Patricia Neal (born 1926) is almost as well known for the events of her own life as she is for her career on stage and screen. In 1963, after winning her first Academy Award for Best Actress, Neal suffered three massive strokes. Her struggle to come back was both more dramatic and more triumphant than any of her roles on stage or screen.
Patsy Louise ("Patricia") Neal was born in Packard, Kentucky on January 20, 1926. Her father, William Burdette Neal, was raised on a tobacco plantation in Virgina, and worked at the South Coal and Coke Company. Her mother, Eura Mildred Petrey Neal, was the daughter of Packard's town doctor, Pascal Gennings Petrey. She had an older sister, Margaret Ann, and a younger brother, William Petrey, whom they called "Pete." In 1929, the family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee where William Neal had gotten a new job.
Drama Classes for Christmas
Although Neal was raised as a Baptist, she frequently attended the Methodist church with friends. On one of those occasions, during a Christmas program in 1936, she heard her grammar school teacher, Cornelia Avanti, present a monologue. She was so impressed that she wrote a letter to Santa explaining she wanted to study "dramatics" for her Christmas present. Her Aunt Maude's sister-in-law, Emily Mahan, had just returned from New York and opened her own drama school, so Neal's parents sent her to study with Mahan. Soon, Neal was organizing neighborhood productions, and presenting shows on the Neal family front porch. By high school, she was performing monologues in her Aunt Maude's sitting room. Word of mouth spread, and soon she was in demand for dramatic readings at local groups like the Knoxville Social Club. She won many awards for her readings, including the Tennessee State Award for dramatic reading. She also performed with the Tennessee Valley Players. It was during this time that Neal decided that acting was the career path she would follow.
Neal enrolled in the drama school at Northwestern University in 1943. That following summer, she acted with a fledgling summer theater troupe in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania. By the end of the summer, she had decided to quit school and went to New York with 300 dollars in her pocket. She moved to a West side apartment with three friends and began auditioning. She eventually landed the part of understudy for both lead roles in The Voice of the Turtle, and, at the suggestion of the show's producer, changed her name to "Patricia."
From New York to Hollywood
The next year, Neal won the starring role in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest. The show opened at the Fulton Theater in New York on November 20, 1946. Neal was a critical success and won several awards including the Donaldson Award, the Drama Critics Award and the Antoinette Perry Award.
The silver screen was next. Neal accepted a contract from Warner Brothers, and later worked with MGM and 20th Century Fox. In her first role she played Mary in the 1949 movie version of John Loves Mary. This, as well as her next two films, The Fountainhead (1949) and Bright Leaf (1950), with Gary Cooper, were critical failures. The tide turned, however, in 1950 when she starred alongside Ronald Reagan in The Hasty Heart.
Shortly after arriving in Hollywood, Neal met and fell in love with Gary Cooper, who was married at the time. She and Cooper had an affair that began as the shooting of The Fountainhead ended. The low point of the affair came when Neal discovered she was pregnant. The two decided an abortion was the best solution to that problem. It was a decision she always regretted. The event hastened the end of their relationship in 1951.
Neal returned to New York, taking her own apartment on Park Avenue. She auditioned for Lillian Hellman and Kermit Bloomgarden in The Children's Hour, and was accepted for either of the two leading roles. She chose Martha. Just before rehearsals began for the play, she was introduced to Roald Dahl at a party at Hellman's home. The children's author, now famous for contributions like Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang, Charley and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, had come to the United States in 1942 to work in espionage for the British embassy in Washington. He soon after became a feature writer, contributing to several magazines including The New Yorker. Neal was not particularly interested in Dahl, but he persisted. "Deliberate is a good word for Roald Dahl. He knew exactly what he wanted and he quietly went about getting it. I did not yet realize, however, that he wanted me," Neal wrote in her autobiography, As I Am.
Neal wanted to settle down and start a family, so she married Dahl on July 2, 1953, though she would later admit that she didn't love him then. The couple eventually had five children. After the wedding, they purchased a home called Gipsy House, 30 miles from London, in Great Missenden. They would live there in the spring and summer, and in New York the rest of the year while she was acting.
