The Heartbreaking Death Of Natasha Richardson After She Hit Her Head During A Ski Lesson

Published March 12, 2024
Updated March 13, 2024

Best known for her roles on Broadway and in The Parent Trap, Natasha Richardson died on March 18, 2009 after a skiing accident in Quebec left her brain dead.

Natasha Richardson Death

dpa picture alliance archive / Alamy Stock PhotoNatasha Richardson died in 2009 at the age of 45.

“Oh darling,” actress Natasha Richardson told her husband, the actor Liam Neeson, after falling while skiing in Quebec, “I’ve taken a tumble in the snow.” Richardson felt fine, but that day’s “tumble” would tragically lead to Natasha Richardson’s death at the age of 45.

At the time, however, Richardson saw no cause for concern. She was admittedly a more experienced actress than a skier — she won a Tony for her role as Sally Bowles in the 1998 revival of Cabaret and starred in movies like The Parent Trap (1998) and Maid in Manhattan (2002) — but on March 16, 2009, she’d hit the slopes of the Mont Tremblant ski resort with gusto.

Around noon, Richardson started skiing on Nansen, a beginner’s slope popular among novices for its gradual inclines and easy turns. She was nearing the bottom of the hill when Richardson took her “tumble” and hit her head on the hard snow. But she brushed herself off and got back to her feet.

Richardson thought she was fine, but she hadn’t been wearing a helmet and had fallen hard enough to alarm her instructor. They alerted the ski patrol, who called an ambulance. Still, Richardson didn’t believe she was in any danger. She declined medical help and walked unassisted back to her hotel room. Though the ambulance showed up a few minutes later, it turned right around when EMTs learned that their services weren’t needed.

Tragically, things were more dire than they appeared. The actress’s condition quickly deteriorated, and she died two days later, on March 18, 2009. Natasha Richardson’s cause of death was an epidural hematoma caused by her fall.

A Promising Actress From An Acting Family

Born on May 11, 1963, in London, Natasha Richardson belonged to a family of British acting royalty. She was the granddaughter of Michael Redgrave, the legendary Shakespearean actor, and the daughter of actress Vanessa Redgrave and film director Tony Richardson.

Richardson seemed destined to follow in their footsteps. She acted for the first time at the age of four in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), a film that starred her mother and was directed by her father, and she later attended the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Richardson tried to hide her family connections as she pursued her own career in acting. She started out by booking minor parts. But soon, bigger roles began to land in her lap.

Natasha Richardson In The Parent Trap

Buena Vista PicturesNatasha Richardson alongside Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap (1998).

In 1988, she played the title character in Patty Hearst, a movie about the kidnapped heiress turned urban guerrilla. In 1990, she acted in a film adaption of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. And in 1993, she played Zelda Fitzgerald in the the film Zelda about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife.

That same year, Broadway came calling. Richardson made her stage debut there as the titular character in the Eugene O’Neill play Anna Christie. She performed alongside a young Northern Irish actor named Liam Neeson. They fell in love, and Richardson, who was already married to filmmaker Robert Fox, divorced her husband and wed Neeson in 1994.

They had two sons together, Micheál (born in 1995) and Daniel (born in 1996), and Richardson deftly juggled her roles as a mother and as an actress. She soon landed one of her best-known parts as Elizabeth James in the 1998 adaptation of The Parent Trap. Her life seemed to be perfect until March 2009, when Natasha Richardson died suddenly after a skiing fall in Quebec.

How A ‘Tumble’ Led To Natasha Richardson’s Death At The Age Of 45

On March 16, 2009, Natasha Richardson hit the slopes of the Mont Tremblant ski resort in Quebec, Montreal, Canada. She was not an experienced skier, so the actress worked with an instructor on a beginner slope called Nansen.

Mont Tremblant

TravelingOtter/Wikimedia CommonsSkiers and snowboarders at Mont Tremblant.

