Tatum O’Neal Was a Hollywood Prodigy, But Her Life Story Is Heartbreaking

Tatum O’Neal’s Heartbreaking Life Story

From winning a competitive Academy Award at only ten years old to a life of turmoil and dependency, Tatum O’Neal’s life was anything but easy. Read on to find out all about Tatum O’Neal’s difficult life, including her childhood, her family, and her Hollywood career.

A Star Is Born

Tatum O’Neal was born on November 5th, 1963. The daughter of famous parents, Tatum was the only daughter of actors Joanna Moore and Ryan O’Neal.

Instagram // @mubicanada

Life seemed happy for the O’Neals as they welcomed another child. Griffin, a few years later, in 1964. But things were far from perfect, and their seemingly idyllic life was anything but happy behind closed doors.

Living With Mom

Tatum’s parents led anything but a happy life as they separated, finalizing their divorce in 1967. Sole custody of Tatum and her brother would be awarded to their mother, Joanna.

Facebook // We Love Tatum O’Neal

This move would be the start of a rocky life for Tatum. Her mother had all sorts of issues. While her mother battled dependency issues and enjoyed her life as a single woman, the children were often left to fend for themselves.

Life With Joanna

Life was quite difficult for young Tatum. She and her brother have often come together in later years to speak of the pain and isolation they suffered, saying it led to problems for them later in life.

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After one too many concerns were raised about their safety while living with their mother, Ryan O’Neal could see the effect that Joanna’s new lifestyle had on the kids and sued for full custody. He was granted custody in 1970, and the children moved into what everyone hoped would be a happier home.

A New Career

Life was happy once again for Tatum and her brother. Though her father had a bit of a nasty temper and a reputation as a playboy, he was far more attentive than Joanna and ensured that his children had all that they needed and more.

Facebook // Young Hollywood Hall of Fame

It was Ryan who would use his power in the acting world to launch Tatum’s career as she landed a role in the 1973 movie Paper Moon, starring alongside her father in her debut feature film about a con artist and his unlikely sidekick.

Rave Reviews for Paper Moon

Paper Moon was well-received by Hollywood’s toughest critics, who praised ten-year-old Tatum for her impeccable performance as Addie Loggins. Everyone loved Tatum and her phenomenal acting skills, all except one person — her own father.

Heart.co.uk // Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon

Ryan couldn’t stand the attention his protégé was getting from some of the biggest names in the acting world, leading to a tense relationship between the two that would last for decades. What happened next only seemed to make the situation worse.

Awards and Recognitions

In early 1974, news of Tatum’s Oscar nomination for her role in Paper Moon had Hollywood abuzz. At ten years old, the new actress was the youngest person in history to be nominated for a prestigious Academy Award.

IMDb // Joanna Moore

Of course, she won, much to Ryan’s disappointment. With Ryan wrapped up in his own drama and Joanna off with one lover or another, Tatum attended the awards ceremony on her own.

More Accolades

Tatum was a hot commodity and had the talent to back her popularity. She would go on to win or be nominated for a few more awards after her Oscar win.

Flickr // UCLA Library Special Collections

This included a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer and for Best Actress in a Motion Picture in the Comedy or Musical Genre. Pretty impressive for a ten-year-old.

A Lonely Childhood

Tatum has often spoken of her childhood being the cause of her crazy lifestyle. From going to the Oscars alone when she was only ten years old to fighting for attention from an absent and uninterested mother, these were all things that played a part in her downfall.

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While things seemed to improve once she moved in with her father, his jealousy of her somewhat instant fame was all too much for him to bear as he felt she had overshadowed him with her role in Paper Moon.

The Stanley Kubrick Debacle

Ryan continued to focus on his career, and when he landed the lead role in Stanley Kubrick’s feature film Barry Lyndon, he thought nothing of dropping his daughter off at Stan’s house, where she remained for a year. Her time there was anything but happy as she didn’t get along with Kubrick’s daughter Vivian.

Nofilmschool // Ryan O’Neill with Pat Heavin on the set of ‘Barry Lyndon’ in 1973 // Stanley Kubrick

Whether it was a bout of jealousy or just kids being kids, Vivian once cut all of Tatum’s hair off, resulting in the young actress sporting a cropped hairstyle when she walked the red carpet at the Oscars in 1974.

A Downward Spiral

The Oscar win was just the start of a wild life for Tatum as her father dragged her to adult showbiz parties with some of the biggest names in the industry. One such party included a visit to the Playboy Mansion, which, as you can imagine, led to a lonely life for a little girl who wanted nothing more than to make friends.

Filmstarfacts // Alan Royle

Tatum found a friend in actress Melanie Griffiths, but Griffiths had ideas of her own and was secretly interested in pursuing a relationship with her father. While on a trip to Paris, Tatum found her supposed friend and her father together, all but destroying their relationship.

