Tatum O'Neal Talks About Her Drug Abuse, Chaotic Childhood and Forgiving Estranged Father

Actress talks about her drug abuse and relationship with her estranged father.

June 14, 2011, 9:48 AM

June 14, 2011— -- Academy award-winning actress Tatum O'Neal was once the little girl with the gritty voice and the big attitude in the 1973 movie "Paper Moon" with her father, Ryan O'Neal, starring alongside her. But while everything seemed glamorous on film, off-screen the former child star says her life became "very toxic."

Winning an Oscar at age 9, still the youngest actress ever to do so, Tatum O'Neal told "Nightline" anchor Cynthia McFadden that by the time she was in her teens she was using drugs and alcohol, had been molested several times by family friends and had tried to commit suicide.

"I had already tried to cut my wrists," O'Neal said. "I was 13. I had tried to commit suicide twice already."

In her new memoir, "Found: A Daughter's Journey Home," a follow-up to her 2004 New York Times best-selling memoir, "A Paper Life," O'Neal, 47, openly talks about her addictions, struggles with living in the public eye and her strained relationship with her parents. "Found" is in stores Tuesday.

Read an excerpt of Tatum O'Neal's "Found" HERE.

While her father appeared handsome and charming on-screen, Tatum O'Neal described a rocky relationship with Ryan O'Neal that started when she was still a child.

"In the long scenes, I wanted to make sure my dad wasn't mad at me, and sometimes he was," she told McFadden. "Because I'd miss a take for 30 takes or something, you know, and we had to turn around. I mean, I was difficult at times to work with, I'm sure. You know, I was 8 years old."

Living with her mother, Joanna Moore, and little brother, Griffin O'Neal, for those first eight years of her life had been chaotic and painful. O'Neal's parents had divorced by then and her mother, also an actress, was a drug addict and unable to care for her children though they lived with her anyway.

"We went to the bathroom on the floor," O'Neal said. "We did a lot of crazy things because we didn't have any guidance at all."

Living in a real house of horrors, O'Neal said there were days when she and her brother weren't fed, but they were locked inside the house, played with fire and even jumped off the roof. O'Neal also said that at the time, her mother had a 15-year-old boyfriend, who would beat her.

"It was a hard time," she said. "I lived a hard time. There was, you know, tremendous beatings and no food."

"I did a lot of running away," she continued. "I was just waiting for my dad to save me -- please save me, please, you know, because I was getting hurt. I was getting in trouble. I wasn't going to school. My teeth were rotting. Like, that was really happening, you know, and I was suffering."

Finally, Ryan O'Neal did come to her rescue, she said, and they went everywhere together. It was he who suggested she play the part of Addie in "Paper Moon." Her fearless performance stole the film and won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1974, a stunning moment in her budding career but neither of her parents attended the event.

"I was with my grandparents. My dad was making a movie in Ireland at the time," O'Neal said. "I don't know where my mother was actually...but by then she wasn't even allowed really to be next to me because things had really separated, because now I was my dad's girl. So I couldn't even have invited her if I wanted to. That was where things got really hard."

Tatum O'Neal Describes Her 2008 Arrest

Despite her new fame, O'Neal said by the time she entered her teen years, her bond with her father was unraveling.

"I don't think he had any idea what to do with me, at all," she said. "I think he was fine when I was a little kid and he could take me around and we went everywhere together."

"I think as I grew breasts and kind of became a young woman, I think he just got weirded out and kind of started to struggle with me, it seemed, a lot," O'Neal continued. "I started to get unbalanced and I started to feel insecure, and I started to not know where to turn."

Through this time, Ryan O'Neal dated a series of high-profile Hollywood women, including actresses Anjelica Huston, Bianca Jagger and eventually the blonde bombshell, Farrah Fawcett, who he was with until 1997. Tatum O'Neal was just 15 when her father moved out of their house to be with Fawcett, two years after she had tried to commit suicide.

"It's a memory that I have of a very, very, very toxic life, of a very difficult life," she said.

Seeking out love for herself, O'Neal met and married tennis champion John McEnroe in 1986 when she was just 22. The couple had three kids together, but divorced nine years later. O'Neal said it was at that point that she became addicted to heroin.

"The drugs that I liked to do, not painkillers, that's not what I'd like to do. I'd rather do heroin or crack, something of that nature," she said. "Something really illegal, something really destructive."

After stints in and out of rehab, O'Neal's downward spiral with drugs eventually landed her in jail. She described the moment in June 2008 when she tried to illegally buy crack cocaine off the streets near her Manhattan apartment and was arrested.

"Men came out of everywhere and said, you know, 'what's in your hands,' and I showed them," O'Neal said. "They said, 'you're under arrest.' I was like, you know, 'you don't understand, like this is not what you think.' And he was like, 'yeah right, Tatum O'Neal.' You know, 'you idiot...I'll make an example out of you.'"

O'Neal was charged with a misdemeanor criminal possession of a controlled substance. In July 2008, she pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in connection with the arrest and agreed to attend a drug-treatment program.

Through her two books, O'Neal has been candid for years about her drug abuse and dysfunctional family life, including the estranged relationship with her father. She is launching a new documentary series on her attempt to reconcile with Ryan O'Neal, who she says she has seen only sporadically over the past 25 years. "The O'Neals: Ryan and Tatum" debuts on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).

"I sort of took a journey with my dad with this show to see what would happen," O'Neal said. "It didn't necessarily -- make us together. It didn't necessarily push us to this happy ending."

The documentary opens up some old wounds and in one emotional scene, Ryan O'Neal finally talks about moving out of the house where he lived with his daughter to move in with Farrah Fawcett.

"[Tatum] felt I had abandoned her and gone on off with Farrah which is somewhat true," O'Neal is shown saying in the OWN documentary. "I was so in love with Farrah that I was blind, and so yeah, she got left at the curb but I always said just stay at the curb, I'll be back."

In the past, O'Neal had called his daughter's claims of neglect "malicious lies." Despite it all, Tatum O'Neal told Cynthia McFadden she forgives her father and wants to take care of him as he gets older.

"He can say whatever he wants...he can make up stuff or say stuff," she said. "This is about forgiveness...this is about trying to shut a door and open another one. I don't know if it's going to work. It may or it may not, but I'm going to try."

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