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When Liam Neeson learned that wife Natasha Richardson (pictured in October) had suffered a severe brain injury after a ski accident at Quebec's Mont Tremblant resort on March 16, he immediately flew to her side from a Toronto film set. Sadly, Neeson was faced with the unimaginable reality that the 45-year-old actress would never recover; her death was announced just two days later.
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"I want my sons to be my priority," Richardson once said of Micheal, 13, and Daniel, 12. The actress made sure she was never away from her boys for long, and alternated her schedule with Neeson's so that one parent was always home. "She was fierce as a mother and really took that role seriously," said director Scott Ellis, who had worked with Richardson and her own mother, Vanessa Redgrave, in a charity performance of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music in January.
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After costarring in the 1993 Broadway revival of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, Richardson fell "madly, passionately" in love with Neeson. The Irish actor – who'd been linked with Julia Roberts and Barbra Streisand – had considered himself a confirmed bachelor. But on July 3, 1994, he tied the knot with the divorced actress (who'd been married to British producer Richard Fox) at their home in rural Millbrook, N.Y. "I can't believe I was lucky enough to meet my soul mate," Richardson later said.
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IN HER GENES
Born into a famous family, Richardson was the daughter of Oscar winner Vanessa Redgrave and British director Tony Richardson, and the granddaughter of legendary British stage actor Sir Michael Redgrave. She was also close to her younger sister, Nip/Tuck star Joely Richardson (pictured with her big sis and mom in 1968). Growing up, the two siblings "looked after each other," Joely told PEOPLE in 2005.
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In 1998, Richardson scored a Tony Award for best actress in a musical for her portrayal of brassy English singer Sally Bowles in Broadway's Cabaret. On her big night, she told PEOPLE: "I'm excited, I'm nervous, and I'm glad to be here." And in a tribute to her work on the Great White Way, Broadway prepared to dim the lights in her honor the day after her death.
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DOUBLE THE FUN
Richardson was introduced to a new generation when she starred as mom to twin Lindsay Lohans in the 1998 remake of the classic Disney movie The Parent Trap. "She was a wonderful woman and actress and treated me like I was her own," Lohan said in a statement to Access Hollywood after hearing about Richardson's death. "My heart goes out to her family. This is a tragic loss."
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"She regarded her mother as theater royalty, but not herself that way," said director Scott Ellis of Richardson (in 2000 with mom Redgrave and sister Joely). At 23, the actress won the London Drama Critics' Circle award as most promising newcomer when she appeared opposite her mother in Chekov's The Seagull. The two worked together most recently in the 2007 film Evening and onstage in January in A Little Night Music. "Having the chance to work with your mother, who is an extraordinary actress, is a dream come true," Richardson said.
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FIGHT FOR CHANGE
A passionate advocate for AIDS research, Richardson (at an amfAR gala in New York City in February) became involved with the cause after her father died from the disease in 1991. "We had a wonderful relationship," she told Britain's Sunday Express about her dad, whose bisexuality was only publicly discussed after his death. "I accepted him for who he was. There never had to be any explanation."
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ALL THAT MATTERED
Life was all about family and friends for Richardson and Neeson (on vacation in Saint-Tropez in 2005), who split their time between an apartment in New York City and a country house in upstate New York. "I love to cook," the actress, who recently appeared as a judge on Top Chef, once told PEOPLE. "That's my passion."
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To all who knew her, Richardson will be remembered above all as a talented actress who put her family first. Said Nick Moore, who directed her in last year's Wild Child: "Whenever she was needed, she'd go straight home to Liam and the kids." As Richardson put it, "It takes a lot of hard work," she told PEOPLE in 1998, "and a lot of love."