Relationships and Lies

It would be hard to blame Tatum for having a rather skewed sense of what a normal relationship should be, thanks to her parents and the circles she ran in. So, when she was dating a man 16 years her senior when she was only 14, she saw nothing wrong with the relationship.

Facebook // The Only One

Fighting to have a somewhat normal life, the actress went on to date stars like Michael Jackson, a relationship that ended with Jackson stating that much of their relationship was based on lies. Sadly, it would be a few years before Tatum would meet her Prince Charming.

Enter John McEnroe

Fast forward to 1984, and Tatum met tennis bad boy John McEnroe. She was smitten, and the two quickly moved into his New York apartment together. Despite his infamous temper and rumors of a rocky relationship, Tatum was happy, and the pair were married in 1986.

Thewikifeed // Joncy Goyani

As the saying goes, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes mommy with the baby carriage…” Tatum and John welcomed three children in a few short years, but the constant fighting and flared tempers were all too much for them, and they separated after just six years of marriage.


Tatum and John finalized their divorce in 1994. The breakdown of her marriage led to a downward spiral of substance dependency and instability, with her children often fearful of her because of her temper.

Shutterstock // Featureflash Photo Agency

While the now-divorced Tatum and John had kept things as amicable as possible when it came to co-parenting their children, the situation was too much for John as he filed for — and won full custody of their children in 1996.

A Wake-Up Call

Losing her children turned out to be just the wake-up call that Tatum needed to get her life back on track. Getting clean was the first step, as she gave up her dependency and fought to be a better mother to her beloved children while trying to mend her relationship with her ex-husband.

Instagram // @tatum__oneal

It would take many, many years for the bond to be repaired, but Tatum was determined to give her children the life they deserved with a loving, attentive mother. While she worked hard at making these necessary changes, her relationship with John was well and truly over.

The Tell-All Memoir

A few years after their divorce, John released his tell-all memoir, You Cannot Be Serious. There he shared intimate details of their marriage, her substance difficulties, and what their personal life was really like. Tatum then responded to his claims with slanderous comments with her own.

Facebook // The Ultimate ’80s Page

Many years later, Tatum would confess her infinite love for John in an interview with CBS Sunday Morning. She said: “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.”

Tatum’s Hollywood Career

After starting in Paper Moon, Tatum found herself the star of films like Bad News Bear and International Velvet. But, as many Hollywood careers often do, the light that once shone brightly faded in the ’80s as her film career came to a screeching halt.


Taking on small roles on TV shows like Law and Order, Criminal Minds, and the popular series Sex and the City, Tatum’s career would only get a much-needed boost in 2004 when she landed the role of a lifetime that would once again put her back on the map.

The Rescue of Tatum

Rescue Me hit TV screens across America in mid-2004, with O’Neal playing the role of Maggie Gavin, the wife of the lead character who happened to have issues with adult beverages. Critics praised her performance in the show as it lasted a full seven seasons before being axed.

Autostraddle // Riese

While Tatum was a big hit, the content the show dealt with hit a bit too close to home, as she soon fell back into her old ways, ultimately being arrested in 2008. While she initially denied a relapse, damning evidence made it difficult to refute claims that she had a problem, and she eventually confirmed it in an interview later that year.

Relapses and Rehab

O’Neal entered a rehabilitation treatment program in 2008, vowing to get clean and rid herself of her dependency. While she knew she had a problem, the only solution she had was to tackle it head-on, but not before she owned up to her mistakes and claimed responsibility for her actions.

Instagram // @tatum__oneal

In a statement released shortly after her rather public breakdown and arrest, she went on record saying, “I made a giant, horrible mistake that I regret and feel really ashamed and embarrassed about. I take full responsibility.”

Tatum and Ryan: The Conflict Continues

Tatum continued to fight for her father’s approval, and while the situation was anything but amicable, she put aside her own worries and problems to help support her father as he dealt with the passing of his lover, Farrah Fawcett, from cancer in 2009.

Shutterstock // Vicki L. Miller

Taking her ex-husband along with her for support, she wanted to be a shoulder her father could cry on as he battled with the loss of the love of his life. Farrah and Ryan had met and fallen in love in the late ’70s and were one of Hollywood’s iconic love stories.

The Interview

A 2010 interview with People Magazine had Tatum once again opening up about her relationship with her father. “He told me he’s sorry,” she said, going on to say that he was all she had in her life. Having lost her mother to cancer in 1997 and now her “stepmother” in 2009, Tatum was desperate to have her father in her life.

Flickr // RedCarpetReport

Believing that forgiveness is the best policy, she tried to put the past behind her and focus on a way forward that would see her and Ryan once again happy and present in each other’s lives. Enter Oprah and a reality show.

Oprah’s Intervention

In 2011, Oprah produced a new reality show that saw Tatum and Ryan come together to hash out their rather tumultuous relationship, hopefully leading to a reconciliation. The show was titled Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals, and only ran for one season before both stars decided to quit.

