Natasha Richardson, a gifted and precocious heiress to acting royalty whose career highlights included the film Patty Hearst and a Tony-winning performance in a stage revival of Cabaret, died on Wednesday at age 45 after suffering a head injury during a beginners’ ski lesson.
Alan Nierob, the Los Angeles-based publicist for Richardson’s husband, Liam Neeson, confirmed her death in a written statement.
“Liam Neeson, his sons [Michael, 13, and 12-year-old Daniel], and the entire family are shocked and devastated by the tragic death of their beloved Natasha,” the statement said. “They are profoundly grateful for the support, love and prayers of everyone, and ask for privacy during this very difficult time.”
The statement did not give details on the cause of death for Richardson, who suffered a head injury and fell on a beginner’s trail during a private ski lesson at the luxury Mont Tremblant ski resort in Quebec.
Seemingly fine after the fall on Tuesday, about an hour later Richardson was hospitalized in Montreal and later flown to New York, where she was taken to the Lenox Hill Hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
It was a sudden and horrifying loss for her family and friends, for the acting community and for her fans.
Descended from at least three generations of actors, Richardson was a proper Londoner who came to love the noise of New York, an elegant woman with large, lively eyes, a bright smile and a hearty laugh.
If she never quite attained the acting heights of her Academy Award-winning mother, she still had enjoyed a long and worthy career.
As an actress, Richardson was equally adept at passion and restraint, able to portray besieged women both confessional (as Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois) and confined (as the concubine in the futuristic horror of The Handmaid’s Tale).
Like other family members, she divided her time between stage and screen. On Broadway, she won a Tony for her performance as Sally Bowles in a 1998 revival of Cabaret.
She also appeared in New York in a production of Patrick Marber’s Closer in 1999 and a revival of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in 2005, in which she played Blanche opposite John Reilly’s Stanley Kowalski.
She met Neeson when they made their Broadway debuts in 1993, co-starring in Anna Christie, Eugene O’Neill’s drama about a former prostitute and the sailor who falls in love with her.
“The astonishing Natasha Richardson ... gives what may prove to be the performance of the season as Anna, turning a heroine who has long been portrayed [and reviled] as a whore with a heart of gold into a tough, ruthlessly unsentimental apostle of O’Neill’s tragic understanding of life,’’ New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote.
Richardson played the title character in Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst, a 1988 biopic about the kidnapped heiress for which the actress became so immersed that even between scenes she wore a blindfold, the better to identify with her real-life counterpart.
Richardson later co-starred with Neeson in Nell and Mia Farrow in Widow’s Peak.
Richardson was born in London in 1963, the performing gene inherited not just from her parents — Redgrave and director Tony Richardson — but from her maternal grandparents — Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson.
Her screen debut came at age four, when she appeared as a flower girl in The Charge of the Light Brigade, directed by her father, whose movies included The Entertainer.
Richardson sometimes remarked on the differences between her and her husband, Neeson — she from a theatrical dynasty and he from a working-class background in Northern Ireland.
“He’s more laid back, happy to see what happens, whereas I’m a doer and I plan ahead,” she told the Independent on Sunday in 2003.
She once said that Neeson’s serious injury in a 2000 motorcycle accident when he suffered a crushed pelvis after colliding with a deer, had made her really appreciate life.
“I wake up every morning feeling lucky, which is driven by fear, no doubt, since I know it could all go away,” she told the Daily Telegraph in 2003.