Tatum O'Neal reached the height of Hollywood at the age of 10. By the time she was 20, she had hit the pit of despair and drug abuse. Now 40, she's responding to a scathing autobiography recently released by her ex-husband, John McEnroe, saying she wants to refute lies in McEnroe's book and claiming that the tennis great used steroids.
This story was originally broadcast on 20/20 June 28, 2002.
At the tender age of 10, Tatum O'Neal stamped her place in movie history with her portrayal of a con man's precocious sidekick in the 1973 film Paper Moon.
Playing opposite her father, Ryan O'Neal, the young actress stole every scene. The performance earned her an Oscar for best supporting actress, making her the youngest actor ever to win an Academy Award.
Sadly, this early success was the pinnacle of her career. Although she enjoyed moderate success in such films as Bad News Bears and Little Darlings, O'Neal never recaptured the critical or popular acclaim she enjoyed in her debut.
A Youth of Instability
While her childhood will always be tied to the extraordinary success of winning an Oscar, it was also a time of enormous personal upheaval.
O'Neal says she and her brother were raised in squalor in Reseda, Calif., by their mother, Joanna Moore, an actress battling drug addiction.
When she was just 7, her father took over and began to raise her and her brother. At the time, Ryan O'Neal was at the height of his career, and raising a young daughter and son didn't fit in easily with his Hollywood lifestyle.
O'Neal describes her father as "the most charming, funny, incredible guy you'll ever meet," but adds that he could also be violent and physically abusive with her and her brother.
Still, O'Neal said she needed her dad to fill the role of both mother and father. This, O'Neal said, "was just more than he could probably handle." She added, "I mean I was just not allowing him to have a girlfriend … and by the way, I mean it wasn't a girlfriend, it was a thousand girls."
A Hollywood Adolescence
Through her adolescence, O'Neal was known as a Hollywood brat. It was the 1970s, and in Hollywood that meant wild times and drugs.
Feeling overweight and depressed, she turned to cocaine when she was just 15 years old. O'Neal said her dad told her the drug would help her lose weight. Quickly though, O'Neal was addicted and her self-esteem plunged further still. "I felt like I was worth nothing," she said.
While her relationship with her father was volatile, it was the only stable parental relationship in her life.
Then her father began dating Farrah Fawcett, one of the era's biggest sex symbols. When the couple decided to live together, O'Neal said, she was left behind to raise her 14-year-old brother alone.
O'Neal says her contact with her dad was limited to meeting him a few times a week to play racquetball. When Tatum showed up late for one of their court dates, O'Neal says her father became enraged and struck her so hard he nearly knocked her out. O'Neal says that she and her father didn't speak for years after the incident.
Ryan O'Neal had no comment on her allegations.
Another Charming, Volatile Man
By the time she was 20, O'Neal says she was a full-blown cocaine addict, and the instability and explosiveness that characterized her relationship with her parents followed her into her next major relationship — her marriage to tennis great John McEnroe.
When O'Neal met McEnroe he was the tennis world's reigning superbrat. The media saw McEnroe and O'Neal as an irresistible pairing — the world's top-ranked tennis player and an Oscar-winning actress. Everywhere they went, the paparazzi followed.
"He was very good-looking. I thought he was charming. … It was sort of a chemical attraction or physical attraction, a love at first sight kind of thing," O'Neal said.
In 1986 the couple had a son, Kevin, and decided to marry a few months after his birth. O'Neal and McEnroe went on to have two more children, Sean and Emily.
Unfortunately, their relationship was stormy and mired in drugs from the very start, and the couple divorced in 1994. In his new autobiography, You Cannot Be Serious, McEnroe paints a painful portrait of their relationship.
McEnroe, 43, describes himself in the book as the son of stable Irish Catholic parents and the world's most gifted tennis player. O'Neal, he writes, is the daughter of a hell-raising father and characterizes her as a temperamental fallen starlet unable to rekindle her early fame.
In a recent interview with a British tabloid following the publication of McEnroe's book, O'Neal called her ex-husband a "cruel, cruel man" and described him as "a sexual and physical bully."
In her first televised interview since the book's release, O'Neal told 20/20 that she is speaking out to refute some of McEnroe's claims.
Rage Off the Court
According to O'Neal, McEnroe's notorious temper tantrums weren't confined to the tennis court. She claims he was cruel at home and sometimes violent.
O'Neal said McEnroe blamed her and the children when his game began to slip and his world ranking fell. "He would take out all of his rage onto me," she said.