Oprah.com // Tatum O’Neal’s Sobriety Struggle

From her ex-husband’s refusal to have their children appear on the show to revealing her painfully dark and troubled past, the show was a disaster for Tatum and seemingly only made her relationship with her father even more strained than it was before. Hard to believe, but true.

Memoirs and Memories

Tatum released not one but two memoirs. The first, aptly titled A Paper Life, was released in 2001 and dealt with the heartache and loneliness she suffered as a child. It was rather controversial and revealed a number of accusations against her father. This led to a further strain in the relationship between the two.

Pangobooks // Onycha // A Paper Life

Her second, titled Found: A Daughter’s Journey Home, was released shortly after her reality show, where she went on to say that the production was nothing but a show of happy faces for the cameras and that the reunion was nothing more than a farce. Ryan, too, blamed Oprah and her reality show for the breakdown in their relationship.

Family Matters

To say that things between O’Neal and her family were tense is nothing short of an understatement, as her brother admitted in a 2015 interview that he no longer speaks to his sister. While they were close as children and often had to rely on each other for company and support, their relationship, too, crumbled over the years.

Shutterstock // s_bukley

Sadly her relationship with her father would remain rocky for many years, with Ryan and Tatum only reuniting in 2020, 17 years since their last family photo together. Posting about the get-together on Instagram, the actress shared her gratitude that she and her father could once again come together for a family photo with Tatum’s children.

Medical Emergencies and Heartbreaking Diagnoses

In 2016, shortly after her brother’s interview in which he admitted that he and Tatum were no longer on speaking terms, a shocking medical diagnosis would see Tatum in a fight for her life as she lost mobility and range of motion in her hands.

Ruebensramblings // A Look Back at ATX Festival 2016 (Part 2) » Tatum O’Neal

Diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, Tatum would undergo a number of surgeries to her spine, affecting the use of her hands. As she shared in an interview a while later, “My hands stopped working… I can’t tie my shoes. I have to re-learn to write.” But her troubles were far from over as an experimental medication she was on led to chronic pneumonia, stopping the once popular actress from continuing her acting career.

A Podcast

Unable to star in feature films, and with her health failing her at every turn, Tatum turned to a new source of therapy and self-healing as she started her own podcast. Tatum Verbatim was created in 2017 and focused on creating a safe space where she could share more about her life as a child star, an actress, and her most important role yet, motherhood.

Facebook // Tatu

It was this podcast that led to an open discussion with her daughter about their relationship, with Emily sharing what it was like growing up in a turbulent household. Sharing her regrets of her former dependency, Tatum was able to heal her relationship with her daughter and her sons, and the family is stronger and happier than ever before.

The Love of a Mother

While Tatum could have given up and accepted her fate, she decided to turn her attention to her children. She worked hard to repair the once-strained relationships. They’re now focusing on a happy future together. Her daughter, Emily, was quoted as saying, “My mom’s incredibly loving… My mom lights up every room that she enters.”

Shutterstock // Kathy Hutchins

It’s always good to know that no matter what happens in life, you’ll always have the unwavering love of your children. For Tatum, this love is just what she needs to get her through even the darkest days of her multiple illnesses.

Tatum Then

Once a lonely little girl who would do anything to make friends and find love, Tatum found herself feeling isolated from her family. While her relationship with her mother was never a good one, she felt much pain and loss when Joanna lost her battle with lung cancer in 1997.

Twitter // @Moonspinner55

Mourning not only her mother but the life she never had, her mother’s passing was yet another stone in the path that would cause Tatum to stumble and fall as she tried different ways to deal with the pain of her lost childhood.

Tatum Now

Fast forward many years, and the 56-year-old actress has finally found peace in her life. She has repaired her relationship with her children and ex-husband.

Flickr //  John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com

Today, Tatum is continuing to work on herself and try to bury the difficulties that have plagued her for so many years. Taking one day at a time is key.

Tatum’s Relationship With Her Father

While it’ll probably never be perfect, Tatum’s relationship with her father has improved over the last few years, with the family spending as much time as possible together.

Instagram // @tatum__oneal

Her relationship with her father is on the up and up. While Tatum isn’t as active as she once was in her acting career, she has made a few appearances that have put her back on the map.

Not to Forget

Tatum was cast in the 2021 movie Not to Forget alongside Hollywood greats Cloris Leachman and Olympia Dukakis. Playing the role of Doctor, O’Neal had critics once again raving about her acting abilities. Some said that this was the break she needed as she entered a new era of acting.

Shutterstock // Kathy Hutchins

While she is yet to appear in any upcoming movies, the actress has turned her attention to her project “Behance” which focuses on discovering new talent in the acting world. Who better to help young stars get their big break than Tatum O’Neal?