Tatum O'Neal as a 43-year-old veteran actress on the comeback trail in New York in 2007.
Grown Up, Cleaned Up and ‘Back in the Game’
THREE years ago Tatum O’Neal, who remains the youngest person ever to win an Oscar, was on a plane flying home to New York from Los Angeles, where she was commuting every other week to auditions.
Discouraged by the frequent rejection and worried about money after years spent in and out of treatment centers for a widely publicized addiction to heroin and cocaine, Ms. O’Neal, whose newest movie, “My Brother,” opened on Friday, considered going into real estate.
“It was getting scary for me,” she said. “So I had this thought: I’ll become a real estate agent. It was the only thing I thought I could do, since I’d bought and sold some properties.”
She mentioned her idea to her manager, Brian Young, at Untitled Entertainment in Los Angeles. “I told him, ‘Brian, if we don’t get me some work I’m going to switch careers,’ ” she recalled. “So he says, ‘Go ahead.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I hate you.’ ”
But whether he knew it or not, Mr. Young had given her the motivation she needed.
“I couldn’t believe he said that,” she said. “I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown. I know he was just being honest, though. Doors weren’t opening for me. But I’ve got this determination. I couldn’t give up.”
Instead of going into real estate, Ms. O’Neal, now 43, began to revive her long-moribund career with a guerrillalike zeal.
The obstacles she faced were formidable: Her career had pretty much evaporated after her marriage to the tennis champion John McEnroe in 1986, and her reputation took a hit after they split up in 1992 and she lost custody of their three children because of drug abuse. (She says she is now sober and in a 12-step program, and that she is in a relationship with Ron Castellano, a New York architect.)
Her strategy, she said, involved “harassing” her manager and accepting every job offered her, from guest appearances on sitcoms like “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” to little-seen independent films, a nightly telenovela and ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”
“I just decided I was going to sweat my managers” until they got her work, Ms. O’Neal said during a recent interview at the Mercer Kitchen in SoHo.
She was by turns sweet, funny and tough, giving the sense that if a question annoyed her, she might take a swing at you. She ordered a huge salad, a big entree and a crème fraîche cheesecake while describing how she browbeat Mr. Young into paying attention to her: “I called him and e-mailed him every day. I showed up at his office and sat outside the door. I kept saying: ‘Hi! I’m here! Get me out there. I’ll do voice-overs, I’ll do whatever. Just get me in that room and I will get the job.’ ”
It was a far cry from her heyday, when she was named best supporting actress for her first movie, “Paper Moon,” in 1974, and became the highest-paid child star at the time when she earned $350,000 for “The Bad News Bears” in 1976. “I did everything my father, a ’70s movie star, would have said was beneath me,” she said of Ryan O’Neal, her co-star in “Paper Moon” and the lesser-known 1976 film “Nickelodeon.”
But it worked. Beginning with a guest shot on “Sex and the City” and achieving a certain crescendo when she waltzed live on “Dancing With the Stars” in a stiff updo and matronly red ball gown, Ms. O’Neal is, she maintained, “back in the game.”
“It’s not Oscar-worthy stuff obviously,” she conceded. “But it’s not bad for someone who got written off by Hollywood and practically my entire family. And I’m still on my way back. Look at Helen Mirren. She’s my idol. She just proved you can have a huge success at any age.”
A splashy starring role as the vengeful Blythe Hunter in the campy MyNetworkTV serial “Wicked Wicked Games” kept her on TV five nights a week from December to early March. A small role on “Rescue Me,” Denis Leary’s acclaimed FX series about New York City firefighters, became a recurring part, and she will be a regular when the show’s third season begins in June. She plays Maggie Gavin, the belligerent, drunken sister of Mr. Leary’s character, an alcoholic firefighter. “I drew on some personal experience,” she said wryly.
She plays an embassy translator who gets involved with an African-American man whose brother has Down syndrome in “My Brother,” a $3 million film shot in New York City that stars Vanessa Williams. It follows starring roles in the low-budget movies “The Technical Writer” (2003) and “The Scoundrel’s Wife” (2002).
“She was a little nervous,” said Anthony Lover, the writer and director of “My Brother.” “You could tell it was something a bit new for her again, especially since I shoot very long scenes in one take. But when she was on, she was on, and she was great.”
Ms. O’Neal admitted that her acting has been spotty over the years, ever since she attempted “a really embarrassing British accent” opposite Anthony Hopkins in “International Velvet” in 1978. “I feel as if I’ve always believed deep down I had talent,” she said. “But I was carrying around so much pain that I couldn’t let go and truly play a character.”
She said she lost that baggage in 2004 after writing her autobiography, “A Paper Life,” in which she recounted a nightmarish life with her alcoholic and neglectful mother, the actress Joanna Moore, who died in 1997; years with her sometimes violent father; and finally her unhappy marriage to Mr. McEnroe.
“As soon as that book came out, an umbilical cord was cut,” she said. “All that stuff was like a balloon that flew away. I was just lighter. And my acting got better.”
Sue Mengers, who was Hollywood’s most powerful agent in the 1970s, represented Ms. O’Neal when she was a child actress, and they have remained friends.
“Her early success wasn’t an accident,” Ms. Mengers said. “She has talent. But she went through so much. It’s a miracle Tatum is alive and walking and talking. Her book was totally accurate. I know. I was there.”
It was Ms. Mengers who urged Ms. O’Neal to contact Farrah Fawcett, her father’s longtime romantic partner, when Ms. Fawcett was thought to be seriously ill with cancer recently. “Farrah always adored Tatum,” Ms. Mengers said. “It was Ryan who made them compete with each other.”
Ms. O’Neal said she met with Ms. Fawcett, who has now recovered, and the two had an unexpectedly happy reunion.
The same cannot be said of her father, from whom she has often been estranged. She said she felt “physically sick” when she heard he had been arrested after a fight allegedly involving a gunshot with her brother Griffin O’Neal, 42, at Ryan O’Neal’s home in Malibu in February.
“There’s no excuse for firing a gun,” said Ms. O’Neal, who has publicly sided with her brother. “There’s no excuse for that kind of behavior, period.”
Still, despite years of what she calls “inexplicable meanness” from her father, she said she hoped they would reconnect. Mr. O’Neal, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
“I just can’t go into the lion cage right now if the lion is the way he’s always been,” she said. “I can’t chance getting hurt again.”
Ms. Mengers was more blunt: “Maybe with age Ryan will finally appreciate what he has in that girl. Maybe.”
Ms. O’Neal has been more successful repairing her relationship with Mr. McEnroe. The former spouses, who warred publicly for years, reunited in Los Angeles last fall to help their middle child, Sean, 19, get settled in his first year at college. Their son Kevin, 20, is a junior at an East Coast college. Their daughter, Emily, 15, divides her time between her parents.
“There we were — me, Sean, Kevin and McEnroe together shopping at Wal-Mart,” Ms. O’Neal said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Ms. O’Neal said her children are “thriving” and that as a result she plans to ratchet up her efforts to get back into bigger movies.
“As bad as Hollywood can be,” she said, “it’s also pretty great, in that it gives you the chance to come back and redeem yourself.”