By Duane Byrge
Aug 8, 2010
Patricia Neal, the Oscar-winning actress whose life was as dramatic and inspirational as anything she did on stage and screen, died Sunday of lung cancer at her home in Edgartown, Mass. She was 84.
Most identifiable playing characters of strong will and resilience, Neal won her Academy Award for her portrayal of a demoralized housewife in "Hud" (1963), opposite Paul Newman, then earned another nomination for "The Subject Was Roses" (1968), playing the pitiful mother of a returning war victim (Martin Sheen).
In February 1965, after the first day of filming "Seven Women," Neal -- then 39 and three months pregnant -- suffered three strokes caused by a brain hemorrhage as she was bathing to her 8-year-old daughter, Tessa. She was in a coma for three weeks.
She emerged unable to speak, her memory erased and her right side paralyzed. Neal was confined to a wheelchair at first, but her husband, British writer Roald Dahl, designed and inspired her recovery. Three years after her stroke and still displaying aftereffects, she returned to acting with "Roses" and kept acting through the next four decades.
The 1960s were especially harsh for Neal. Before her stroke, her 7-year-old daughter Olivia died of measles, and a taxi hit her infant son Theo, causing brain damage.
The decade had begun most promising for Neal, who appeared in Blake Edwards' classic "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961), then followed up "Hud" with "In Harm's Way" (1965), a World War II war spectacle and romance starring John Wayne. For that, she was named best foreign actress by the British film academy.
Years earlier, Neal engaged in a tempestuous love affair with the married Gary Cooper, with whom she starred in "The Fountainhead" (1949), and she reportedly had a nervous breakdown after he ended the affair. She married Dahl in 1953, but they divorced in 1983 after she learned he was having an affair with her best friend.
Neal's stroke prompted her to become active in promoting an understanding of the illness. With Dahl, she developed a system of therapy that is used by numerous stroke centers, including several in the U.K., and was instrumental in setting up the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville, Tenn.
"You can't give up," she said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. "You sure want to, sometimes."
Onstage, Neal collected a Tony Award in 1947 for her performance in Lillian Hellman's "Another Part of the Forest" and also starred on Broadway in "The Miracle Worker," "A Roomful of Roses" and "The Children's Hour."
Patsy Louise Neal was born Jan. 20, 1926, in Packard, Ky. She studied speech and drama at Northwestern and then moved to New York, where she began as a Broadway understudy on "The Voice of the Turtle" before her award-winning turn in "Forest" (1946-47).
Neal's stage work earned her a contract with Warner Bros. in Hollywood. She made her film debut opposite Ronald Reagan in "John Loves Mary" (1949), then appeared as Dominique Francon in Ayn Rand adaptation "The Fountainhead," followed by such films as "The Breaking Point" (1950), "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951) and "Operation Pacific" (1951).
Neal later crafted one of her most memorable roles in Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), where she guided an innocent hick (Andy Griffith) to TV stardom and cruel celebrity.
During the '70s, her work was intermittent, with a mix of films and TV roles. On the big screen, she appeared in "The Night Digger" (1971), "Baxter" (1973), "The Passage" (1979) and Robert Altman's "Cookie's Fortune" (1999) and on TV in "The Waltons" telefilm "The Homecoming," "Murder, She Wrote," "Kung Fu," "Little House on the Prairie" and her final appearance, the 2009 Lifetime movie "Flying By."
Neal's remarkable resilience and recovery was documented in 1981 telefilm "The Patricia Neal Story," starring Glenda Jackson.
Survivors include her sister, Margaret Ann Vandenoord; her brother, Pete Neal; her children Tessa, Theo, Ophelia and Lucy Dahl; 10 grandchildren and step-grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.