O'Neal claims McEnroe would put her and the children in a chair and would circle it while yelling at them. (This anecdote bears a close resemblance to McEnroe's onstage persona as the host of a sort of extreme quiz show called The Chair. In it, he provokes nervous contestants who are strapped to a chair.)
One of the things that heightened McEnroe's temper, O'Neal says, was steroid use.
O'Neal said McEnroe used steroids in a comeback bid he launched after their son Sean was born in 1988. She said she made him stop using steroids because he was becoming violent. O'Neal says she was not aware of whether tennis officials knew of McEnroe's steroid use.
In his book, McEnroe acknowledged that he has attended anger-management classes since his divorce and admitted to using drugs, but he made no mention of steroid use.
McEnroe responded to O'Neal's allegations in a written statement to 20/20. In his statement he said, "I am very disappointed in Tatum's statements. I had hoped that, after all these years, she would see things more accurately, and that she would share my concern for the welfare of our children." Also in his book, McEnroe denies he ever hit O'Neal.
McEnroe also writes that in 1992 he gave O'Neal a choice: to work things out or move out. And when she left, he writes "I was shocked and devastated by how suddenly it had happened. I had never cried so much in my life."
O'Neal's version is dramatically different.
O'Neal said, "He kicked me down the stairs. … I had never had a plan. I never thought, 'oh, I've gotta leave this guy,' but … I thought my little 5-year-old's gonna' open the door and see his mother on the floor, with this crazy man yelling over her."
While O'Neal said she doesn't regret leaving McEnroe, she said she was despondent and depressed after they divorced.
Sliding Into a New Addiction
After a vicious battle, McEnroe and O'Neal were given joint custody of their children, with O'Neal awarded primary care. But in 1997, Tatum says, her world collapsed. That year McEnroe married rock singer Patty Smyth. But more devastating, Tatum's mother died of cancer, literally in her arms. Both events, she says, sent her spiraling downward. Her drug addiction escalated to heroin — first sniffing, then using needles.
In the years that followed, O'Neal was in and out of drug rehab centers. McEnroe, she says, never offered any support.
"He never called me. The kids never visited me. The kids never could write me. The kids couldn't talk to me," O'Neal said.
O'Neal said her father wasn't there for her either. "He said he didn't know me … I never got a visit from a family member."
O'Neal said her children never saw her use heroin, but admits her daughter found a syringe in her apartment.
After court proceedings, O'Neal's visits with her kids were restricted, and she was required to submit to urine drug testing regularly, in order to see them.
Battling Over Their Kids
O'Neal acknowledges that her heroin addiction made her unfit to take care of her children, but she remains angry at McEnroe's harsh treatment of her.
"I knew that he needed to take care of the children. I knew that I needed help. That doesn't mean he needed to call me a scum-sucking pig," she said.
In July of 1999, McEnroe and O'Neal's tempestuous relationship reached a boiling point. The incident involved their 13-year-old son Kevin, who had discovered his father's marijuana and smoked it. According to court papers, when McEnroe found out he "ordered Kevin to lie face down on the bed, pulled his pants down … to expose … his bare buttocks and spanked him three or four times." While McEnroe admitted that this must have been an embarrassing punishment, he stressed that "Kevin did deserve" it.
McEnroe also confesses that he accidentally "kicked Kevin in the shin causing some pain and a bruise." To demonstrate the level of McEnroe's temper, O'Neal brought a taped phone call that took place between her and her ex-husband a few days after the marijuana incident. As the conversation unfolds, McEnroe becomes increasingly angry when O'Neal threatens to use the marijuana episode against him.
O'Neal took the tape to court in order to gain custody of her children — but she lost.
O'Neal says she has been clean for a few months, and is continuing to fight for custody of her children. "I want those children in my life. I love those children more than anything in the world. I've never known unconditional love, and I get it from them. These are the purest human beings in the world," she said.
Picking Up the Pieces
Today, O'Neal lives alone in New York, in an apartment overlooking Central Park. On a shelf in her home there is a famous statue, and everywhere photographs, to remind her of what was.
Mostly, there are pictures of her children and even her father, with whom she recently reconciled after learning he has cancer. Tatum says she has grown closer to her father, who has undergone treatment and, she says, is in remission.
Recently, O'Neal has restarted her film career, receiving some good reviews for her starring role in a small independent film called the The Scoundrel's Daughter. O'Neal acknowledges she's got a tough road ahead of her, but says she's confident and optimistic.
She said, "I'll never have a normal life. But I'll have a great career and I will move people, because … for my 38 years, I've packed quite a lot in."