Neal continued to do stage work in both England and the United States throughout the 1950s, performing in A Roomful of Roses, Suddenly Last Summer, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Miracle Worker. She returned to the screen, too, performing in Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd in 1957. In 1961, she played the part of 2E in Truman Capote's Breakfast At Tiffany's, a supporting role to George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn's leads. In 1963, Neal co-starred with Paul Newman in the Elia Kazan film, Hud. She won an Academy Award, the New York Film Critics Award, and the British Motion Picture Award for "best foreign actress."
Tragedy Came in Threes
All was not well in Neal's private life. A series of tragedies, beginning in the early 1960s, would put her career on hold for a few years. The first tragedy to hit the Dahl family was an accident. Five-month-old Theo suffered severe brain damage after being struck by a taxi while in his pram. Shortly thereafter, in 1962, the Dahl's oldest child, Olivia, came down with encephalitis and died. She was seven years old.
In 1965, during the filming of Seven Women, Neal suffered three strokes while pregnant with daughter, Lucy. She was 39. After surgery to remove blood clots on her brain, she fell into a 21-day coma. Newspapers prematurely published her obituary, but Neal was still fighting. The strokes left her paralyzed on her right side and greatly diminished her speech. The tragedy brought out Dahl's best and worst traits. As a stroke victim, he knew that Neal had a year or less to re-learn most of her basic skills. When she returned home from the hospital he forced her to ask for things by their proper names or go without them. They worked together for ten months. At the end of that time, the only remaining infirmity was a loss of vision in her right eye.
A Triumphant Return
Neal returned to acting at Dahl's urging. In 1965, she won a British Film Academy Award for best foreign actress for In Harm's Way. In 1968, she was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in The Subject was Roses. In 1971, Neal was nominated for an Emmy Award for her performance in the film The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. It became the pilot for The Waltons television series.
Around this time, Neal met a young widow at the David Ogilvy advertising agency, Felicity Crosland. The two became friends and Crosland was invited to stay at Great Missenden. She eventually betrayed that friendship by becoming Dahl's mistress. When Neal learned of the affair, she was devastated and returned to New York, this time for good. She had come to depend on Dahl, and even love him. The couple divorced in 1983.
Neal eventually converted to Catholicism. On the advice of Gary Cooper's daughter, she entered the Regina Laudis Abbey, a New England Benedictine retreat. The nuns encouraged her to keep a journal of her memories and rediscover herself. The therapy was also intended to improve her memory, which had been affected by the strokes. The journal became the basis for Neal's autobiography, As I Am, which was published in 1988. It helped her to come to terms with the divorce.
Never one to rest on her laurels, Neal has turned the knowledge she gained from being a stroke victim into a way to help others. The Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center was opened in 1978 in Knoxville, Tennessee. The 72-bed facility is nationally recognized for its rehabilitation of patients with stroke, spinal cord, and traumatic brain injuries. Neal and Dahl had created a recovery system that is recognized worldwide. Thirty stroke centers in England now use those methods.
Life On Her Own
In 1981, Anthony Harvey and Larry Schiller directed and produced Gypsy House: The Patricia Neal Story, staring Glenda Jackson and Dirk Bogarde for CBS television. Robert Anderson (Tea and Sympathy) wrote the script, which both Neal and Dahl reviewed and approved before shooting began. Jackson was nominated for an Emmy for her performance.
Neal continued to perform in several made-for-TV movies throughout the 1980s and co-starred with Shelley Winters in the ironically titled, An Unremarkable Life, in 1989. In 1999, Neal played the role of Cookie in the Robert Altman film, Cookie's Fortune, a murder-mystery involving two sisters in a small Mississippi town. Neal also took two cruises with the Theater Guild's Theater-at-Sea programs. She performed in one hour plays, read stories, and related incidents from her life.
Neal, Patricia, As I Am, Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Boston Globe, May 1, 1988.
Chicago Tribune, April 3, 1988.
Gannett News Service, April 24, 1988.
Globe and Mail, March 30, 1981.
