, Melanie Griffith decided to take O’Neal along with her to Paris, and she ended up in the worst place imaginable. Together they visited Roman Polanski’s apartment where he showed the young girls a lurid and inappropriate Japanese film called Realm of the Senses. Throughout the movie, O’Neal felt uncomfortable and knew in her gut that the entire visit was wrong.

Polanski never touched the girls, but his choice to expose them to this film was appalling. Unfortunately for O’Neal, there were more hopeless nights to come.

The Academy Awards factsGetty Images

19. She Did It On Her Own

After Paris, the girls left for Israel, but the trip ended up being far from the romantic adventure it could have been. Preoccupied with filming, Griffith allowed O’Neal to find her own way back to 12 years old. Still a child and swallowed by foreign surroundings, O’Neal slept on airport benches—terrified and unsupervised. It was a miracle that she made it home safely.

Tatum O’Neal FactsPiqsels

20. She Blamed Herself

When she was 14, Tatum O’Neal lost her virginity to a crew member on the set of International Velvet. Disturbingly, this unnamed man was 16 years her senior. She remembers wearing tight pants in the effort to tempt him and ultimately blamed herself for what happened. With no reliable parent to turn to and constantly in the company of other adults, O’Neal had a skewed idea of the romantic relationship: "I didn’t understand the difference in our ages. I thought something along the lines of ‘This is what people do.’"

Tatum O’Neal FactsInternational Velvet (1978), MGM

21. She Dated A Famous Athlete

Tatum O’Neal’s next high-profile relationship was with the hot-headed tennis pro John McEnroe. The two met in 1984 and she quickly moved into his New York City apartment. But their romance was far from smooth sailing. Both of them dug deep into partying, and to top it all off, McEnroe had a fiery temper. The tantrums he threw on the tennis court were a mere preview of the rage he displayed for O’Neal’s eyes only.

Tatum O’Neal FactsWikimedia Commons

22. She Had Highs And Lows

After their marriage in 1986, Tatum O’Neal and John McEnroe’s relationship became a wild ride of highs and lows. Their happy moments included the births of three children—Emily, Sean, and Kevin. But through it all, O’Neal continued to struggle with her drug addiction. As a result, constant fighting ensued, and it wasn’t long before McEnroe reached the end of his rope.

Tatum O’Neal FactsGetty Images

23. She Had A Tumultuous Marriage

Allegedly, during one heated fight, McEnroe took things too far—he pushed and kicked O’Neal. After this, their relationship was not only on the rocks, but headed for the point of no return. After six years of marriage, they separated, finalizing their divorce in 1994. In the following years, O’Neal fell off the deep end, completely giving into her addiction. It was this behaviour that had people questioning whether she was fit for motherhood.

Divorce FactsShutterstock

24. She Scared Her Children

Tatum O’Neal’s children knew when their mother was high and stayed away. Things took a turn for the worse when seven-year-old Emily found drug-related equipment in O’Neal’s apartment. In a 2015 interview, her son Sean opened up about growing up with O’Neal: "I would lock myself in my room because it was hard to be around her not acting like herself...I had a hard time speaking about it and I shut down".

And in the end, like her mother, by exposing her children to vices, O’Neal paid the ultimate price.

Tatum O’Neal FactsGetty Images

25. She Lost Them

In 1998, O’Neal lost custody of her children for reasons not unlike her own mother’s. But O’Neal wasn’t ready to follow in her mother’s footsteps and vowed to get her kids back. She worked hard to get clean and eventually regained partial custody. O’Neal had a lot of time to make up for, and she devoted years to rebuilding her bond with her children. But there was one person that she still butt heads with—her ex.

Gloria Vanderbilt FactsShutterstock

26. She Had The Last Word

In his revealing memoir You Cannot Be Serious, McEnroe exposed intimate details about his and O’Neal’s relationship. On one count, he even talked about how they were both high the first time they slept together. He went on to share even more details about her excessive drug use. When O’Neal caught wind of his book, she went all in by playing tit for tat, accusing him of using steroids.

But there’s a fine line between hate and love, and in retrospect, O’Neal admitted to harboring some regret.

Tatum O’Neal FactsGetty Images

27. She Regretted Leaving

In a 2020 interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Tatum O’Neal revealed that she still holds a flame for her ex-husband. Looking back on her life, she realized that McEnroe truly set the bar: "The happiest times of my life were the times that I was married...I was loved, I was cared for...I've never met anyone who even comes close to my ex-husband".

To their credit, the two managed to co-parent with a semblance of respect, their children expressing deep appreciation for them both.

Tatum O’Neal FactsShutterstock

28. She Wasn’t Wanted

After winning the Oscar in 1974, Tatum O’Neal acted in a handful of films such as The Bad News Bears and International Velvet. But heading into the mid-80s, the actress hit a wall—she simply wasn’t getting the parts she wanted. Instead, she found herself settling for minor roles on television. She appeared on a few popular shows, including Criminal Minds and Law and Order, but nothing that could catapult her back to her original brush with fame and recognition.

