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Obituary: Patricia Neal dies at 84; Oscar-winning actress

The actress, who won an Academy Award for her role in the 1963 film 'Hud,' persevered through a life that was marked by a succession of tragedies.

August 09, 2010|By Jack Jones

Actress Patricia Neal, who rebuilt a troubled career to win an Academy Award only to face a more desperate battle for survival when three strokes left her paralyzed and unable to speak or remember, has died. She was 84.

Neal died Sunday of lung cancer at her home in Edgarton, Mass., her family told the Associated Press.

A succession of tragedies marked the life of the actress whose bright promise on Broadway in the mid-1940s took her to Hollywood and into a succession of lackluster films, as well as a desperate love affair with actor Gary Cooper and marriage to British writer Roald Dahl.

Her infant son's brain was damaged when his stroller was struck by a New York City taxicab, a daughter died as a result of measles and then — only a year after she finally won critical acclaim and an Oscar for her portrayal of the weary housekeeper in the 1963 film "Hud" — she suffered three strokes that appeared to end her career.

With the determined help of her husband, Neal recovered sufficiently to return to films, but then lost Dahl to another woman whom she had accepted as a friend.

"I am bitter, yes," she told an interviewer in 1984, the year after she divorced Dahl. "But I keep remembering that Roald and I had some good times together … and he did so much for me after my strokes .... It was a terrible blow when I found out."

After 30 years of living in England with Dahl, she moved to a house on Martha's Vineyard and wished for more opportunities to perform. "My problem is convincing people that I'm well again and able to work," she said. "Of course, the right side of my body has been a bit of a mess since my strokes, but otherwise I'm fine."

She never really got over Cooper, the great love of her life. In her 1988 autobiography, "As I Am," she wrote, "He is one of the most beautiful things that ever happened to me in my life. I love him even now."

But Cooper remained a married man until his death, and the affair left Neal crushed.

She was born Patsy Louise Neal on Jan. 20, 1926, in a Packard, Ky., mining camp where her father was transportation manager for a coal company. In Knoxville, Tenn., where the family moved while she was in grammar school, she was precocious and showed talent in reciting monologues at church gatherings.

Her parents encouraged her, and she received dramatic coaching at 12. She performed with the Tennessee Valley Players and then studied drama at Northwestern University.

After two years there, Neal went to New York, arriving in 1945 with $60 and a burning ambition. She got an understudy's job in "The Voice of the Turtle" on Broadway but basically earned her livelihood as a cashier, clerk and model while trying out for parts.

Playwright Eugene O'Neill took an interest in her, and that led to her being hired by the Theatre Guild to appear in the summer tryout of a play in Westport, Conn.

There, she was seen by Lillian Hellman, who wanted her for "Another Part of the Forest," and by Richard Rodgers, who wanted to cast her as the female lead in "John Loves Mary." She chose the Hellman play — and that 1947 engagement brought her five major awards, including a Tony and the New York Drama Critics' Award.

It also brought her several screen offers. She signed with Warner Bros. and landed in Hollywood in December 1948 to star in the film version of the play she had turned down in New York — "John Loves Mary."

Appearing in the movie with her were actors Jack Carson, Wayne Morris and Ronald Reagan. She also made "Hasty Heart" at Warner's with Reagan. Years later, when he was in the White House, she told an interviewer, "He was a pleasant fellow. We had adjoining suites and dined together each evening, but he never made a pass at me, dash it all."

Neal's film career, however, did not deliver on the promise of her early stage success. Hollywood treated her like the typical starlet. She was the 1949 Junior Rose Bowl Queen.

She made nine films in three years, the most notable of which probably was "The Fountainhead" (1949), in which she portrayed the spoiled, neurotic Dominique of Ayn Rand's novel. Her co-star was Cooper. She was sneered at by the critics, who also panned "The Bright Leaf" (1950), the second film in which she starred with Cooper.

"Three Secrets" (1950), "Operation Pacific" (1951), "Raton Pass" (1951), "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), "Diplomatic Courier" (1952) and "Something for the Birds" (1952) were hardly films to make her a memorable star.

"Hollywood misunderstood Pat completely," said writer Barry Farrell in the book he subsequently wrote about her strokes and recovery. "She was cast in heavy romantic roles, silly little comedies, sophisticated, lacquered-beauty roles — everything that was wrong for her."

Her unhappiness was growing, too, because of her futile romance with Cooper.

"He was married," she pointed out 30 years later, "and declined to leave his wife. And rightly so." Some published accounts suggested that the affair led her to a nervous breakdown.

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