Patricia Neal was a courageous actress, loved by many for her enduring and realistic performances in films, plays and on television over a decades-long career. Despite many personal tragedies and setbacks during her tenure, she is still remembered as a tenacious, but womanly presence.
Born on January 20, 1926 in Packard, Kentucky, the daughter of a coal company bookkeeper, Neal studied drama at Northwestern University and worked as a model before making her Broadway debut in “Voice of the Turtle” in 1946. Her success in “Another Part of the Forest” led to a film career that started in 1949 with “John Loves Mary.” She made a strong impression that same year opposite Gary Cooper in “The Fountainhead.”
During the next few years, she performed mainly in routine productions for Warner Bros. and other studios, among them “Operation Pacific” (1951) and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951). She and Cooper became entangled in a well-publicized romance, at the end of which she suffered a nervous breakdown. Things improved in 1953 when she married British writer Roald Dahl, and for several years was absent from the screen.
She returned in excellent form in 1957, opposite Andy Griffith in Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd.” From then on, Neal seemed to be much more selective about her roles. In 1963, she won an Oscar® for her portrayal of a wizened farm worker in “Hud,” which starred a young Paul Newman. Two years later, during her fifth pregnancy, she suffered a series of massive strokes that damaged her nervous system and left her confined to a wheelchair in a state of semi-paralysis with severely impaired speech. Neal fought back courageously, made a remarkable recovery, and returned to screen work in “The Subject Was Roses” (1968).
President Johnson presented her that same year with the Heart of the Year Award. Her courage has carried her through other personal tragedies. One of her five children, a boy, was hit by a cab as a baby and survived eight brain operations, and another, a girl, died at 13 of measles. Neal’s bravery and her husband’s devotion were the subject of a 1981 TV movie “The Patricia Neal Story,” in which they were portrayed by Glenda Jackson and Dirk Borgarde. That same year, she starred alongside such veterans as Fred Astaire, Melvin Douglas (who was also in “Hud”) and John Houseman in “Ghost Story.” Her marriage to Dahl ended, however, in 1983, when Neal discovered that Dahl had been having an affair with one of her best friends. She left their home in England and moved to New York, where she resumed her working career. Neal published her autobiography, “As I Am,” in 1988.
Patricia Neal died in 2010.