Tatum O’Neal FactsThe Bad News Bears (1976), Paramount Pictures

29. She Went Steady

Finally, in 2004, Tatum O'Neal found a steady job by landing a recurring role in Rescue Me—a comedy-drama starring Denis Leary as the lead. The show boasted staying-power and lasted seven seasons, with critics applauding O’Neal’s portrayal of her character, Maggie Gavin—an alcoholic. While the role hit close to home, her darkest days seemed well behind her. Unfortunately, the shadow of addiction remained.

Tatum O’Neal FactsRescue Me (2004-2011), FX

30. They Caught Her Red-Handed

In 2008, O’Neal hit another low. News of a scandalous arrest hit the tabloids—officers had found her with illicit substances in her pockets only blocks from her Manhattan home. That’s when her story began to spiral out of control. Her reasoning seemed all over the place, and nobody was quite sure of the entire truth.

Airport X-Ray FactsShutterstock

31. She Made Excuses

After the authorities caught her with substances, O'Neal tried to explain it away as "research" for a part. When that didn’t fly, she turned to utter gratitude, thanking the force for saving her by preventing a relapse. She claimed sobriety and referred to the whole fiasco as a close-call. Falling into a deep depression after the passing of her dog, she had almost slipped back into her old ways and being caught was a blessing...or so she said...

Tatum O’Neal FactsShutterstock

32. She Faced Her Demons

Despite her excuses, O’Neal still faced charges and agreed to enter a treatment program. In the months that followed, she confronted her own demons and grappled with the humiliation of her relapse: "I made a giant, horrible mistake that I regret and feel really ashamed and embarrassed about. I take full responsibility".

Pete Davidson FactsShutterstock

33. Her Father Called Her Out

Back in 2001, when O’Neal released her memoir A Paper Life, the allegations against her father left him furious. To this day, Ryan O'Neal denies much of what O’Neal wrote about him. According to him, O’Neal enjoyed a happy childhood and he was—if not perfect—then at least, an upstanding parent. His official statement in response to the book was as follows: "It is a sad day when malicious lies are told in order to become a 'bestseller.'"

For years, father and daughter remained estranged, that is, until Oprah entered the picture...Yes, you read that correctly: Oprah.

Celebrities Changed Name StoryShutterstock

34. She Said "Yes" To Oprah

In 2011, Oprah produced Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals—a reality tv show that aired on her network OWN. The show centered on the troubled paternal relationship, tracking their personal journey toward reconciliation. It hoped to pique the audience's interest by playing on the risk of it all. How could these two estranged individuals possibly find a way to heal their bond?

On the surface, this may have seemed like a promising idea, but in the end, this experiment was far from a success.

Children Of Hollywood FactsGetty Images

35. Her Ex Disapproved

If there was one person unenthused with the reality tv show, it was O'Neal's ex-husband, John McEnroe. For one, he had his children to consider and he wanted them to have no part in the docu-series. In an interview with Wendy Williams he called the show "an accident waiting to happen". No stranger to O’Neals disturbing childhood stories, McEnroe only saw disaster in the wings. And he was right.

Tatum O’Neal FactsWikimedia Commons

36. She Put It Down On Paper

To bolster the release of the show, O’Neal also released another memoir: Found: A Daughter’s Journey Home. It covered some familiar territory, but the new bent was her recent fence-mending journey with Ryan O’Neal—their happy reunion all wrapped up in a tidy bow. But this shiny, idealistic front wasn’t real. It was all for show.

Tatum O’Neal FactsShutterstock

37. She Didn’t See Results

By September 2011, the truth had come out. Tatum and Ryan hadn’t succeeded in ending their feud at all. In fact, Ryan O’Neal explicitly blamed Oprah for deepening the chasm between him and his daughter: "Did I open up? I tried. Does Tatum like me any better? No. So what's the point?" One thing was for sure, there certainly wasn’t a second season in the works.

Tatum O’Neal FactsRyan and Tatum: The O

38. She Cut Contact

Tatum O’Neal has three brothers—Griffin, with whom she grew up, as well as two half-brothers Patrick and Redmond. Sadly, her relationships with all of them have proved somewhat tempestuous and far from close. Over the years, Griffin helped corroborate O’Neal’s stories about their harrowing childhoods and volatile father, but in 2015, he admitted that he no longer spoke to his sister. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he wasn’t the only one.

Tatum O’Neal FactsGetty Images

39. Her Story Doesn’t Fit

O’Neal’s brother Patrick wishes that she never wrote any of her memoirs and maintains that her accounts of his father are completely at odds with his own experiences and upbringing. Ultimately, this disagreement prevented them from ever building a strong sibling bond, and they remain distant to this day. But perhaps the saddest of all is O’Neal’s relationship with her third brother.