The slope shouldn’t have caused any problems — it was a gentle run with easy turns. But as Richardson neared the base of the hill around noon, she fell and hit her head on the hard-packed snow.

Richardson was a novice, and novice skiers slip all the time. But she had not been wearing a helmet, and she had fallen hard enough to alarm her instructor. The instructor notified the ski patrol, who called an ambulance. But Richardson insisted she was fine. At around 1:10 p.m., she signed a waiver to decline medical help and then walked back to her hotel, just 300 yards away.

By 1:30, Richardson was back in her room. The ambulance, with no patient to treat, had been sent away.

“She did not show any visible sign of injury but the ski patrol followed strict procedures and brought her back to the bottom of the slope and insisted she should see a doctor,” a statement from the ski resort later explained, as reported by ABC News at the time.

Immediately following the fall, Richardson looked and felt fine. She even called Neeson, who was in Toronto for a film shoot, to tell him about the incident. “Oh darling,” she told her husband, “I’ve taken a tumble in the snow.”

But just before 3 p.m., Richardson developed a headache and started showing signs of confusion. An ambulance was called back to the hotel, where paramedics quickly sensed the growing severity of the situation. They took the actress to the Centre Hospitalier Laurentien in Sainte-Agathe.

At first, Natasha Richardson seemed stable. Her vital signs were good, and she could breathe easily with oxygen. But her disorientation was getting worse, so she was next sent to the trauma center at Hôpital du Sacre-Coeur in Montreal.

By then, things had taken a dire turn. Neeson was called and told to get to Montreal immediately. But by the time he arrived, it was too late.

Richardson was brain dead.

“[Y]ou didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to see what was happening,” Neeson said in a 2014 interview with Anderson Cooper. “It’s — it was like a cartoon. You know, the brain’s squashed up against the side of the skull.”

Liam Neeson And Anderson Cooper

60 Minutes/YouTubeLiam Neeson spoke about the shock of Natasha Richardson’s death with Anderson Cooper.

He continued: “I went in to her and told her I loved her. Said, ‘Sweetie, you’re not coming back from this. You’ve banged your head. It’s — I don’t know if you can hear me, but that’s — this is what’s gone down. And we’re bringing ya back to New York.'”

That’s what he did. Richardson was flown to New York City. Surrounded by her friends and family, the actress died on March 18, 2009, when she was removed from life support. Natasha Richardson’s cause of death was an epidural hematoma. Just two days had passed since her fall.

Natasha Richardson’s Cause Of Death: Was It Avoidable?

As the shock of Natasha Richardson’s death subsided, many began to wonder if it could have been avoided. If the actress had sought medical attention more quickly, would she have survived?

As ABC News reported in 2009, it’s not clear. One doctor suggested that if the bleeding in Richardson’s skull had been stopped, she might have survived. But another pointed out that people fall while skiing all the time. Even if Richardson had been examined — and even if she’d had a brain scan — the bleed might not have appeared right away.

To her family, the “ifs” of Natasha Richardson’s death aren’t important. In the wake of her death, her husband Neeson just tried to mourn, care for their sons, and move on with his life.

“It was never real. It still kind of isn’t,” he told Cooper.

“It’s — grief’s like — it hits you. It’s like a wave. You just get this profound feeling of instability. You feel like a three-legged table. Just suddenly you just — the Earth isn’t stable anymore. And then it passes and becomes more infrequent, but I still get it sometimes.”

He’s found comfort in the fact that several of Richardson’s organs — her heart, her kidneys, and her liver — were donated after her death, which meant that she’d helped keep other people alive.

“It’s terrific,” Neeson said. “Yeah. It’s terrific. And I think she would be very thrilled and pleased by that too, actually.”

After learning about Natasha Richardson’s cause of death, read about the strange and mysterious death of actress Brittany Murphy at the age of 32. Or, go inside the puzzling question of who killed the rapper Tupac.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "The Heartbreaking Death Of Natasha Richardson After She Hit Her Head During A Ski Lesson.", March 12, 2024, Accessed May 23, 2024.