Tatum O'Neal's Roller-Coaster Life — Academy Award, Battle with Addiction and Messy Divorce

Manuela Cardiga
Aug 14, 2020
11:30 A.M.
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Tatum O'Neal is the quintessential child star, who struggled with addictions, depression, a failed marriage, came through it all as an empowered woman.


At the age of 10, Tatum O'Neal won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her role in "Paper Moon," opposite her father Ryan O'Neal.

It was the beginning of a roller-coaster ride that took her through the heights of fame to the depths of despair; a failed marriage to tennis icon John McEnroe, and an addiction to heroin that saw her lose custody of her three children -- a nightmarish reenactment of her own mother's life.

At twelve, Tatum revealed in her book, “Found: A Daughter’s Journey Home,” she was once again subjected to sexual abuse, this time at the hands of her father's drug dealer

Tatum O'Neal and her children Emily, Kevin and Sean McEnroe at the 30th anniversary screening of "Paper Moon" in 2003 in Los Angeles | Source: Getty Images



On the surface, Tatum seemed to have born under a lucky star. Her parents were both famous actors -- her father is Ryan O'Neal, and her mother was Joanna Moore -- and at 10 she landed the role of a lifetime.

Tatum won an Academy Award for her part in "Paper Moon," the youngest person to have ever won an Oscar, but the acting talent wasn't the only thing she inherited from her parents. Both Ryan and Moore were addicted to drugs, and their lifestyle choices proved to be devastating to their children.

Tatum O'Neal as Addie Loggins in Peter Bogdanovich's 1973 film 'Paper Moon' | Source: Getty Images



Tatum revealed in 2011 in her Imemoir, “A Paper Life,” how her parents' drug addiction impacted her life. Her parents divorced when she was just 4, and she ended up living with her drug-addicted mother in what she described as her mother's "ramshackle ranch" with her younger brother, Griffin O'Neal. 

Tatum O'Neal's mother Joanna Moore in 1964 | Source: Getty Images


Moore was an alcoholic and a drug addict and went through a series of men, one of whom molested Tatum at the age of 6. The children were eventually removed from her care when Tatum was 8, but the change was not an improvement.

Tatum has alleged that her father -- also a drug addict -- was emotionally and physically abusive. At twelve, Tatum revealed in her book, “Found: A Daughter’s Journey Home,” she was once again subjected to sexual abuse, this time at the hands of her father's drug dealer.

Ryan O'Neal with Joanna Moore, and daughter, Tatum in 1965 | Source: Getty Images



By then Tatum -- already a highly-paid actress since the age 10 -- was supporting her destitute mother financially. Like so many abuse survivors, promiscuity became an outlet for her anger, and drug-use her self medication. When she was 16, her father met "Charlie's Angels" actress Farrah Fawcett, and Tatum's life underwent yet another traumatic change.


Ryan moved in with Fawcett, and left his children, Tatum then 16, and Griffin 15 to fend for themselves. For years, Tatum was estranged from her father, and her exposure of his actions to the public, staining his "nice guy" image. Tatum confessed:


“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." 

John McEnroe and Tatum O'Neal at the Players' Evening at the French Open Tennis Championships in 1985 | Source: Getty Images



Then in 1986, at 23, Tatum met and married mega-star John McEnroe, then 27. McEnroe, a brilliant but volatile tennis player, was equally famous for his on-the-court tantrums. The couple proceeded to welcome three children, Kevin, Sean, and Emily, and it looked as if Tatum finally had the nurturing, loving family she'd always dreamed of.

But the marriage fell apart through a combination of factors, not the least of them McEnroe's temper, and Tatum's drug use. McEnroe would blame Ryan's abuse for his ex-wife's drug use and revealed that his father-in-law was only pleasant when "high" on marijuana.



After 8 years of marriage, which their children would describe as a constant conflict, Tatum and McEnroe divorced. The end of the marriage, which Tatum would later describe as the happiest time in her life plunged the actress deeper into drugs, and she became addicted to heroin.

In a nightmarish reenactment of her own life-story, Tatum lost custody of her children. It was a wake-up call, and drove her to fight for her sobriety. She revealed:

"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.”



Tatum kicked her heroin addiction and won back her children. Part of her healing was effected by pouring out her story in her autobiographies: " A Paper Life," originally published in 2001, and "Found: A Daughter's Journey Home," published in 2011, detailing her failed attempts at reconciling with her father.

Tatum O'Neal and daughter Emily McEnroe at the premier of "God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness" in 2018 in Hollywood, California.



Tatum's biggest fans and greatest supporters are her children. Daughter Emily McEnroe, 29, also an actress, who contributes to her mother's podcast "Tatum, Verbatim," said:

“I think she is a real survival story. In terms of where she’s at in her life right now, we have never been closer. She wasn’t given the tools to be a great mother (...) to rise above everything, and yet she did."


Tatum is rebuilding her career and has revealed that she desperately wants to do comedy again. But, she pointed out, the industry is unforgiving of actresses who have had addiction issues -- a prejudice that somehow does not apply to their male counterparts, whose images seem to gain an added luster as "bad boys."

Despite her crippling past, Tatum has risen above it all, conquered her demons, and became the mother she always dreamed of having, and that is star quality in any book.


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