O'Neal held after police 'witness her buying crack from dealer'

Tatum O'Neal, the Oscar-winning former child actress who wrote a best-selling memoir of her struggles with drink and drug addiction, has been arrested on suspicion of buying crack cocaine.

Police in New York said the 44-year-old was seen by officers handing over money to a homeless street vendor three blocks from her home on Manhattan's Lower East Side on Sunday.

She was taken to the local police station, where she spent the night in custody, before being charged with possession of a controlled substance. Onlookers at Manhattan Criminal Court said O'Neal appeared without makeup and looking tired. She did not speak as she was arraigned yesterday morning. Prosecutors are recommending that she receives drug treatment.

According to local media reports, O'Neal – who made history in 1973 when she became the youngest person to win a competitive Academy Award for her role in Paper Moon – initially told police she was doing "research" for a role, before changing her story after being searched.

"When the police approached, she asked them, 'You know who I am, right?'" a source told the New York Daily News. After a bag of crack cocaine, a bag of regular cocaine, and an unused crack pipe was found about her person, she apparently admitted possession, but pleaded for leniency from the officers.

"I've been clean for a long time," she allegedly said. "Today was the first time I was relapsing. But you guys saved me. Can you let me go?"

Alan Garcia, the 33-year-old suspected dealer who had handed her the drugs, was also charged, according to reports.

O'Neal became the best-paid child star in history for her 1976 films Bad News Bears, Nickelodeon, and International Velvet.

She married the tennis star John McEnroe, but in her 2004 memoir, A Paper Life, she chronicled her descent into heroin and alcohol addiction, which eventually led to her losing custody of her three children during a bitter custody battle that followed their divorce in 1992.

O'Neal blamed her problems on the behaviour of her late mother, Joanna Cook Moore, a former drug user who died of cancer in 1997, and who bought O'Neal up alone following her divorce. She also disclosed how she had disapproved of her father Ryan's subsequent relationship with the actress Farah Fawcett.

"In the grip of addiction, [my mother] had virtually abandoned me and Griffin [her brother], leaving us in squalor – as well as beaten and abused by the men in her life," she wrote.

More recently, she recalled in an interview: "I was thrust out there as a little kid. It was hard to cope. I used to walk with my head down. I was involved with drugs and alcohol. I had a lot of shame and self-hatred." O'Neal had recently achieved something of a career renaissance. In 1996, she completed addiction rehabilitation and claimed to be clean. Last year, after taking on several small acting roles, she completed her apparent return to the major league by starring as an alcoholic spinster, Maggie, opposite Denis Leary's fireman Tommy Gavin in the TV sitcom Rescue Me.

She also assumed the role of counsellor, publicly warning Britney Spears to: "Seek recovery and get her disease of addiction together." "I relate to her and feel really sad for her," O'Neal told a TV interviewer. "I did everything she doesn't want to."