Natasha Richardson, Tony Award-Winning Actress, Dies at 45

A look at the life and career of the Tony-Award winning actress, member of the Redgrave family and wife of Liam Neeson.
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tony Award-winning actress Natasha Richardson, 45, a member of a British acting dynasty, died March 18 from a head injury she suffered while skiing.

Ms. Richardson, a daughter of Academy Award-winning actress and human rights activist Vanessa Redgrave and the wife of actor Liam Neeson, fell on a beginners' slope near Montreal during a ski lesson March 16. Ms. Richardson initially appeared uninjured, but an hour later, she complained of a headache. As her condition worsened, she was flown to a hospital near her home in New York City, where her family gathered.

Ms. Richardson's father was producer Tony Richardson ("Tom Jones"). Her maternal grandparents were actors Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson. An aunt is actress Lynn Redgrave, with whom Ms. Richardson and her mother appeared in the 2005 Merchant Ivory film "The White Countess."

Ms. Richardson might have been overshadowed by the public profiles of her family members, particularly her mother's, but she was widely respected for the quality and versatility of her performances.

She won a Tony Award for the 1998 Broadway revival of the musical "Cabaret," in which she played bohemian showgirl Sally Bowles, and she starred in a variety of film, TV and stage productions. She played Blanche Du Bois in Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire" (2005) and appeared in Disney's remake of "The Parent Trap" (1998).

As a young woman, Ms. Richardson was considered one of the most promising actresses of her generation and earned a reputation as a specialist in formidable dramatic parts. She received a Tony nomination and outstanding notices for her lead role as a woman with a dark past in a 1993 Broadway revival of the Eugene O'Neill waterfront story "Anna Christie."

Director Paul Schrader, who cast Ms. Richardson in several movies, once noted how she "had an essential quality of mystery about her. You can watch her for the better part of two hours, and still think that she'll show you something new."

In addition to Schrader's "Patty Hearst" (1988), in which she played the kidnapped heiress, and the psychological thriller "The Comfort of Strangers" (1990), Ms. Richardson starred in literary dramas including "A Month in the Country" (1987) with Colin Firth and "The Handmaid's Tale" (1990) with Robert Duvall.

She made some attempts to raise her profile, appearing in "The Parent Trap," with Lindsay Lohan, and in "Maid in Manhattan" (2002), portraying a frosty socialite opposite a hotel maid played by Jennifer Lopez.

Film scholar David Kipen said: "Richardson radiated intelligence in everything she did. She won raves for Shakespeare, Chekhov, O'Neill, Williams and Ibsen, and she could sing, besides. If the movies never knew quite what to do with her, that strikes me more as the medium's fault than hers."

Natasha Jane Richardson was born in London on May 11, 1963. She made her stage debut at 4, directed by her father while playing her mother's bridesmaid in the movie "The Charge of the Light Brigade." Her parents' marriage ended about that time. Tony Richardson died of AIDS-related complications in 1991.

At 17, Ms. Richardson passed her audition at London's Central School of Speech and Drama without revealing her true name. She debuted in London's West End theater district as Nina in a 1985 revival of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull" that starred her mother. It was a daunting way to start her professional career, but she later told the New York Times: "If you jump in at the deep end, you only have to swim to the shallow end. But if you jump in at the shallow end, the deep end seems awfully far away."

During the show's run, she began a relationship with "Seagull" producer Robert Fox, and they later married. She left him to marry Neeson, with whom she appeared in "Anna Christie."

Survivors include Neeson and their two sons; her mother; and a sister, actress Joely Richardson.

Ms. Richardson's early films included "Gothic" (1986), a sexually provocative drama directed by Ken Russell. She played the mistress of atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer in "Fat Man and Little Boy" (1989) and a court-appointed psychiatrist in "Nell" (1994), starring Jodie Foster. She also portrayed the troubled Catharine in a TV version of Tennessee Williams's "Suddenly, Last Summer" (1993) opposite Maggie Smith.

Traditionally drawn to dark-themed works, Ms. Richardson was perhaps an unusual choice to play Sally Bowles in "Cabaret," a role popularized onscreen by Liza Minnelli.

But she said she saw the character as desperate, perhaps a future drug addict or someone who "moves to England in the end and has a desperately boring middle-class existence, which is a kind of death in itself."

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