Guardian, July 27, 1996.
Knoxville News-Sentinel, November 24, 1998.
Los Angeles Daily News, October 26, 1989.
San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday Review, June 26, 1988.
Tennessean, November 15, 1998.
"All About Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center," Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center http://www.covenanthealth.com/aboutus/pnrc/pnrc-home.html. (March 9, 1999).
"Cookie's Fortune," IMDb http://us.imdb.com/Title?Cookie%27s+Fortune+(1999) (March 9, 1999).
"Patricia Neal: Greatness Through Understanding," WIC Biography http://www.wic.org/bio/pneal.htm March 9, 1999.
"Who Is Patricia Neal?" Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center http://www.covenanthealth.com/aboutus/pnrc/patneal.html. (March 9, 1999). □
Nationality: American. Born: Patsy Louise Neal in Packard, Kentucky, 20 January 1926. Education: Attended Knoxville High School, Tennessee; Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 1944–45.
Family: Married the writer Roald Dahl, 1953 (divorced 1983), five children (one deceased). Career: Coached in acting as a child, and made stage debut at age 15 at Barter Theatre, Virginia; 1944—understudy on tour in The Voice of the Turtle, and in short Broadway run; 1946—Tony-Award winning performance in Broadway production of Another Part of the Forest; 1947—joined Strasberg's Actors Studio, New York; 1949—film debut in John Loves Mary; contract with Warner Brothers; 1952—on stage in The Children's Hour; 1958—in Suddenly Last Summer in London; 1964–68—series of strokes and long rehabilitation period; 1968—returned to films in The Subject Was Roses; 1978—in TV mini-series The Bastard. Awards: Best Actress Academy Award, Best Actress, New York Film Critics, and Best Foreign Actress, British Academy, for Hud, 1963; Best Foreign Actress, British Academy, for In Harm's Way, 1965. Address: P.O. Box 1043, Edgartown, MA 02539, U.S.A.
Films as Actress:
John Loves Mary (David Butler) (as Mary McKinley); The Fountainhead (King Vidor) (as Dominique Francon); It's a Great Feeling (David Butler) (as herself)
The Hasty Heart (Sherman) (as Sister Margaret Parker); Bright Leaf (Curtiz) (as Margaret Jane Singleton); Three Secrets (Wise) (as Phyllis Horn); The Breaking Point (Curtiz) (as Leona Charles)
Operation Pacific (Waggner) (as Mary Stuart); Raton Pass (Canyon Pass) (Marin) (as Ann); The Day the Earth Stood Still (Wise) (as Helen Benson); Weekend with Father (Sirk) (as Jean Bowen)
Diplomatic Courier (Hathaway) (as Joan Ross); Something for the Birds (Wise) (as Anne Richards); Washington Story (Target for Scandal) (Pirosh) (as Alice Kingsly)
La tua donna (Paolucci); The Stranger from Venus (Immediate Disaster) (Burt Balaban) (as Susan North)
A Face in the Crowd (Kazan) (as Marcia Jeffries)
Breakfast at Tiffany's (Edwards) (as "2E")
Hud (Ritt) (as Alma Brown)
Psyche '59 (Singer) (as Allison)
In Harm's Way (Preminger) (as Lt. Maggie Haynes)
The Subject Was Roses (Grosbard) (as Nettie Cleary)
The Road Builder (The Night Digger) (Reid) (as Maura Prince); The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (Cook—for TV) (as Olivia Walton)
Baxter (Jeffries) (as Dr. Clemm); Hay que matar a B. (B. Must Die) (Borau) (as Julia); Happy Mother's Day—Love George (Run, Stranger, Run) (McGavin) (as Cara)
Things in Their Season (Goldstone—for TV)
Eric (Goldstone—for TV) (as Lois Swenson)
Widow's Nest (Nido de viudas) (Navarro) (as Lupe); Tail Gunner Joe (Jud Taylor—for TV)
A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story (Cook—for TV) (as Mrs. Gehrig)
The Passage (J. Lee Thompson) (as Ariel Bergson); All Quiet on the Western Front (Delbert Mann—for TV) (as Paul's mother)
Ghost Story (Irvin) (as Stella Hawthorne)
Glitter (Beaumont—for TV); Love Leads the Way (Delbert Mann—for TV); Shattered Vows (Bender—for TV) (as Sister Carmelita)
An Unremarkable Life (Chaudri) (as Frances McEllany)
Caroline? (Sargent—for TV) (as the headmistress)
A Mother's Right: The Elizabeth Morgan Story (Otto—for TV) (as Antonia Morgan)
Heidi (Rhodes—for TV) (as Grandmother)
Cookie's Fortune (Altman) (as Jewel Mae "Cookie" Orcutt)
By NEAL: articles—
Interview with K.G. Shinnick, in Scarlet Street, no. 25: 47–49, 1997.
By NEAL: book—
As I Am: An Autobiography, with Richard DeNeut, New York, 1988.
On NEAL: books—
Farrell, Barry, Pat and Roald, New York, 1969.
Burrows, Michael, Patricia Neal and Margaret Sullavan, Cornwall, England, 1971.
On NEAL: articles—
Current Biography 1964, New York, 1964.
Buckley, Michael, "Patricia Neal," in Films in Review (New York), April 1983; see also letter in August/September issue.
Film Dope (Nottingham), March 1991.
On NEAL: film—
The Patricia Neal Story, directed by Anthony Harvey and Anthony Page for television, 1981.* * *
As modern teachers of naturalistic acting would ask of her, Patricia Neal personifies true openness: to her characters' impulses both intellectual and sexual, to her fellow players, to all acting media, to the pursuit of work even after deep personal affliction and loss. Never a major star, she rose to prominence when Hollywood's "classical" period—characterized by the interlocking systems of studio/star/genre—was ending. She is in fact one of the earliest members of an ongoing post-1950s sorority of "working" actresses. These women's mastery of contemporary acting techniques clearly works in their every on-screen moment, but, unless they turn to television, they remain fairly anonymous working actors—nonstars—their film roles usually small or lost in low-quality productions.
The reasons femininity and Hollywood movie stardom became comparatively estranged between the studio era and the recent age of the blockbuster are complex: at the root is a perceived shift in movie viewership by the 1970s to young men, connected to the Hollywood commonplace that only male actors can turn films into megahits by virtue of their mere presence. But surely also a factor is some resistance to women, like Neal, able to combine practical control and a post-Production Code, expandingly erotic heat: one of her own favorite examples comes in Hud when her character swats a fly—which Neal fortuitously noticed on the set—in response to Paul Newman's kiss.
Neal was well-received on Broadway in the mid-1940s, having worked in local theaters and summer stock through high school and college. She was invited to be a founding member of the Actors Studio, the New York collective which would become the most famous workshop devoted to expanding the ideas of Constantin Stanislavski in the United States—although she writes that she was expelled temporarily when she went to Hollywood. There she met more critical than commercial success between 1949 and 1952, her two most memorable roles coming in The Fountainhead and The Day the Earth Stood Still. She studied screen acting with George Shdanoff and later Shdanoff's teacher Michael Chekhov, Stanislavski's associate.
Neal returned to Broadway in 1952 and spent the mid-1950s dividing her time between New York and England, occupied with a new marriage, children, renewed work at the Actors Studio, and jobs on-stage and in television. Her best run of film work began in 1957 with A Face in the Crowd, as she moved into innocuous, reliable, supportive (and supporting) women's roles, including Breakfast at Tiffany's, In Harm's Way, and Hud, for which she won an Oscar.
Her career was drastically interrupted in the mid-1960s by a series of strokes. Her courageous attempts to reestablish herself across the 1970s and 1980s often found her characters also dealing with illness. Unsurprisingly, given developing industry patterns, her best recent roles have come on television. She brings a motherly, astute depth especially to 1990's Caroline?, with television star Stephanie Zimbalist and working actress Pamela Reed. Patricia Neal soldiers on, an actress of intelligence and fire never fully exploited by Hollywood film.
—Robin Wood, updated by Susan Knobloch