Jennifer O’Neill’s life is one that not even Hollywood could have created for the big screen.
At age 14, she attempted to take her life by swallowing several of her mother’s pills and was rescued, then treated at a local hospital, where her stomach was pumped. By age 15, O’Neill was on the cover of Vogue and earning $80,000 a year, the outlet shared. At 15, her beloved horse threw the star, causing her to break her neck and back. At age 18, she married the first of eight husbands, and by 22 had her first movie role opposite John Wayne.
But as O’Neill’s fame skyrocketed, her personal life came crashing down. People magazine shared that her daughter Aimee was reportedly sexually abused by her fifth husband. O’Neill also later shot herself.
But after all the private trauma O’Neill endured, she said finding God has given her a new sense of purpose to help others in need. She currently leads the Hope and Healing at Hillenglade (HHH) program in Nashville, Tenn., which offers veterans and their families time with horses to help them cope with PTSD and rebuild relationships with loved ones.
O’Neill spoke to Fox News about working alongside Wayne, her relationship with Aimee today and how faith saved her.
Fox News: I understand your first big break was in 1970’s “Rio Lobo” with John Wayne. What was that like?
Jennifer O’Neill: I have to admit, I was a total snob. I was 21 and by then he was an icon. But I really wanted to work with Al Pacino. I wanted to work with the New York actors. I laugh now, after all these years, at that moment of youth and stupidity. I was lucky enough to have that opportunity to work with John Wayne and he was everything and a bag of chips. He always on set, professional. He was just an amazing man. You did not want to speak politics with him and you did not want to play cards with him. But [he] was the most helpful, delightful.
We were all a bunch of young actors and yet he would always help us whenever we needed it. It was fantastic. There was no ego. He simply just wanted to share his knowledge of the industry. I remember the one thing that he told me that really resonated with me years later when I went to Europe to work… John Wayne told me: 'The key to being a good actor is hearing it for the first time. If you ever notice that you’re responding the same way over and over, you’re not present in the moment.'
Fox News: How was it filming 1971’s “Summer of ’42”?
O’Neill: It was kind of a tough shoot because [Robert] Mulligan, who is a great director, wanted me to be separated from three young men in the movie because they weren’t professional actors. Therefore, he didn’t want us to be hanging out like friends after filming. He wanted that magic of when I walked into the room. So I was isolated, put away from everyone, which was a little hard. But other than that… it was awesome. It was called a little film in those days… But it really was just a magical time. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. You know when you got something special when everyone shows up and everyone is crying.
Fox News: Are you surprised this film has become a cult classic?
O’Neill: Not really -- it’s a Mulligan film. It resonates with people. It was beautifully done and it’s just timeless. When it came up, gals would always come up to me and say, "My husband is in love with you.: And because the film plays in a pretty regular basis for the last 20 years, I now hear, "My husband’s in love with you and so is my son.: And to think, I was only in the film for 15 minutes.
Fox News: You attempted to take your life as a teen. What were you trying to escape from?
O’Neill: I wasn’t trying to escape anything, I was trying to be heard… My parents decided to move and I couldn’t take my dog. I know that sounds ridiculous, but my dog was my world because I felt invisible growing up... I just wanted to be heard.
For that reason, and I’m thrilled that God was there when I didn’t even know him and saved me. God really did save my life. I didn’t have any permanent damage from that attempt because I was in the hospital for two weeks in a coma. I could have had a lot of damage, but I was spared. When we moved and the dog was taken to the pound, I became determined that no one was ever going to be able to take anything away from me… I wanted to earn love. I thought, if I could get straight-As, then I could earn my parents’ love.
Fox News: How old were you when this occurred?
O’Neill: I was 14 when I stupidly attempted suicide just to be heard. It fell on deaf ears. My parents basically said this stunt isn’t going to work, the dog is going away… It was never spoken about. As I write in my books, nothing was ever understood, recognized, dealt with or healed. What happens to people like me is that radical events get stuffed down and they are never healed. And then it becomes fodder for future difficulties. But all of that started to change when I came into my faith.
Fox News: What’s your relationship like with your daughter Aimee today?
O’Neill: I’m so proud of her. We have totally healed. At the time, way back then…you have to realize that 30-something years ago, sexual abuse was not dinner conversation. It wasn’t on the news. I’ve never heard of such a thing. Never thought of it. So I did not know at the time whether my husband was lying to me or my daughter was lying to me. It was a horrible time because he passed lie detector tests… We divorced and he did it again to his next family, the next teenager. But Aimee has been amazing. She’s always been so forthright… I think there were 7 people living in the house at the time. No one ever saw or heard anything.
[My husband and] Aimee were best friends. I was the happiest woman in the world to see my daughter have so much fun with her stepfather… But he manipulated her. She was a child. Whether she looked like a big girl at 14 or not, she was still a child. It just didn’t occur to me that something like that could possibly be happening. But with time, I felt like something was wrong… He was just a manipulator.
But Aimee is 52 years old right now with three amazing sons. She’s an animal behaviorist and is one of the most compassionate human beings… I still sit there with my jaw on the ground, amazed at her abilities. We’re very close. It’s amazing because the enemy wants to destroy and deceive families. But we survived.
[Looking back,] I didn’t know who was telling the truth because no one saw anything and the lie detector said otherwise. So I just didn’t know what to believe. And this is something I’ve never heard about. I know that’s not an excuse, but it’s the truth… But now I believe her and she believes me. I just didn’t know what was going on.
Fox News: You accidentally shot yourself in 1982. What exactly happened?
O’Neill: It was an accident… I hate guns. I believe we all have the right to bear them, but they scare me. I went up to our bedroom and my son was having dinner with the nanny. I noticed that the safe kept in the closet was wide open. When I looked closer, there was [my husband’s] gun lying in a bowl of bullets. I was so furious because my son could have easily reached it.
I picked up what turned out to be a 38-caliber and it went off. It shot through my hip and stomach… But again, God saved my life. I could have been completely paralyzed. God has been protecting me all these years… We all have a purpose in our lives and we’re not going to leave until we turn it down or move forward and do it… And I think I’m still here to show people about the power of God’s love and that there is hope.
Fox News: How has faith played a role in your life?
O’Neill: Faith saved my life. I was looking for love in all the wrong places. Moving through life very wounded. Many marriages, nine miscarriages – it’s all operatic. I came into my faith at 38 years old. I’ve now been married for 24 years to my husband. I teach, I write books and I have the honor to turn hard times… into good. I had an abortion when I was 22. Didn’t want it.
Now God is giving me the platform to address that and show there is hope and you can heal… I’ve come into my faith and it’s given me a renewed strength in focus and purpose. And I think that’s why I’m really here at the end of the day… Now I’m 71. I’m still here. And I’m not done. God is always there for us to have a fresh start.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).