July 08, 2002 12:00 PM

To an observer it might have looked like the perfect Father’s Day tableau: a dad and his daughter, munching on deli sandwiches and watching a soccer match on TV. But when actor Ryan O’Neal got together with his often-estranged daughter Tatum on June 16, the only ordinary thing about the scene was the cold cuts. Although the elder O’Neal, who was diagnosed with leukemia last year, was feeling healthy thanks to the anticancer drug Gleevec, his daughter was thin and shaky, the result of coming off a six-month cocaine bender. And despite nearly four decades of pain between them, the conversation never turned deep. “We’re not going to do that talk,” Tatum says flatly. “Different generations.”

Ryan O’Neal may prefer to keep family secrets to himself, but his troubled daughter is finally—and loudly—breaking her silence. Prompted in part by a new memoir written by her ex-husband, tennis ace John McEnroe—in which he portrays Tatum as an emotional tsunami—the 38-year-old O’Neal pulls no punches as she looks back on a life that makes the most shocking E! True Hollywood Story look like Sesame Street. Abandoned by an overwhelmed, drug-abusing mother at age 7, she was an Oscar winner at 10 and began using drugs by 14, moving from marijuana, Quaaludes and cocaine to, years later, heroin. With her father caught up in the celebrity scene of the 1970s, a teenage Tatum and her younger brother Griffin were left on their own in Ryan’s Malibu house while their father moved in with actress Farrah Fawcett. Then came her failed six-year marriage to McEnroe, 43, toward whom she remains openly hostile. Worst of all is the loss of her children Kevin, 16, Sean, 14, and Emily, 11: When O’Neal became a heroin addict in 1995, McEnroe took control of their kids and has retained it ever since. “Not being able to see my kids is like part of me is missing,” she says. “Part of my soul is missing.”

And yet, even though many of her troubles can probably be traced to her chaotic childhood, O’Neal retains sympathy for the man who might have made things better: her father. When she learned by phone in April last year that Ryan, 61, had been diagnosed with cancer, “I told him how much I loved him, how much he had given me,” she says. “He’s the love of my life.”

O’Neal speaks far less warmly of her ex-husband, whom she calls “the main stress for so long that I can’t count anymore.” After years of bitter battling over their children, the pair are at loggerheads again over McEnroe’s bestselling memoir You Cannot Be Serious. O’Neal claims he misrepresents the way their marriage ended and generally casts her in an unflattering light while minimizing his own faults. Although she concedes that he is generally a good father to their children and that “most of the stuff [in the book] is true,” O’Neal says she resents the invasion of privacy. “He crossed the line, and I feel like it’s time to fight back,” she says. One tactic: She has made public a transcript of a 20-minute 1999 phone argument with McEnroe regarding their children’s vacation plans that O’Neal secretly taped and submitted in court as part of her custody case. During the conversation a foulmouthed McEnroe—barely a line goes by without a curse—tacitly admits to smoking pot and berating and even hitting one of their children. At one point, McEnroe screams that he is not going to let their kids “go down the tube because they got a f——— wacko as a mother.”

For a woman who admits that her young daughter once stumbled across Mommy using heroin, drawing more attention to the couple’s marital mess might seem an odd strategy. O’Neal acknowledges this and admits that publicizing the tape’s contents “is kind of exploitative.” Still, she says, “I have to protect what dignity and truth is mine.” McEnroe, in a statement to PEOPLE, responded that “I am very disappointed in Tatum’s statements. I had hoped that after all these years she would see things more accurately and that she would share my concern for the welfare of our children.”

Now, after a half-dozen stints in rehab, O’Neal claims that she has crashed-and-burned for the last time. Prior to her most recent coke binge, “I kept hearing a voice in my head say, ‘You’re a coward. I hate you. Your kids hate you. You’re not worth a thing, Tatum,’ ” she recalls. For now, she insists, she has prevailed: She says she has been clean for three months. Describing herself as “one strong bitch,” she says, “I have this gnarly inner strength.”

It has certainly been tested. Tatum was 2 when her parents—Ryan and actress Joanna Moore, who had met on the 1960s TV show The Virginian—divorced. While Ryan continued to pursue a career in Hollywood, Tatum and Griffin lived in “a really dilapidated house” in Reseda, Calif., with their mother, who soon began to use drugs “pretty heavily” and left her kids to fend for themselves. “Griffin and I ran away three times, barefooted,” she says. “We would steal sugary stuff out of the Jolly Jug [liquor store]. I lived in a bathroom, saw maggots…real nice.”

