Versatile talent was acting royalty

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Natasha Richardson, who upheld her lineage as part of one of the great acting dynasties by establishing an eclectic career in film, TV and theater, earning a Tony in 1998 for her performance in "Cabaret," died Wednesday in New York. She was 45.

Her death, following a head injury she suffered Monday while taking a skiing lesson in Canada, was confirmed Wednesday evening in a written statement by Alan Nierob, the Los Angeles-based publicist for her husband Liam Neeson. Details about the cause of death were not released, but reports suggested that Richardson was removed from life support Wednesday.

"Liam Neeson, his sons 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."

At the time of the accident, which occurred at the Mont Tremblant resort north of Montreal, the actress experienced no immediate distress. After developing a headache about an hour later, she was taken first to a local hospital in Ste. Agathe, Quebec, and then was transferred to the Hopital du Sacre-Coeur de Montreal.

On Tuesday, she was transported to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, where her family, including Neeson and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, gathered to keep vigil.

For many, it was difficult to reconcile the news of such a seemingly random death with Richardson's vibrant presence that combined a polished bearing with a deep, throaty laugh.

In her early 20s, barely out of drama school, Richardson demonstrated her command of the stage in a 1985 production of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull," in which she worked for the first time with her mother. The London Drama Critics' Circle immediately hailed the young actress as most promising newcomer.

Nevertheless, at first Richardson appeared to be an unusual choice when director Sam Mendes cast her as Sally Bowles in his reimagining of "Cabaret" when it transferred from London to New York's Roundabout Theatre in 1998.

After all, Liza Minnelli had made the role her own on film, and Richardson generally was not regarded as a musical-comedy performer — though she played socialite Tracy Lord in a 1987 stage version of "High Society." Instead of portraying Sally as a belting Broadway baby, Richardson grounded her in the dramatic reality of a struggling cabaret performer caught up in the darkening shadows of Weimer Germany.

The New York Times' Ben Brantley wrote of her way with the show's title tune, "What Ms. Richardson does is reclaim and reinvent a show-biz anthem that is as familiar as Hamlet's soliloquy." The theater community agreed, awarding her a Tony and a Drama Desk Award.

Tall and coolly elegant, Richardson moved easily between costume drama and contemporary fare.

She first appeared onscreen as a child, playing a flower girl in her director father Tony Richardson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade," but she made her first major film appearance as Mary Shelley in Ken Russell's 1986 film "Gothic." She quickly moved on to tackle the title role of a kidnapped American heiress in Paul Schrader's 1988 "Patty Hearst."

Schrader also cast Richardson opposite Rupert Everett in 1990's "The Comfort of Strangers," about an English couple who visit Venice to sort out their relationship.

"Natasha Richardson was an extraordinary actress, not just for her beauty, lineage and talent but for her intelligence and fearlessness," Schrader said. "She was brave and smart. I was in awe of her from the time we first met and will miss her dearly."

Her screen roles ranged from a sexually enslaved woman in 1990's "The Handmaid's Tale," Volker Schlondorff's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's allegorical novel, to half of a separated couple reunited by their twins in Disney's 1998 remake of "The Parent Trap."

More recently, she joined her mother in the autumnal drama "Evening," where the two played an onscreen mother-daughter pair.

In January, Richardson and her mother reunited again to play a mother and daughter in a one-night benefit concert version of the Stephen Sondheim musical "A Little Night Music" at Studio 54 in New York. Their successful teaming sparked talk of mounting a full Broadway production.

Richardson also collaborated on several projects with Neeson, whom she married in 1994 after an earlier marriage to British producer Robert Fox.

Richardson and Neeson appeared together onstage in a 1993 Broadway production of Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie," for which they both received Tony nominations.

They also shared the screen in 1994's "Nell," in which she co-starred as a psychology student treating a withdrawn young woman played by Jodie Foster.

Born on May 11, 1963, in London to Redgrave and Tony Richardson ("Tom Jones"), Natasha Richardson was surrounded by acting royalty from the start. Her maternal grandparents, Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, ruled over the British stage and screen from the late 1930s onward.

Her mother burst on the screen in the early '60s, becoming one of the faces of swinging London in such movies as "Morgan" and "Blowup," while Richardson's aunt Lynn Redgrave ("Georgy Girl") and uncle Corin Redgrave ("A Man for All Seasons") established equally prolific careers. In time, Richardson's sister Joely ("Nip/Tuck") and cousin Jemma Redgrave would join her in the family business.

Richardson received her training at London's Central School of Speech and Drama. Onstage, she ranged from "Hamlet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" to Patrick Marber's "Closer."

She played equally varied roles on a series of television productions, including "Suddenly, Last Summer," "Hostages" and "Zelda," in which she cavorted as Zelda Fitzgerald.

After her father died of AIDS in 1991, Richardson took up the cause of fighting the disease. To raise money for amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, she recently appeared in an episode of Bravo's "Top Chef," hosting a charity event.

She is survived by Neeson; their two sons, Michael and Daniel; her mother; her sister; and a half-sister, Katherine Grimond.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



TIMELINE



FILM

2008 Wild Child

2007 Evening

2005 Asylum

The White Countess

2002 Maid in Manhattan

Waking Up in Reno

2001 Chelsea Walls

Blow Dry

1998 The Parent Trap

1994 Nell

Widows' Peak

1991 Past Midnight

The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish

1990 The Comfort of Strangers

The Handmaid's Tale

1989 Fat Man and Little Boy

1988 Patty Hearst

1987 A Month in the Country

1986 Gothic

1983 Every Picture Tells a StorySTAGE

2005 A Streetcar Named Desire

2003 The Lady From the Sea

1999 Closer

1998 Cabaret

1993 Anna Christie

1987 High Society

1985 Hamlet

A Midsummer Night's Dream

The Seagull

1983 Charley's Aunt

Top Girls

On the Razzle
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