THE LEGENDARY PATRICIA NEAL DIES




I adore PATRICIA NEAL. How could I not? It simply isn’t possible.

Here is a glamorous beautiful charismatic woman with great talent and incredible fortitude. She went to hell and back and came out the other side stronger than ever.

Plus she played Dominique, one of my favourite characters in one of the books that shaped my life: THE FOUNTAINHEAD.

If I wasn’t so passionate about the arts, I would have loved to be an architect. Form and function. That’s where it’s at. But my math skills have never been top of the line. Basic math is no problem for me. But when it starts to get abstract and they bring in all the letters and various kinds of complications, that’s when it gets drastic.

The only science I’ve ever had an affinity for was biology.

I’m sure that that’s the ultimate irony.

But THE FOUNTAINHEAD (both the film and the book) remains a huge personal influence to this day.

Like everyone else, I will miss PATRICIA NEAL greatly. She elevated every project she performed in with her graceful elegance.

Ms. Neal was one of a kind. No one will ever duplicate the special magic that she possessed.

PATRICIA NEAL, the molasses voiced actor who won an ACADEMY AWARD and a TONY but whose life alternated surreally between triumph and tragedy, died Sunday.

She was 84 and lived in Manhattan.

Ms. Neal had lung cancer and died at her home in Edgartown, Massachusetts on Martha’s Vineyard, said long time friend BUD ALBERS of Knoxville.

THE PATRICIA NEAL REHABILIITATION CENTER that concentrates on helping people recover from strokes and spinal cord and brain injuries is named for her in Knoxville, where she grew up.

“She never forgot us after she went to Hollywood,” commented Mr. Albers, who graduated with Ms. Neal from Knoxville High School in 1943.

Whenever she was in town, a bunch of her friends would always get together and have dinner. Her family informed him of her passing. She had wanted to be Knoxville next week for a golf tournament that benefits the centre.

“She was so courageous,” he said of her battling back from her illnesses and losing her 7 year old daughter to measles in 1962.

“She always fought back. She was very much an inspiration.”

In her 1988 autobiography AS I AM, she wrote, “Frequently my life has been likened to a Greek tragedy and the actress in me cannot deny that comparison.”

In 1964 Ms. Neal received an OSCAR as BEST ACTRESS for her performance as the tough, shopworn housekeeper who never succumbed to PAUL NEWMAN’S amoral charm in HUD.

But a year later she had three strokes, leaving her in a coma for three weeks. Although she was semiparalyzed and unable to speak afterward, she learned to walk, talk and act again.

Despite a severely impaired memory that made it difficult to remember dialogue, she returned to the screen in 1968 as the bitter mother who used her son as a weapon against her husband in the screen version of Frank Gilroy’s play THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES. Once again, she was nominated for an ACADEMY AWARD.

Her career started swiftly and brilliantly.

Before she was 21, she had swept the major acting prizes for her Broadway debut in LILLIAN HELLMAN’S ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST. As the rapacious Regina Hubbard who could hold her own in a family of vipers, Ms. Neal received a TONY and a NEW YORK DRAMA CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD. Her photograph was on the cover of LIFE magazine.

Signed to a seven year contract by WARNER BROTHERS, she went to Hollywood as the sought after young female actor of her day. She had talent, a husky, unforgettable voice and an arresting presence but no training in front of a camera.

Of her movie debut in the comedy JOHN LOVES MARY (1949), BOSLEY CROWTHER, the movie critic for THE NEW YORK TIMES, wrote that she showed “little to recommend her to further comedy jobs” and added, “Her way with a gag line is painful.”

Yet Ms. Neal had already been assigned the role that BARBARA STANWYCK and other top female performers coveted — the leonine Dominique in the film adaptation of AYN RAND’S best selling novel THE FOUNTAINHEAD (1949). As Dominique was swept away by the uncompromising, godlike architect Howard Roark, the 23 year old actor fell passionately in love with the 48 year old movie star who played Roark, GARY COOPER.

Their affair burned brightly for three years but ended when Mr. Cooper chose not to leave his wife and daughter.

THE FOUNTAINHEAD was a failure. Ms. Neal saw it at a Hollywood premiere.

“You knew, from the very first reel, it was destined to be a monumental bomb. My status changed immediately. That was the end of my career as a second Garbo.”

Ms. Neal’s next movie, BRIGHT LEAF, the epic story of a 19th century tobacco farmer played by Mr. Cooper, was also a failure. Ill served by WARNER BROTHERS, Ms. Neal acquired screen technique while being wasted in a series of mediocre movies. The exceptions were the screen version of John Patrick’s play THE HASTY HEART (1950), in which she played a nurse who tries to comfort a dying soldier and THE BREAKING POINT (1950), based on Ernest Hemingway’s TO HAVE & HAVE NOT, in which she played an alluring bad girl opposite John Garfield.

“Warners finally let me know they weren’t so keen on my staying on,” Ms. Neal said in an interview.

“They didn’t fire me. I took the hint.”

Ms. Neal was 27 years old and apparently washed up in Hollywood after five years and 13 movies. Then LILLIAN HELLMAN insisted that Ms. Neal star in the Broadway revival of her play THE CHILDREN’S HOUR in 1952.

And it was at Ms. Hellman’s house that Ms. Neal met a writer of macabre short stories, Roald Dahl — the man she would wed in 1953 and who would be the father of their five children during a troubled 30 year marriage that was marred by tragedy.