When O’Neal was 7, her father intervened and sent the children briefly to a boarding school in Arizona. Miserable and isolated, “I ended up cutting off my hair and sending it to my grandmother, begging her to take me home,” she recalls. When Moore checked into a Camarillo, Calif., mental hospital, Ryan—who sometimes visited on weekends—took Tatum to live with him in Malibu, while Griffin rejoined his mother. (O’Neal also has two younger half siblings: Patrickh, Ryan’s 34-year-old son with actress Leigh Taylor-Young, and Redmond, 17, his son with Fawcett.) Having recently starred in 1970’s Love Story, Ryan “was this handsome playboy who wanted to take care of me,” O’Neal recalls. The love-starved child soon became possessive of him—following him everywhere and even climbing into his bed—which ticked off his girlfriends, including former Bond girl Ursula Andress. “I don’t want to sleep with you while your daughter is in the bed,” O’Neal recalls Andress complaining. “It’s weird.”

Then came the role that would unite—and divide—Tatum and her father. Cast opposite Ryan as precocious con artist Addie Loggins in 1973’s Paper Moon, 8-year-old O’Neal was a novice in every way. “I remember practicing lines with my dad, like I’d have to say, ‘I love you,’ and I’d think, ‘I can’t say that,’ ” she recalls. Yet she stole the show—and an Oscar nomination. “That’s when things started getting rough in our relationship,” she says. Stricken with a stress-induced ulcer, she became the youngest-ever Oscar winner while her paternal grandparents watched from the audience; Ryan, who was filming in London, didn’t attend. “I was happy for her,” recalls Moon’s director Peter Bogdanovich, “although I knew it was going to be the beginning of a lot of problems.”

First, though, there were a lot of parties. Ryan O’Neal didn’t exactly shelter young Tatum from the wilds of Hollywood. “When Tatum was 9 or 10, she was a source of embarrassment to all of us older people because she would be brought to these parties where we’d be smoking marijuana,” says Ryan’s former agent Sue Mengers. “And there was that little face, staring at us with such disapproval. But she had no place else to be.” Dependent as she was, O’Neal also pricked her father’s vanity. Ryan bet Tatum that his movie Barry Lyndon would beat her 1976 kids’ flick The Bad News Bears at the box office. When it didn’t, “he started getting crazy and more out of control,” she says. “He’s got some Irish bully in him and couldn’t control his fists.” During one fit of rage, “my dad threw a pool cue at my head because my brother was beating him in pool,” she says. (Ryan O’Neal declined repeated requests to comment for this story.)

At 13, O’Neal accompanied her dad on location for 1977’s A Bridge Too Far, where she says, she was molested by one of his friends. As a result, “I slit my wrists and took a lot of drugs and drank everything in the minibar in an attempt to kill myself,” she says. A year later she began experimenting with marijuana and the prescription drug Quaalude. Then, on one occasion, O’Neal’s pal Carrie Adelson was driving her to Big Sur after partying with actress MacKenzie Phillips the night before when Adelson crashed Joanna Moore’s Jeep on the California coast. “Dad didn’t take us to the emergency room,” O’Neal says. “He sent a limo.”

With scrapes on her leg that required skin grafts, O’Neal spent the next six weeks in the hospital, visited by her Bears costar Walter Matthau and, on one occasion each, her parents. “That was probably the lowest point in my adolescence,” she says. Back home, things continued to go downhill after Ryan began his 18-year romance with Charlie’s Angel Farrah Fawcett, with whom Tatum had a chilly relationship. She fought regularly with her dad, who, she says, told her at age 15 that she was fat and should use cocaine to lose weight. Their battles continued until one day two years later, when O’Neal says Ryan, angry that she was late for a racquetball match, punched her in the head. “That was it,” she recalls. “I didn’t see him for years after that.”

Tatum’s pal, singer Jennifer Young, says she never witnessed Ryan physically abuse Tatum, but she does recall an incident involving Tatum’s brother Griffin. “We were all hanging out—Leif [Garrett], Nicollette Sheridan and me, and next thing Ryan and Griffin get in a huge fight,” Young, 37, recalls. “Ryan threw Griffin across the room and into the wall.” On another occasion Ryan famously slugged the teen, knocking out two of his front teeth. “I was all over my dad when he did that stuff to my brother,” says Tatum. “Griffin would lie about what had happened when he got beat up.”

When Tatum was 17, she and Griffin moved into an apartment in Beverly Hills. In 1986 Griffin was driving the boat that claimed the life of Gian Carlo Coppola, the 22-year-old son of director Francis Ford Coppola. Don Crutchfield, an L.A. private investigator who worked for the O’Neal family, says, “It was a Hollywood family and a mess from the word go. Joanna was too busy scoring drugs to be a good mom. Ryan was busy with his career.” Tatum, he says, “was the only sane one of the bunch.”

