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Patricia Neal dies at 84; Oscar-winning actress found triumphs in a life of tragedies

'Frequently my life has been likened to a Greek tragedy, and the actress in me cannot deny that comparison,' she wrote in her 1988 autobiography, 'As I Am.'

August 10, 2010|Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times
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Her life was marked by professional triumphs, including a Tony Award-winning debut on Broadway in Lillian Hellman's 1946 drama "Another Part of the Forest" and a best actress Oscar for her role in the 1963 drama "Hud."

But for Patricia Neal, the husky-voiced actress with a strong screen presence, life also was marked by personal tragedies: the death of one of her children and brain damage to another, and her own battle to overcome the debilitating effects of a ruptured aneurysm in her brain in 1965 that temporarily halted her career.

"Frequently my life has been likened to a Greek tragedy, and the actress in me cannot deny that comparison," Neal wrote in her 1988 autobiography, "As I Am."

Neal, 84, died of lung cancer Sunday at her home in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard. But in the end, she told family members who had gathered around her the night before: "I've had a lovely time."

Neal's daughter Ophelia Dahl said her mother, who was divorced from British writer Roald Dahl and once had an affair with married actor Gary Cooper, "recognized the extraordinary opportunities she had, and she also recognized that she was dealt a bad hand at times."

"The thing about my mother, it would seem she was really able to make the most of when times were good, and she'd find things to be positive about," Dahl told The Times on Monday.

After her Tony Award for best featured actress in a play for "Another Part of the Forest," Neal was signed to a contract with Warner Bros., where she was cast in "John Loves Mary," a 1949 comedy starring Ronald Reagan and Jack Carson.

She went on to appear in a string of films and live TV productions over the next decade, including the 1949 film adaptation of Ayn Rand's novel "The Fountainhead" (co-starring Cooper), the 1951 science fiction classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and director Elia Kazan's 1957 drama "A Face in the Crowd."

"There was a directness and honesty to her approach to acting that was kind of inspiring," movie historian Richard Schickel told The Times on Monday. "As a young actress, she had kind of a quiet ferocity. She was a woman of great quality and emotionally very truthful."

Neal's Oscar-winning role as the weary housekeeper in "Hud," starring Paul Newman as the ruthless son of a Texas rancher, came in the wake of two family tragedies.

In 1960, her infant son Theo sustained neurological damage when the carriage his nurse was pushing was crushed between a taxi and a bus in New York City. And two years later, Neal's 7-year-old daughter Olivia died of encephalitis as a result of measles.

Then in 1965, a year after winning her Oscar, the 39-year-old Neal suffered a ruptured aneurysm in the brain, followed by two more bleedings after arriving at UCLA Medical Center, where she underwent a seven-hour operation.

Neal, who was pregnant at the time, was in a coma for more than two weeks and on the critical list for three.

When she finally was allowed to return to the home she and her husband were renting, her entire right side was paralyzed and she was partially blind, had no memory and could not speak.

But Dahl, who had stayed by her side at the hospital, called her "a tremendous fighter."

At her husband's insistence after returning to England three months later, Neal underwent extended therapy, including swimming, walking, memory games and crossword puzzles.

"I loathed life when I first went back to England," Neal later said. "I had exercises to do every day. My husband had people coming in to teach me — three a day. I wanted to commit suicide, but I didn't know how."

But late in November 1966, on a day she remembered clearly from then on, she suddenly "wanted to live again." She said, "When I 'woke up' and had been ill for 18 months, I began to like life again."

In March 1967, Neal made her first real public appearance since she was stricken. At the insistence of her husband, she spoke to 2,000 people in New York City at a benefit for the New York Assn. for Brain Injured Children.

In that speech, she told of the friends who, with incredible patience, had struggled to turn "a complete idiot ... an enormous pink cabbage ... " into a human being again.

And she gave most of the credit to Dahl: "My husband is a great man. I love him."

In her autobiography, however, Neal wrote that she did not love Dahl when she married him but that she admired him and wanted children. As the New York audience applauded her speech, she wrote later in her book, " ... 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."

Her husband also pushed her into appearing at the 1967 Academy Awards ceremony to present the award for best foreign film. As she did after her New York speech, she received a standing ovation.

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