Luminous and versatile, she came from a great acting dynasty and made magic on screen and off with husband Liam Neeson

By Josh Rottenberg
March 20, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

Over the course of a renowned 25-year career that spanned every medium and every conceivable genre, actress Natasha Richardson proved her range time and again. She could acquit herself admirably in even the lightest fare, such as 1998’s family film The Parent Trap or the 2002 romantic comedy Maid in Manhattan, but as a member of the legendary Redgrave acting dynasty, which stretched back for generations, she always felt most at home tackling profound human dramas from the likes of Chekhov, Ibsen, Williams, and O’Neill. ”I’m comfortable…where the most emotionally painful stuff is,” she told EW in 1998. ”That’s where I feel a connection.”

On March 16, Richardson — the British-born daughter of Oscar-winning actress Vanessa Redgrave and the late director Tony Richardson, niece of Lynn Redgrave, and older sister of Nip/Tuck star Joely Richardson — became the center of her own wrenching drama when she suffered a brain injury after a skiing accident at a resort in Canada. Her husband of nearly 15 years, Liam Neeson, left the set of Chloe, a drama he was filming in Toronto, to be with her. Over the next 24 hours, conflicting reports about Richardson’s condition spread across the Internet, sowing confusion, disbelief, and sadness. Her family struggled to make sense of the news. ”This is awful,” Kika Markham, wife of Richardson’s uncle Corin Redgrave, told PEOPLE. ”All we can do is wait.”

According to several accounts, Richardson’s fall — which occurred on a beginners’ trail during a private lesson at the Mont Tremblant resort — did not appear serious at first. ”She did not show any visible sign of injury,” the resort said in a statement to the Associated Press. After about an hour, however, Richardson began to complain of a headache and ended up at a hospital in Montreal. From there, she was flown by private jet to New York — where she lives with Neeson and their two sons, Micheal, 13, and Daniel, 12 — ”so her family could say goodbye to her,” a source told EW.

As a member of one of Britain’s most famous acting clans, Richardson entered the profession with enormous expectations on her shoulders. Her father, who won an Oscar in 1964 for directing the film Tom Jones, was among his elder daughter’s first and fiercest critics, picking apart an early performance in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. ”He said, ‘Not good enough,”’ Richardson recalled in a 1998 interview. ”Then he sent me the play with all the things underlined that I ought to think about.”

In time, however, Richardson emerged from the shadows of her famous parents, who had divorced when she was 4. (Her father died of complications from AIDS in 1991, at age 63.) She distinguished herself with her tremendous versatility and beauty on the stage, on television, and on the big screen, with films like 1990’s The Handmaid’s Tale and 1991’s The Comfort of Strangers. Richardson recruited Neeson to costar with her in a 1993 Broadway production of Anna Christie. The two instantly clicked both professionally and romantically. ”We started rehearsing,” Neeson said in a 1994 interview, ”and it was like suddenly walking on air.”

Over the past decade, Richardson continued to pivot between work in theater — winning a Tony in 1998 for her work in Cabaret — and in movies. A lifelong gourmand, she appeared this past season as a guest host on Top Chef. Though her relationship with her mother was strained at times by Redgrave’s political activism in earlier years, the two became quite close. They costarred in the 2007 film Evening and recently shared the stage in a one-night performance of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.

In 2001, Richardson reflected on the quality of resilience she shared with her family. ”We’ve all been through it in one way or another,” she said in an interview. ”We’ve had to be strong.” In the wake of her tragic accident, as they helplessly waited to learn Richardson’s fate, her family, friends, and fans were left to draw hope from that strength.