O’Neal was still estranged from her father in 1984 when she met 25-year-old McEnroe at a Los Angeles party. Within two months the pair were living together. In May 1986 their son Kevin was born, and they wed three months later. “I loved him, but I also think going away with him was a great survival tactic,” says O’Neal. “It got me away from my family.”

Still, it was a difficult adjustment. “I thought Tatum was mature and equipped enough to deal with [parenthood],” McEnroe told PEOPLE in a May interview. “As I look back now, it was asking a lot for her at 22 years of age, given what she had been through.” Just over a year after Kevin’s arrival, their son Sean was born.

As McEnroe’s ranking dropped from No.1 to No.20, O’Neal began itching to return to acting. Influenced by Madonna, who had befriended her—”She said, ‘You have got to get strong, girl.’ I was very meek”—she began working out with the singer’s trainer and built confidence as well as muscles. But her growing independence created tension. “McEnroe was vehement about her not working,” says O’Neal’s friend Mengers. “When I used to call the house to talk to her, he’d grab the phone and say, ‘You aren’t to call here and talk about work.’ ” In his book McEnroe maintains that “her acting career had tailed off.” What he “felt strongly about,” he writes, “was that I never wanted both of us to be working at the same time.”

A year after the birth of their third child, Emily, in 1991, they separated, sharing joint custody of the children. Asked about McEnroe’s assertion in You Cannot Be Serious that she was the first to call it quits, O’Neal counters, “He kicked me out of the house. He pushed me down the stairs. He almost broke my arm, almost broke my nose and called me every name in the book and blamed me for losing matches.” Following their split, “I just didn’t have a vision of how ugly it would become. It became a war.”

At the end of 1994, O’Neal says, she hooked up with a young poet who introduced her to heroin. She started off sniffing, graduating to speedballs and, finally, needles. “It’s not something I’m proud of at all,” she says now. “I did it in my bedroom. Emily had to wait outside the door. Then one day she opened the door and saw. I realized it immediately and at that moment I told her that Mommy had a problem. That’s easily the worst thing ever in my life.” Today, she says, she tells her daughter, “If you need to be angry with me, be angry with me. Don’t hold it in.”

During O’Neal’s heroin addiction, McEnroe got primary custody of the children while O’Neal went in and out of rehab. She says she cleaned up in 1998 with the help of therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous. Granted supervised visits with her children, she underwent twice-weekly urine tests until last summer, when, fed up, she stopped. “I’d spent about $20,000 on testing. I’d done it for four years. It was very demeaning. And it meant John still had some control over me,” she explains. Tired of the legal wrangling, O’Neal says, she threw in the towel, giving McEnroe full custody of their children.

For a while O’Neal found a degree of happiness with Miramax executive Steve Hutensky, 37, whom she met at a wedding in 1998. After dating for almost two years, the pair became engaged on a carriage ride through Central Park in January 2000. But the wedding plans were short-lived. After Ryan was diagnosed with leukemia, O’Neal broke off the engagement and moved west to be near her dad. “I was a runaway bride,” she says. “Steve’s a great guy. I’m sure he’s extremely pissed off. But I’m still fighting this first marriage.” The breakup, coupled with her father’s diagnosis, “sent me into a terrible spin,” she says. She ended three years of sobriety by turning to cocaine.

It’s a long path back, but O’Neal insists she has taken the first steps. “I think it would be terribly sad if I killed myself with my addiction,” she says. “How sad would I be if I couldn’t overcome my legacy? I tell myself that I have to channel it into art, work, loving my kids, living a good life. There are people who will love me if I let them.”

Twice a month she visits New York City, where her three-bedroom apartment is just eight blocks from the Central Park West home McEnroe shares with their children, his second wife, rock singer Patty Smyth, 45, her daughter and their two kids. She sees Kevin, Sean and Emily only when McEnroe will allow—which, in their current state of bitterness, she says, translates to seldom, if at all. Instead, they communicate by cell phone—”I leave long messages, and they say, ‘Geez, Mom, you’re wasting my battery!’ “—and O’Neal spends much of her time at her home in West Hollywood. There, with her dog Lena, a Scottie, and cats Wallet, Zoey and Percy, she has settled into a quiet routine of weekly yoga, daily meditation and twice-daily AA meetings. She is also hoping to revive her acting career with a role in The Scoundrel’s Wife, an indie film that is looking for a distributor. Meanwhile, despite her dad’s reluctance to have a heart-to-heart, O’Neal is focused on making peace. “He’s all I have,” she says. “We may not have a great relationship, but he loves me to pieces, and I love him. And you know what? I forgive him.”

Michelle Tauber

Todd Gold and Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles and KC Baker in New York City

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