There are things that I love about Europe, but I find with American people there is an energy and an enthusiasm you don't find in Europe.
– Natasha Richardson
Natasha Jane Richardson Redgrave was born in London on 11 May, 1963, into a theatrical dynasty. Her pedigree reads like an entry in Who's Who. Natasha's parents were English actress Vanessa Redgrave CBE and the Oscar-winning director Cecil Antonio (Tony) Richardson, who hailed from Yorkshire. The previous generation included grandfather Sir Michael Redgrave and grandmother Rachel Kempson. Other close family members are Corin, Lynn and Jemma Redgrave, all of whom inherited the acting gene.
Natasha's sister Joely Kim Richardson was born on 9 January, 1965. The sisters attended St Paul's Girls School in London. Their parents divorced in 1967 after Tony Richardson left his wife Vanessa for the French actress Jeanne Moreau1. At that time Vanessa was filming the Oscar-winning musical Camelot portraying perhaps her most memorable role as Queen Guenevere with Richard Harris as King Arthur and Italian actor Francesco Sparanero (stage name Franco Nero) as Sir Lancelot du Lac. Franco Nero eventually became part of Natasha's family, as the partner of her mother Vanessa, and father of Carlo Gabriel Sparanero who was born in 1969.
Natasha went on to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, between 1980 and 1983. She was blessed with good looks and grew to a statuesque 5'9". Her light brown eyes were said to be like those of a lioness. Her friends admired her great sense of humour and she was noted for her infectious laughter.
Natasha began her acting career in 1983 in Leeds at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, earning plaudits in her own right, rather than cashing in on her famous family name. Her first television roles were as a prostitute in the 1984 mini-series Ellis Island which also featured Liam Neeson, followed by a role in an episode entitled 'The Copper Beeches' in the series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which starred Jeremy Brett as the iconic detective Holmes. Natasha then returned to the stage in 1985 and excelled with Shakespearean characters Helena (A Midsummer Night's Dream) and Ophelia (Hamlet), and received the 'Most Promising Newcomer' award for her portrayal as 'Nina' in the stage production of Chekov's The Seagull, despite the shock of her co-star Samantha Eggar suddenly being replaced with Natasha's mother Vanessa:
Having a legend for a mother is one thing, but facing her on stage night after night is quite another. It was scary. The first day, I was suddenly aware that I'm on the stage with this overwhelming actress. It made me want to run and hide.
Effortlessly flitting from theatre to the big screen, in 1986 she starred as Mary Shelley in Gothic directed by Ken Russell, who later praised her ephemeral delicacy and intelligent beauty. Another lauded performance on stage was as the spoiled socialite Tracy Lord in High Society (1987), and she won a 'Tony' award for her turn as Sally Bowles in Sam Mendes' production of Cabaret. There then followed a performance as a war heroine in a WWI drama, A Month in the Country, which also starred Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh. In 1988 Natasha played the part of kidnapped heiress-turned-terrorist Patty Hearst in the film of the same name.
The Handmaid's Tale
One of Natasha's most memorable roles was as Kate in the harrowing sci-fi film The Handmaid's Tale based on the post-apocalyptic book of the same title by Margaret Atwood. Set in the future, 'Kate' was happily married with a daughter but she was kidnapped and held captive by a rich barren couple. Raped by the husband in order to be impregnated to provide a child for his wife, Kate acquiesces on the promise of contact with her separated daughter, which she believes her captor can fulfil. Unfortunately the husband is infertile and the wife becomes more frustrated at the lack of a pregnancy and suspicious that her husband is developing feelings for Kate. Fearing for her life, Kate conceives with the help of sympathetic fellow-captive Nick, who also works for the family. Natasha's portrayal of the helpless woman complying with brutal treatment in order to carry on living in the hope of eventually being reunited with her young daughter made the film worth watching. She evoked the sympathy of the audience even though her character ended up a murderess. For her performance as Kate, Natasha was honoured with the 'Best Actress' (1990) title by the Evening Standard British Film Awards board.
Relationships and Family
Natasha married the English film producer Robert Fox in December 1990, two weeks after his divorce from his first wife was finalised. Natasha's father Tony Richardson died aged 63 of AIDS-related causes on 14 November, 1991. He had hidden the fact that he was bisexual until diagnosed with HIV, and his devoted daughter Natasha threw herself into fundraising for AIDS, eventually serving on the board of the charity amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research in the US, in his memory.
Natasha met up with Irish actor Liam Neeson OBE again while both were co-starring on Broadway in Anna Christie, a play about a prostitute who arrives for a reunion with her estranged father (Rip Torn), only to fall in love with a sailor (Neeson). Off stage they fell in love for real, which meant leaving their respective marriages to be together.
Natasha and Robert Fox were divorced in June 1993, and when Natasha married Neeson on 3 July, 1994, she was given away by her mother's partner Franco Nero. Natasha loved America so much that as well as making her home there, she took US citizenship. She and Liam lived in New York with their two sons, Micheál (born 1995) and Daniel (born 1996).
In 1998 a bombing in Omagh, Northern Ireland, killed 29 people; Natasha and Liam donated to the memorial fund the six-figure sum they received in compensation from two newspapers after they ran an untrue story about the 'precarious nature' of the couple's relationship.
