Neal, Patricia (1926—)

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Neal, Patricia (1926—)

American actress who won an Academy Award for her performance in Hud . Born Patsy Louise Neal on January 20, 1926, in a mining camp in Packard, Kentucky; eldest of three children (two girls and a boy) of William Burdette Neal (a transportation manager of the Southern Coal and Coke Company) and Eura Mildred (Petry) Neal; graduated from Knoxville High School, Knoxville, Tennessee, 1943; attended Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 1943–45; married Roald Dahl (a writer), on July 2, 1953 (divorced November 1983); children: Olivia (1955–1962); Tessa (b. 1957); Theo (b. 1960); Ophelia (b. 1964); Lucy (b. 1965).

Selected theater:

first appeared on stage at the Barter Theater (Abingdon, Virginia, 1942); performed at the Eaglesmere Playhouse (Eaglesmere, Pennsylvania, summer 1945); appeared as Claire Walker in the pre-Broadway tryout of Bigger than Barnum (Wilbur Theater, Boston, Massachusetts, April 1946), "Wildcat" in summer stock tryout of Devil Take a Whittler (Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, Connecticut, summer 1946); made Broadway debut as Regina Giddens in Another Part of the Forest (Fulton Theater, November 1946); appeared as Martha Dobie in The Children's Hour (Cornet Theater, December 1952), Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal and Blacksmith in The Scarecrow (Theater de Lys, June 1953), Nancy Fallon in Roomful of Roses (Playhouse Theater, 1955); made London debut as Catherine Holly in Suddenly Last Summer (Arts Theater, London, 1958); appeared as Mrs. Keller in The Miracle Worker (Play-house Theater, New York, 1959).

Selected filmography:

John Loves Mary (1949); The Fountainhead (1949); (cameo) It's a Great Feeling (1949); The Hasty Heart (US-UK, 1950); Bright Leaf (1950); Three Secrets (1950); The Breaking Point (1950); Operation Pacific (1951); Raton Pass (1951); The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951); Weekend With Father (1951); Diplomatic Courier (1952); Something for the Birds (1952); Washington Story (1952); La tua Donna (It., 1954); Stranger From Venus (Immediate

Disaster, UK, 1954); A Face in the Crowd (1957); Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961); Hud (1963); Psyche 59 (UK, 1964); In Harm's Way (1965); The Subject Was Roses (1968); The Road Builder (The Night Digger, UK, 1971); Baxter (UK, 1972); Hay que matar a B (B Must die, Sp., 1973); Happy Mother's Day—Love, George (Run Stranger Run, 1973); Nido de Vidudas (Widow's Nest, Sp., 1977); The Passage (UK, 1979); Ghost Story (1981); An Unremarkable Life (1989); Caroline? (1990); A Mother's Right: The Elizabeth Morgan Story (1992); Heidi (1993); Cookie's Fortune (1999).

In her autobiography, As I Am, actress Patricia Neal writes that her life has been likened to a Greek tragedy, from the brain-damaging injury of her son in 1960 and the death of her young daughter two years later, to her own nearly fatal series of strokes in 1965 and the dissolution of her 30-year marriage in 1983. Following her strokes, Neal endured a grueling two-year struggle to reclaim her life, then went on to reestablished her career in 1968, winning another Oscar nomination for Best Actress. She credits stubbornness with getting her through the most difficult times and helping her to cope with the residual effects of her strokes. "You don't give in," she told Marian Christy of the Boston Globe in 1988. "I don't like adversity. Who does? When bad things happen, I fight. Life is tough. Some people are luckier than others. I don't think I'm lucky. My father had a saying: 'If you call upon a thoroughbred, he gives you all the blood, sinew and heart in him. If you call upon a jackass, he kicks.' I seldom kick."

