London-born stage and screen actress Natasha Richardson (pictured) – the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and wife of Liam Neeson – was confirmed dead last night (18 March 2009) in New York after sustaining a head injury during a skiing holiday in Canada. She was 45.

Richardson’s initial accident on Monday (16 March 2009) – when she fell over on a beginners’ slope during a ski lesson at the Mont Tremblant resort near Montreal - was thought to be minor, with no visible signs of injury. She reportedly laughed it off herself. But, soon after returning to her hotel, she experienced headaches and began to feel ill.

She was treated first at the Hopital du Sacre-Couer de Montreal and then flown to New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, where members of her family gathered and where she was pronounced dead yesterday. Her husband’s publicist issued a statement saying: “Liam Neeson, his sons (Michael, 13, and Daniel, 12), and the entire family are shocked and devastated by the tragic death of their beloved Natasha. They are profoundly grateful for the support, love and prayers of everyone, and ask for privacy during this very difficult time.”

Richardson was born on 11 May 1963 into one of the UK’s most revered acting dynasties, the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and the late director and producer Tony Richardson, who directed her in her first (uncredited) screen role at the tender age of just four in his 1968 film The Charge of the Light Brigade. She counted amongst the thespians in her family: her maternal grandparents Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson; her aunt and uncle Lynn and Corin Redgrave; her cousin Jemma Redgrave; and her sister Joely Richardson, her junior by two years, who is now best known to TV fans from Nip/Tuck.

Her marriages created new branches of the showbusiness family tree: her first to theatre and film producer Robert Fox (from 1990-1992) and her second to Irish actor Liam Neeson, who she met and fell in love with while working on the film Nell and a 1993 revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, which marked her Broadway debut. The couple married in 1994.

Trained at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, Richardson made her professional stage debut in 1983 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. Two years later, she made her London stage debut playing Nina to her mother’s Madame Arkadina in Chekhov’s The Seagull, winning the Critics’ Circle Award for most promising newcomer.

She followed The Seagull with UK performances as Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ophelia in Hamlet and heiress Tracy in the stage musical premiere of High Society. Her 1993 performance in Anna Christie firmly launched her onto the New York theatre scene and garnered her first Tony nomination. Five years on, she went on to win a Tony, for Best Actress in a Musical, for her Sally Bowles in Sam Mendes’ revival of Cabaret.

Since then, she appeared twice more on Broadway: as Anna in the 1999 production of Patrick Marber’s Closer and as Blanche du Bois in Edward Hall’s 2005 revival of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. In 2003, she made a rare return to the London stage to play Ellida in Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea, directed by Trevor Nunn as the first production at the reopened Almeida Theatre after a two-year, £7.6 million refurbishment.

Paying tribute to his former leading lady, Almeida artistic director Michael Attenborough said today: “Natasha was a beautiful human being in every conceivable way; gracious of manner, witty and sharp of mind, sunny in disposition and stunning in appearance.”

More recently, Richardson took part in a benefit reading of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Musical at the Roundabout Theater in New York. She played Desiree Armfeldt alongside Vanessa Redgrave as Madame Armfeldt, prompting rumours that the mother and daughter may reunite for a full-fledged stage production of the musical (See The Goss, 23 Feb 2009).

On film, Richardson’s credits included Gothic, A Month in the Country, Patty Hearst, Fat an and Little Boy, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Comfort of Strangers, Past Midnight, Nell, Widows’ Peak, Tales from the Crypt, The Parent Trap, Waking up in Reno, Maid in Manhattan, The White Countess, Asylum, Evening and Wild Child.

- by Terri Paddock

NOTE: For further tributes to Natasha Richardson, visit Michael Coveney's blog and the Whatsonstage.com Discussion Forum, where you can read and share other theatregoers’ memories of the actress.