Tatum O'Neal on Her Biggest Roles
Tatum O'Neal's Biggest Roles
She was the It Girl of the decade — and is still the youngest actor ever to win an Academy Award, for her debut role opposite dad Ryan O'Neal in 1973's Paper Moon. O'Neal's mixture of bravura and preternatural wisdom catapulted her into a life she wasn't prepared for. Now 53 and sober after years of struggling with addiction, the actress looks back on those early years with a grim fondness — wistful that the opportunities she was afforded early on could have resulted in a different career had she benefited from a stronger support system.
Paper Moon (1973)
To O’Neal, then 9 years old, starring in Paper Moon was a chance to be with her dad, skip school, and learn how to read well. She had no idea how much work it would require. "I hated the clothes they put me in," O’Neal says of the Depression-era dresses she wore. "I screamed and cried. They cut my hair funny. I didn’t understand why I had to wear such ugly little boots." Wardrobe challenges aside, O’Neal credits the success of the film to her director, Peter Bogdanovich, who she says walked her through every single take, every single scene. "I mimicked Peter throughout the whole film," O’Neal says. "He really should have gotten the Academy Award."
The Bad News Bears (1976)
Tackling The Bad News Bears presented a different challenge for O'Neal. In addition to learning how to pitch in order to play the titular Little League team's confident heroine Amanda Whurlitzer, she was paired with Michael Ritchie, a director whose hands-off approach contrasted starkly with Bogdanovich's. "Michael wasn't going to tell me how to do every line. He wasn't going to tell me how to react," she says. "I just used my own personality."
Only 11 years old, O'Neal learned to rely on Walter Matthau, who, as the Bears' foulmouthed, beer-drinking coach Morris Buttermaker, gave her the encouragement she wasn't getting from her director. "Working with Walter was one of the highlights of my career," O'Neal says, though she still remembers how he frightened her during the iconic dugout scene in which the coach pushes Amanda away emotionally. "I was really scared when he yelled at me," she recalls. "I had never seen him like that. I was really upset, and it really hurt to have my elbow in the ice water."
International Velvet (1978)
Learning how to ride a horse and attempting a British accent are O'Neal's two most distinct memories from the underperforming sequel to the 1944 Elizabeth Taylor film National Velvet. Nanette Newman took over the role of Velvet Brown from Taylor, while O'Neal played the character's niece Sarah. The film was not particularly beloved, even among the cast. Anthony Hopkins, who played Sarah's trainer, went on the Johnny Carson show and said, "I've done a lot of great movies. International Velvet was not one of them."
The barb stung O'Neal at the time, but she still looks back warmly on her experience with the horses. "I had to do big jumps, and that was very hard and scary, but I was very confident as a rider," she says. "I never got thrown off the horse. I loved riding. I think I should have kept doing it. I would have had a much better life."
Little Darlings (1980)
The food fight. Matt Dillon's cuteness. Making fun of Armand Assante strutting around Georgia's Madison hotel in a leather weight-trimming belt. Those were the highlights of O'Neal's time on Hollywood's female answer to Meatballs. At age 15, O'Neal was losing her confidence, conscious of the differences between her and her fellow actors, who all seemed to have formally trained in New York. On top of that, she felt miscast as posh, prissy Ferris. Kristy McNichol's scrappy, streetwise Angel was more her speed. "I hated the fact that I played the rich girl," she says. "I think I could have done the other character better than I did Ferris."