Neal was born in 1926, in Packard, Kentucky, but her family (which eventually included two siblings, Margaret and Pete) moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, when she was three. She was bitten by the acting bug at the age of ten. "I was in a Methodist church and a woman got up and did monologues," she recalls. "She was funny and serious. Then and there, in that church, I wished for that. I, too, wanted to be an actress." Her parents responded to her newfound passion by allowing her to study dramatics with a local teacher, during which time she also performed readings locally. In high school she was active with the Thespians, and during the summer between her junior and senior year she worked as an apprentice at the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia, where in addition to her back-stage duties she played a few small roles. After graduation, she studied drama at Northwestern University for two years, then made her way to New York, supporting herself with a variety of jobs while she made the rounds. Her first true break came when she auditioned for a role in a Theater Guild production of A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O'Neill, who took a shine to the young actress. Although she was not cast in the show, O'Neill was instrumental in getting her a role in the summer tryout of a new play, Devil Take a Whittler, at the Westport (Connecticut) Playhouse. Fortuitously, Lillian Hellman saw Neal perform in Westport, and immediately tapped her for the part of Regina in her blistering family chronicle Another Part of the Forest, a role for which Neal won the Donaldson Award, the Drama Critics Circle Award, and the first Tony Award ever conferred (an engraved compact). Following the play, Neal was swamped with offers, including a lucrative deal with Warner Bros., which she found irresistible. "I went to Hollywood too young in my career," she said later. "Looking back now, I wish I had stayed longer on Broadway. The theater is the only place to learn to act."

Neal made her movie debut opposite future president Ronald Reagan in John Loves Mary (1949), a comedy romp for which she was ill prepared and completely unsuited. "Patricia Neal shows little to recommend her for further comedy roles," wrote Bosley Crowther in his review for The New York Times (February 5, 1949). "Her looks are far from arresting, her manners are slightly gauche, and her way with a gag line is painful. She has a long way to go and a lot to learn." Neal fared little better with her next film, the screen adaptation of Ayn Rand 's The Fountainhead (1949), although it catapulted her into a passionate romance with her co-star Gary Cooper, 25 years her senior and married to Veronica "Rocky" Cooper . Neal became pregnant and had an abortion; Cooper would not divorce his wife. "I was very, very much in love with him," she told Christy. "I was very, very hurt by Gary Cooper. I loved him. I adored him. It just didn't work out. It shouldn't have worked. Things turned out just as they should. But I'm very sorry I had our baby aborted. I worried too much about my mother's reaction to her pregnant, unmarried daughter." Soon after ending the affair, Neal met British writer Roald Dahl (author of numerous chillingly sardonic stories for adults as well as such children's classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach) at a party at Lillian Hellman's house and married him on the rebound in 1953. Once wed, Neal wanted nothing more than to have a child, but she had to undergo treatment to repair a blocked fallopian tube before she was able to conceive. The Dahls' much-anticipated first baby, Olivia, was born in 1955.

Meanwhile, the couple commuted between homes in England and in New York, where Neal had resumed her stage career in 1952, realizing that most of the 13 films she made for Warner Bros. were a waste of her talent. Her Broadway comeback as Martha Dobie, a teacher who is driven to suicide following a child's allegations of lesbianism, in Hellman's play The Children's Hour, brought her critical acclaim and reestablished her as an actress with some clout. She also appeared in a revival of The School for Scandal at the Theater de Lys and, in 1955, was again on Broadway in Edith Sommer 's A Roomful of Roses, which was well received but not a huge hit.

Upon her return to New York, Neal had resumed her membership in the Actors Studio, and it was through Elia Kazan, one of its founding members, that she was offered the female lead in the film A Face in the Crowd (1957), a role she felt she could not refuse although she was ambivalent about making another movie. Drawn to the project as much for the opportunity to work with Kazan as anything else, she turned in a memorable performance as a woman who discovers a hillbilly singer (Andy Griffith) and transforms him into a popular television personality, only to watch him become a monster. The completion of the film coincided with the imminent birth of Neal's second child, Tessa Dahl , who joined sister Olivia in the growing Dahl family.

Neal's career choices were now somewhat limited by family demands, but still included a substantial smattering of film, stage, and television roles. In 1958, the actress made her London debut as Catherine Holly in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer. In his tribute to Neal's performance, Kenneth Tynan alluded to the "power and variety of her dark-brown voice, on which she plays like a master on the cello." (The accolades for Neal's performance were so profuse that she called it the "hardest professional blow of my life" when Elizabeth Taylor was signed to star in the movie version of the play.) Neal next accepted the minor role of the mother in William Gibson's The Miracle Worker, about the young Helen Keller , and starring Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan Macy . and Patty Duke as the young Keller. "It was just another part for me, but a relationship with Helen Keller was also seeded deep within me that I have treasured ever since," Neal writes in her autobiography. "Helen has strengthened me in my own personal, private darkness for years." Neal was forced to leave the play for the approaching birth of her third child, a son Theo.

