Patricia Neal, an Oscar Winner Who Endured Tragedy, Dies at 84 (Published 2010) (2024)



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By Aljean Harmetz

Patricia Neal, who made her way from Kentucky’s coal country to Hollywood and Broadway, winning an Academy Award and a Tony, but whose life alternated almost surreally between triumph and tragedy, died on Sunday at her home in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard. She was 84.

The death was announced by her family in Edgartown. A friend, Bud Albers, told The Associated Press that Ms. Neal, who also lived in Manhattan, had had lung cancer.

Ms. Neal received her Oscar, as best actress, in 1964, for her performance in “Hud” as the tough, shopworn housekeeper who did not succumb to Paul Newman’s amoral charm. By then she had already endured the death of her first child and a calamitous injury to her infant son, who was brain-damaged in an accident. Then came three strokes, a year after the Oscar, leaving her in a coma for three weeks. Afterward she was semiparalyzed and unable to speak.

But she learned to walk and talk again with the help of her husband, the British writer Roald Dahl. And in 1968 — despite a severely impaired memory that made it difficult to recall dialogue — she returned to the screen 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.

Ms. Neal’s career started swiftly and brilliantly. Before she was 21 she won a Tony and a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for her Broadway debut in Lillian Hellman’s “Another Part of the Forest.” Her photograph was on the cover of Life magazine.

Signed by Warner Brothers, she went to Hollywood as the sought-after young actress of her day. She had talent, a husky, unforgettable voice and an arresting presence but no training in acting in front of a camera. Of her movie debut opposite Ronald Reagan 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,” adding, “Her way with a gag line is painful.”

Yet Ms. Neal had already been assigned the role that Barbara Stanwyck and other top actresses 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 godlike architect Howard Roark, Ms. Neal, at 23, fell in love with the 48-year-old movie star who played Roark, Gary Cooper. Their affair lasted three years but ended when Mr. Cooper chose not to leave his wife and daughter.

ImagePatricia Neal, an Oscar Winner Who Endured Tragedy, Dies at 84 (Published 2010) (1)

“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,” she said. “My status changed immediately. That was the end of my career as a second Garbo.”

Ms. Neal’s next movie, “Bright Leaf” (1950), an epic story of a 19th-century tobacco farmer played by 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 and Have Not,” in which she played a tramp 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.”

She was 27 and apparently washed up in Hollywood after five years and 13 movies when Hellman insisted that Ms. Neal star in the Broadway revival of her play “The Children’s Hour” in 1952. And it was at Hellman’s house that Ms. Neal met Dahl, then a writer of macabre short stories; they would marry and have five children in a troubled, 30-year marriage.

In 1957, Ms. Neal triumphantly returned to the screen in Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd.” Demonstrating a range she had lacked before, she was praised 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” on the London stage and in “The Miracle Worker” on Broadway, then 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, Ky., on Jan. 20, 1926, to a mine manager and the daughter of the town doctor. Ms. Neal grew up in Knoxville, Tenn. At 10, she attended an evening of monologues in the basem*nt 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 Knoxville social clubs 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, she headed to New York, where she worked as an understudy before replacing Vivian Vance in a road company production of “Voice of the Turtle,” which had been produced on Broadway by Alfred de Liagre. He had insisted that this patrician-looking new actress call herself Patricia.

Her big break came as a backwoods girl who allies herself with the devil in a summer stock production of “Devil Takes a Whittler” in Westport, Conn. Eugene O’Neill, who became her mentor, saw the performance, and so did much of the Broadway 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 Hellman’s “Another Part of the Forest.”

Hollywood soon beckoned, and she signed a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers that included the starring role in the film version of “John Loves Mary.” In other roles for the studio she played a woman waiting to see if her child survived a plane crash in “Three Secrets” (1950); John Wayne’s love interest in “Operation Pacific” (1951); and Dennis Morgan’s feuding wife in “Raton Pass” (1951).

A contract at Fox followed, and she played opposite Tyrone Power in the espionage thriller “Diplomatic Courier” (1952) and worried through the science fiction film “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951). Loaned to Universal, she played a widow courted by Van Heflin in “Weekend With Father” (1951).During her affair with Cooper she became pregnant and had an abortion, according to the autobiography “As I Am” (1988), written with Richard DeNeut. “If I had only one thing to do over in my life,” she wrote, “I would have that baby.”Eager to have children, she married Dahl in 1953, even though she did not love him then, she wrote in her autobiography. A former R.A.F. fighter pilot who became a renowned writer of often darkly humorous children’s books (“James and the Giant Peach,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), Dahl took 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, Dahl decided that they would move 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.

Still, Ms. Neal continued to work in film and in guest appearances on television. In “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961), she played an older woman who supports a young writer (George Peppard) who falls in love with the gentlemen’s escort Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn).

Ms. Neal survived the strokes in 1965 because of the knowledge Dahl had acquired during the years when Theo had eight brain operations. After the shunt that drained fluid from Theo’s brain kept clogging, Dahl worked for two years with a retired engineer and a neurosurgeon to design and manufacture a better one, the Wade-Dahl-Till valve.

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

Oscar Winner’s Life of Highs and Lows9 PhotosView Slide Show ›

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Dahl badgered his wife into getting well, pressing her to walk, holding things out of her reach until she managed to ask for them and arranging for hours of physical and speech therapy. She learned to read again. Six months after her brain operation, Ms. Neal gave birth to a healthy daughter, and Dahl insisted that a brace be taken off her shoes.

Early in 1967 Dahl 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.”

A few months later Frank Gilroy and Ulu Grosbard, the writer and director of “The Subject Was Roses,” flew to Great Missenden. “We didn’t know whether she could memorize a line,” Mr. Grosbard said after “The Subject Was Roses” was finished. “The memory element was the uncertain one. But when we started to shoot, she hit her top level.”

The story of Ms. Neal’s illness and recovery was made into a television movie in 1981, with Glenda Jackson and Dirk Bogarde playing Pat and Roald. Two years later, Ms. Neal and Dahl were divorced after Ms. Neal discovered that her husband had been having a long affair with one of her best friends. Dahl died in 1990.

Ms. Neal is survived by her children Tessa, Ophelia, Theo and Lucy; a brother, Pete Neal; a sister, Margaret Ann VandeNoord; 10 grandchildren and step grandchildren, and a great-grandchild.

In her later years Ms. Neal was often seen in guest roles in television series like “Little House on the Prairie” and “Murder, She Wrote.” In 1999 she had a small role as the title character — a wealthy Southern dowager who commits suicide — in Robert Altman’s comedy “Cookie’s Fortune.”

Ms. Neal also put much time and energy into raising money for brain injured children and adults and establishing the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville, Tenn. 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.”

A correction was made on

Aug. 11, 2010


An obituary on Tuesday and in some copies on Monday about the actress Patricia Neal misspelled the middle name of her sister, who survives her. She is Margaret Ann VandeNoord, not Margaret Anne VandeNoord.

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Patricia Neal, an Oscar Winner Who Endured Tragedy, Dies at 84 (Published 2010) (2024)
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