Tatum O’Neal FactsShutterstock

40. She Lost All Hope

The trajectory of Redmond O’Neal, O’Neal’s youngest brother, is a tale of woe. Not unlike his sister, he became addicted to substances at an early age. He was constantly in and out of rehab but displayed no signs of recovery. O’Neal tried to reach out to him but quickly realized her efforts were in vain: "From what I’ve seen, there is no way he’s going to survive".

Her defeatist attitude was only proved when Redmond was incarcerated in 2018 for armed robbery and attempted murder.

Tatum O’Neal FactsGetty Images

41. She Lost Control

In 2016, O’Neal faced a brand-new adversary. This time, it wasn’t a father, or a brother, or an ex-husband, but rather, her own aging body. Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 50, O’Neal suffered in agony, undergoing numerous surgeries on her spine. It completely affected her range of motion: "My hands stopped working...I can't tie my shoes. I have to re-learn to write". And this wasn’t all.

Tatum O’Neal FactsWikimedia Commons

42. The Hits Kept Coming

In an attempt to alleviate the symptoms of her rheumatoid arthritis, O'Neal tried a new medication called methotrexate. But this turned out to be a major mistake. She had a severe reaction and developed chronic pneumonia. But despite these medical hurdles, there was one light at the end of the tunnel that kept her going.

Wilt Chamberlain factsShutterstock

43. She Believed In Her Kids

The greatest joy in O’Neal’s life is her children, and thankfully, the sentiment goes both ways. In a 2020 interview, her daughter Emily relayed a sentiment that spoke to her devotion to her mother: "My mom is incredibly loving...My mom lights up every room that she enters". Her closeness with her daughter in particular, helped her with a very special project.

Tatum O’Neal FactsGetty Images

44. She Never Held Back

In 2017, O’Neal started a podcast called Tatum, Verbatim—a show that provided her with a platform to share her stories and opinions, as well as have open discussions with guest speakers. In the first few episodes of her podcast, she shared a conversation with her daughter Emily. It was a safe space for both of them to dive into difficult memories and speak openly about fame and addiction.

In these ways, O’Neal proves that the healing process never ends. She rises to the challenge every day, finding new ways to confront old demons.

Tatum O’Neal FactsShutterstock

45. She Dated A Pop Star

Famously, a young Tatum O’Neal caught the eye of one very famous pop star: 17-year-old Michael Jackson. O’Neal and Jackson shared a very close friendship, wasting away long hours chatting on the phone—the very picture of adolescent nervousness and awkwardness. They even attended the famed club, Studio 54, together. But when it came to the stirrings of the heart, one party seemed to be on a completely different page.

Tatum O’Neal FactsGetty Images

46. She Was Too Young

The two of them ended up dating for a brief time, but when Jackson revealed that he wanted to take their intimacy to a higher level, O’Neal shied away. After all, she was only 12 years old, and didn’t feel ready. Despite their youth, their short but sweet romance made an indelible impression on Jackson, and in a 2001 interview, he reminisced about O’Neal saying, "I was, like, in heaven. It was the most magical thing". But there was more to it than that…

Tatum O’Neal FactsGetty Images

47. She Denied It All

Jackson later flipped the script on O’Neal and made some claims that just didn’t add up. Firstly, he claimed to have lost his virginity to her. Secondly, he said that she was the seducer who tried to take their relationship to the next level and that he was the one afraid of intimacy. This was quite the opposite of O’Neal’s own story. In her 2004 autobiography, she denied all his claims and said they never even slept together! But the disturbing revelations didn’t end there.

Down the road, when even more victims made allegations against Jackson, O’Neal wasn’t in the least bit surprised.

Michael Jackson FactsShutterstock

48. She Wasn’t Surprised

In a 2019 Good Morning Britain interview, O’Neal remembered her years as Jackson’s close friend. She never witnessed anything remiss, but after watching the tell-all docuseries Leaving Neverland, she admitted that it was hard not to believe the claims. With her personal experience with the ugliness of Hollywood, her initial shock quickly turned to the sad acknowledgment of Hollywood’s hidden horrors. At this point, nothing could surprise her.

Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch.Getty Images

49. She Broke The Record

On the night she won her Oscar, 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal attended without either of her parents. Alone and without the support of her family, she made history by becoming the youngest actress to win an Academy Award. It should have been the happiest night of her life, but with the applause ringing in her ears and the heavy trophy cradled in her small hands, all she could think about was how lonely it all felt.

Tatum O’Neal FactsGetty Images

50. She Went Alone

In her autobiography, O’Neal recollected the record-breaking night: "The feeling I associate most with winning the Oscar is an overwhelming sadness at being abandoned by my parents". Her mother didn’t come and her dad was off filming another movie. In more ways than one, Ryan O’Neal proved how much he truly disregarded his daughter.

Michael Douglas factsGetty Images

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

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