Theo was just four months old when tragedy struck. His nanny was pushing him in his carriage on Fifth Avenue in New York when a taxi jumped a green light, smashing into the carriage and hurling it 40 feet across the street with Theo inside. It slammed into the side of a car, pinning the baby's head in the metal wreckage of the carriage. He remained in critical condition for days, and over the course of the next several years required eight brain operations to drain the fluid that kept collecting in his skull. The Dahls, who had continued to summer in England, moved there permanently after the accident, hoping it would provide a safer environment in which to raise their children, but while Theo was still recovering, the couple's first child Olivia died very suddenly from a rare form of measles. She was just seven. "The horror was not to be able to do a thing," Neal recalls. "At five o'clock she was fine—measles, but fine, and asleep. At midnight she was dead. During those hours I saw my bright, beautiful child's mind unmistakably overcome and destroyed. I did not want life at all costs. My husband did." Roald's three sisters took charge of the funeral arrangements, assuring Neal that it would be better for her not to see Olivia in death, but to remember her only as a living child. Neal would forever be haunted by the fact that she missed saying goodbye to her daughter. Later, believing that perhaps God was punishing her, she joined the Church of England "to make amends." She also went back to work, thinking that the family might be doomed if she did not keep it "moving emotionally and financially."

After completing a segment for a television series, Neal was offered the small role of Alma in the movie Hud, starring Paul Newman. In a role described by Crowther as "a rangy, hard-bitten slattern with a heart and a dignity of her own," Neal gave a virtuoso performance and won an Academy Award as Best Actress. The news of the award reached the actress in England, where she was also celebrating another pregnancy. Her hope at the time was that a new baby, while not replacing Olivia, might bring some healing to her troubled family.

Ophelia Dahl entered the world on May 12, 1964. Not long thereafter, the family was invited to Hawaii, where Neal shot In Harm's Way, with John Wayne. Because she was scheduled to begin work on a new film in January 1965, the Dahls settled in California for the winter, renting a home in Brentwood. Neal found herself pregnant again and was three months along as filming got under way. Just returned home from one of the first days of shooting, the actress was bathing her daughter, when she experienced a sharp pain in her head. She knew something was terribly wrong, as she staggered into the bedroom to lie down. While her husband was phoning for help, she lost consciousness. "The last thing I remember thinking was, I have children to care for," she recounts in her autobiography. "I have another inside me. I can not die."

Neal suffered a series of three strokes that day, one at home and two at the UCLA Medical Center, where she was taken for emergency treatment. The actress remembered nothing about the following four weeks in the hospital; she learned later about that critical time by talking to friends and by reading her husband's diaries and Barry Farrell's book Pat and Roald. (She also learned later that while she was unconscious, the UPI put her obituary on the wire.) As soon as it was feasible, Neal underwent a seven-hour operation, which revealed a massive aneurysm that had released blood clots into her brain. Even with the removal of the clots, it was doubtful that she would pull through. When she finally awoke after weeks in a coma, her right side was completely paralyzed, she had no power of speech, and as she put it later, "my mind just didn't work." On top of that, she suffered maddening double vision, which she later said "miraculously disappeared" after she drank some champagne.

Although Neal lived, it was through the dogged determination of her husband and friends that she recovered. Faced with a shortage of therapists, Roald organized neighbors and friends in a rotating schedule to come in and help. "I wanted to lie back and do nothing, and that is exactly what I would have done, if Roald hadn't made me go on," Neal said, adding that she would forever be grateful to those who stood by her. "They came because they knew I was in trouble … and they came because I needed help. They came for free, for love, and I'll remember that till the day I die." Later, Valerie Eaton-Griffith became Neal's primary teacher. Her warmth, patience, and sympathy balanced Roald's more aggressive approach. "There was no doubt that I needed a master like Roald to demand I aim for the sky," Neal writes. "But it would take a teacher like Valerie who could kneel down and help me lift myself up out of the cabbage patch."