After taking a short career break to start a family, Natasha returned to filming with a starring role in Disney's The Parent Trap. She played the part of the mother set up by her daughter and her twin (a pre-teenage Lindsay Lohan played both the daughter and her twin sister) who had been separated when the parents split up. Then followed a made-for-TV special, Haven, a true story of the life of Ruth Gruber (Natasha's part), an American WWII heroine who saved over 1,000 Jews from a gruesome death. Haven was Emmy-nominated, but the 2001 award judges went for The Sopranos, Frasier, Will & Grace, ER and Ally McBeal instead. However, Haven did win a Humanitas Prize and a Gemini Award.
In 2002 Natasha starred in two films, the first, Waking Up in Reno co-starred Patrick Swayze. The second was the much-touted Maid in Manhattan, a showcase for Jennifer Lopez. Unfortunately Lopez was nominated for a 2003 Golden Raspberry ('Razzie') Award, but that dubious honour went jointly to Madonna (for Swept Away) and Britney Spears (for Crossroads). Natasha barely escaped the film's critical mauling and headed back to the stage. Accepting the plaudits for her portrayal of Blanche DuBois in a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire helped restore her confidence.
Working With Mum
Over the years daughter Natasha and her actress mother Vanessa Redgrave teamed up for joint projects, although Natasha was very wary of being accused of nepotism. Sometimes the credits included other members of the famous family; take for instance the 2005 drama The White Countess set in 1930s Shanghai, which starred Natasha as Russian Countess Sofia Belinskya, her mother Vanessa as Princess Vera Belinskya, and Aunt Lynn Redgrave as Olga.
Natasha worked with mum Vanessa again in a one-night-only benefit performance directed by Scott Ellis at New York's Studio 54 on 12 January, 2009. They played mother Madame Armfeldt and daughter Desirée Armfeldt in Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's classic play A Little Night Music. During the play Natasha gave a moving rendition of the wistful 'Send In The Clowns'. The script called for the daughter to attend her mother's deathbed, something both actresses found incredibly hard to deal with, as it was 'too close', and not something either wanted to contemplate outside of acting, because everybody eventually dies. They were of course thinking of the mother Vanessa's death, and didn't know what fate had in store for them. For every person who passes away there are family and friends left behind who grieve. Their lives are changed forever as they live on and try to cope without their beloved family member.
Natasha was on holiday with her sons in Quebec, Canada, when she fell during a skiing lesson and bumped her head. At first refusing hospital treatment because she 'felt fine', an hour later her severe headache forced her to seek medical assistance. By then it was too late. She had suffered a brain haemorrhage and lapsed into a coma, never to recover. Mortally ill, she was flown by private jet to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York on Tuesday, 17 March, 2009, where her devastated family gathered to say goodbye.
Natasha's mother Vanessa sang her favourite tune Edelweiss to her brain-dead daughter just before the life-support machine was switched off. There is an old Chinese saying that to outlive one's child is a cruel fate. Vanessa's incomparable loss of her vibrant, adorable daughter is a crushing blow from which she will undoubtedly never recover. Natasha and Liam's two sons, on the brink of adulthood, have lost their irreplaceable, devoted mother.
When famous people die, word spreads quickly and the rest of the world is united in sorrow at the loss of someone they never knew personally. Obituaries are read and things are learned about the person that you didn't know, but you did know that they were special and their light will continue to burn brightly through the memory of the good work they did while they walked the same path.
It is such a great loss to this community to lose an actress and person such as Natasha. Gifts like her don't come along very often. It's a rare thing in this industry to have someone with so much talent, beauty and dedication, and yet is imbued with such humility. I know for me and many other people, the world will be a different place without her. My heart goes out to Liam and his two boys, but I'm sure that Natasha's light is shining down on them.
– Patrick Swayze
The lights in New York's Broadway theatre district were dimmed in her honour on Thursday, 19 March, 2009, followed by a similar tribute in London's West End on the following night. What shines through most about Natasha is how much she was loved by her colleagues and fellow charity campaigners, as well as her family. Natasha Richardson was a rare creature, a Hollywood and Broadway star yet not a diva, with a beautiful soul to match her outward gorgeousness.
Natasha was a dedicated AIDS advocate and an eloquent spokesperson for amfAR. Our hearts go out to her family. This is a catastrophic loss for them, and it is a terrible loss for amfAR and the fight against AIDS. She generously contributed her time and resources to amfAR for over 15 years. I don't know what we are going to do without her.
– Spokesperson for the charity amfAR
She had an incredibly luminous quality that you seldom see, and a great sense of humour.
– Dame Judi Dench
Natasha's family generously agreed to donate her organs and that decision will directly benefit up to a dozen people. A family source revealed that doctors spent six hours harvesting the organs, and commented: 'Someone is going to wake up in recovery reciting Shakespeare'.
A private funeral was held at the St Peter's Episcopal Church in Millbrook on Sunday, 22 March, 2009, with widower Liam Neeson among the pallbearers. Natasha's coffin was adorned with an Irish claddagh, a symbol signifying love, friendship and loyalty. In lieu of floral tributes, the family requested donations be made instead to the amfAR Foundation for AIDS Research. Natasha was interred in a plot close to her grandmother Rachel Kempson, who had died during a visit to Natasha and Liam's family home in 2003.
She was a star. A great actress, a beautiful woman, a fiercely loyal friend, a brilliant and generous companion. I cannot imagine a world without her wit, her love, her mischief, her great, great talent and her gift for living.
– Actor Ralph Fiennes