In 1957, Ms. Neal triumphantly returned to the screen in Elia Kazan’s A FACE IN THE CROWD. Demonstrating an authority, a range and a subtlety that she had lacked before, she won acclaim for her portrayal of a radio reporter who builds the career of a folksy guitarist (played by Andy Griffith).

As the 1950s ended, she appeared to great acclaim in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER in London and THE MIRACLE WORKER on Broadway. She had a small but interesting part in BLAKE EDWARDS’ influential 1961 classic BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, playing George Peppard’s sugar mama.

She went on to even greater screen success in HUD and IN HARM’S WAY with JOHN WAYNE.

Riding the crest, she signed to star in the John Ford movie SEVEN WOMEN. But at 39 and pregnant with her fifth child, she was struck down by the strokes.

PATSY LOU NEAL was born in the coal mining town of Packard, Kentucky on JANUARY 20, 1926 to a mine manager for the Southern Coke & Coal Company and the daughter of the town doctor.

Ms. Neal was raised in Knoxville, Tennessee. At 10, she attended an evening of monologues in the basement of the Methodist church and wrote a note to Santa Claus: “What I want for Christmas is to study dramatics.”

By the time she entered high school, PATSY NEAL was giving monologues at every Knoxville social club and had won the Tennessee State Award for dramatic reading.

In 1942, the summer before her senior year, she was chosen to apprentice at the prestigious Barter Theater in Virginia. After two years as a drama major at Northwestern University, Ms. Neal learned that the Theater Guild needed a tall girl to play the lead in EUGENE O’NEILL’S A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN and headed for New York.

Alfred de Liagre, the producer of VOICE OF THE TURTLE, gave her a job understudying the two female leads and insisted that his patrician looking new actor should call herself PATRICIA.

Success came quickly and easily.

Ms. Neal replaced VIVIAN VANCE in the road company of VOICE OF THE TURTLE and she had fourth billing in BIGGER THAN BARNUM, a Broadway bound play that closed in Boston.

When she played a backwoods girl who allies herself with the devil in DEVIL TAKES A WHITTLER in summer stock in Westport, Connecticut, she was seen by EUGENE O’NEILL, who became her mentor and much of the Broadway theatre establishment.

In less than 24 hours, she had two offers to star on Broadway. Ms. Neal turned down Richard Rodgers’ offer of the lead in JOHN LOVES MARY for ANOTHER PART IN THE FOREST.

During her affair with GARY COOPER, she became pregnant. She had an abortion and according to her 1988 autobiography AS I AM (written with Richard DeNeut), she cried herself to sleep for 30 years afterward.

“If I had only one thing to do over in my life,” she wrote, “I would have that baby.”

Desperate to have children, she married Mr. Dahl even though she didn’t love him at that point. A former R.A.F. fighter pilot who later became a renowned writer of edgy children’s books (JAMES & THE GIANT PEACH, CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY) Mr. Dahl took complete control of Ms. Neal’s life.

After their four month old son THEO was left brain damaged when his pram was crushed between a taxicab and a bus on a New York street in December 1960, Mr. Dahl decided that they would move permanently to the village of Great Missenden in England.

Two years later, their eldest daughter OLIVIA, who was 7, died of measles encephalitis, perhaps for want of sophisticated medical care that would have been available in a big city. Ms. Neal survived the aneurysm because of the knowledge Mr. Dahl had acquired during the years when THEO had eight brain operations.

When Ms. Neal collapsed in their rented Beverly Hills house, Mr. Dahl knew enough about her symptoms to immediately call one of the leading neurosurgeons in Southern California. Fourteen days after a seven hour operation, the specialist told Mr. Dahl that his wife would live. But he added, “I’m not sure whether or not I’ve done her a favour.”

Mr. Dahl badgered his wife into getting well. He nagged her into walking, held things out of her reach until she managed to ask for them, arranged for hours of physical and speech therapy each day. She learned to read again. When Ms. Neal could not understand a BEATRIX POTTER book she was reading to her son, her husband told her not to mind because THE TALE OF PIGLING BLAND was “Potter’s toughest book.”

Six months after her brain operation, Ms. Neal gave birth to a healthy daughter and Mr. Dahl insisted that the brace on which she relied be taken off her shoes.

Early in 1967, he announced that she was ready to perform and that she would give a speech in New York that spring at a charity dinner for brain
damaged children. Terrified, Ms. Neal worked day after day to memorize the speech, which she delivered to thundering applause.

As she wrote in her autobiography, “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.”

Two years later, Ms. Neal and Mr. Dahl were divorced after Ms. Neal discovered that her husband had been having a long affair with one of her best friends. Mr. Dahl died in 1990.

In her later years, Ms. Neal put her time and energy into raising money for brain injured children and adults. In dozens of speaking engagements, she demonstrated that a brain injury was not necessarily the end of life or of joy.

”I can’t see from one eye,” she said in 1988.

“I’ve been paralyzed. I’ve fallen down and broken a hip. Stubbornness gets you through the bad times. You don’t give in.”

Among Ms. Neal’s children is TESSA DAHL, who followed in her father’s footsteps as a writer. TESSA DAHL’S daughter is the model and writer SOPHIE DAHL.

Friends said Ms. Neal’s sorrows gave her an inner toughness that brought new power to her screen portrayals.

“I don’t lie down. I’m fighting all the way.”

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