Four months after leaving the hospital, Neal gave birth to a daughter, Lucy Dahl (dubbed "the miracle baby"), and two years later, she walked onto the stage of the Waldorf-Astoria to deliver a speech on behalf of brain-injured children. It was an act of courage, and before she uttered a word of her meticulously rehearsed 13-minute speech, the actress received a standing ovation from the audience of 2,000, many of them in the entertainment business. At the end of her talk, the audience stood and cheered once more. "I knew then that my life had been given back to me for something more than I had imagined," Neal writes. "Mind you, I had no idea what that could possibly be. But I knew at that moment that Roald the slave driver, Roald the bastard, with his relentless scourge, Roald the Rotten, as I had called him more than once, had thrown me back into the deep water. Where I belonged." (The story of her recovery was documented in the 1981 television movie The Patricia Neal Story, in which Neal was portrayed by British actress Glenda Jackson and Dahl by Dirk Bogarde.)

Shortly after her triumphant speech, Neal was a presenter at the Academy Award ceremonies, where her Hollywood friends welcomed her back with prolonged applause. That same year, she received the Heart of the Year award from the American Heart Association, presented to her by President Lyndon Johnson at the White House. Perhaps the most significant of Neal's undertakings at this time, however, and the most frightening to her, was her return to acting. The project was the film version of Frank Gilroy's play The Subject Was Roses, about a returning veteran's difficulty in communicating with his family. Cast as Nettie, the mother, Neal initially had difficulty learning her lines and finding her rhythm, but she prevailed. At the film's premiere in New York City in 1968, she received another standing ovation when she entered the theater. "I was being applauded before I performed or even uttered a word," she recalled. "I was a hit—just for being alive."

Neal was nominated for an Academy Award for her comeback performance, an assurance to the actress that she was once again respected as a professional by her peers. At home, however, her reentry into the family was not as successful. Although her husband and children treated her with love and consideration, she felt that she had lost her position as an independent and authoritative mother and wife. She blamed herself for much of the problem. "I desperately wanted to serve my children, but mine was in no way the selfless, hidden service of a healthy mother who does her job and never has to be noticed or thanked…. I was still wrestling with my own selfishness, which many individuals recovering from a long illness must do. And I was, emotionally, very much a child and needed constant reassurance and attention. When I didn't get it, I could conjure the blackest of moods." Eventually, Neal came to accept that her children would remain closer to their father than to her. While this fact was difficult to assimilate, she later came to recognize it as simply another part of the aftermath of her strokes. (When they were grown, Neal would forge a new and satisfactory relationship with her children.)

Throughout the 1970s, Neal made a series of movies in which she played women dealing with a serious illness in one way or another. She also starred in the television movie "The Homecoming," which inspired the popular series "The Waltons." Neal won an Emmy for her portrayal of Olivia Walton and was offered a number of other "mother" roles. In addition to acting, she began a second career as a speaker, traveling around the United States and England to share her experience with other stroke victims and their caregivers.

In 1983, Neal faced yet another blow—the break-up of her 30-year marriage to Dahl. "It's just the saddest thing that could happen, my husband divorcing me," she told a reporter at the time. "My husband met another woman—not that she's been the only one through the years." The other woman in this case was Felicity Crossland , a young divorcée who had arrived at the Dahls' doorway nine years earlier to deliver a dress to Neal for an upcoming coffee commercial. The two women soon became best friends, which made Crossland's involvement with her husband even more difficult for Neal to accept.

During this period, Neal received some help from an unlikely source: Maria Cooper , Gary Cooper's adult daughter, whom Neal had met and befriended while working on a film in France in 1978. It was Maria who introduced Neal to the Benedictine monastery of Regina Laudis, a cloistered nunnery in Bethlehem, Connecticut, where she was encouraged to piece together the fragments of her life by speaking her memories into a tape recorder. It took Neal five years, but she did indeed get her life back. Later, in 1988, she published the results of her therapeutic journey as an autobiography. "Remembering was laborious," she writes. "Remembering was humbling. It was painful beyond all words, and then, finally, remembering was purifying, and it began to give me peace."


Christy, Marian. "Stubbornness has been a Blessing for Patricia Neal," in Boston Globe. May 1, 1988.

Farrell, Barry. Pat and Roald. NY: Random House, 1969.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Longcope, Kay. "Patricia Neal Faces a Painful Divorce," in Boston Globe. August 31, 1983.

McGill, Raymond D., ed. Notable Names in the American Theater. Clifton, NJ: James T. White, 1976.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1964. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1964.

Neal, Patricia, with Richard DeNeut. As I Am: An Autobiography. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Thomas, Jack. "The Miracle of Recovery: Patricia Neal's return to health came from guts, love," in Boston Globe. December 6, 1981.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts