Patricia Neal dies: Oscar winning star of 'Hud' was 84

By Adam Bernstein
Tuesday, August 10, 2010; B06

Patricia Neal, 84, an Academy Award-winning actress who masterfully portrayed intensity and vulnerability in her screen roles and became a widely admired symbol of courage after recovering from three strokes at her career peak in the mid-1960s, died Aug. 8 of lung cancer at her home in Edgartown, Mass.

Over a 50-year career, Ms. Neal was a sporadic presence in movies. She starred in fewer than 30. But the high caliber of her dramatic work -- especially in "Hud" (1963) and "The Subject Was Roses" (1968) -- gave her an enduring reputation for excellence. Washington Post film critic Richard L. Coe once called her "our most undervalued major actress."

She had won a Tony Award at 20 playing the scheming Regina Hubbard in "Another Part of the Forest," Lillian Hellman's prequel to "The Little Foxes." The role brought her to Hollywood, where the husky-voiced beauty began a tormented relationship with actor Gary Cooper, with whom she starred in two movies (1949's "The Fountainhead" and 1950's "Bright Leaf"). Later she married Roald Dahl, the English writer of macabre fiction and children's classics including "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

Ms. Neal won the Oscar for leading actress in "Hud" as an earthy housekeeper who sexually jousts with Paul Newman's Texas ranch lothario.

She was also compelling in Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), as a reporter who shapes the rise and crashing of a TV huckster (Andy Griffith); as a Navy nurse in "In Harm's Way" (1965) with John Wayne; and in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961), as a society matron who pays a handsome writer (George Peppard) for his companionship.

To many, her most stunning accomplishment was "The Subject Was Roses." Her alternately heart-wrenching and scornful portrayal of a disillusioned Bronx housewife and mother prompted film critic Judith Crist to grope "for superlatives to surpass all the superlatives we had applied in the past to the performances of Patricia Neal."

The film was Ms. Neal's long-awaited return to the screen after her strokes. Three years earlier, after her nightly martini and bathing her daughter Lucy, she had strokes that nearly ended her life. She was three months pregnant at the time.

A difficult recovery

Ms. Neal recovered slowly, having lost much of her ability to speak and move. She tried to memorize poetry to regain her mental strength. She used a teleprompter to ease her own panic of setting back production on "The Subject Was Roses," which was based on Frank Gilroy's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama.

She later wrote of desperately wanting the part: "I understood her frustration with her husband and her maternal struggle for her child. She was a woman with calluses on her ego. I knew I could play her."

Ulu Grosbard, who directed the Broadway and movie versions, insisted on casting Ms. Neal for the film and waited for her to recover.

"We were all jumping into the unknown. But at the first reading of the script I knew I was right," Grosbard once said. "She is so subtle she can play from a subdued note to a wild and open anger. . . . I would rather do six extra takes with her and get what she gives than use someone else who couldn't approach her range in 72 takes."

Ms. Neal earned an Oscar nomination for the role; Jack Albertson won for playing her miserly husband.

After the film came out, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave Ms. Neal an American Heart Association honor at the White House. Good Housekeeping magazine named her in its poll of most admired women.

Although Ms. Neal sporadically returned to acting, her illness spurred a second career filming public service announcements about strokes and speaking to stroke victims worldwide.

Patsy Louise Neal was born Jan. 20, 1926, in Packard, Ky., where her father was a mining company manager. She grew up in Knoxville, Tenn., where Ms. Neal was turned on to acting at 10 after seeing an impassioned speech about "demon rum" at the local temperance union speaking contest.

She left drama studies at Northwestern University when professional opportunities arose, and she struck up a friendship with playwright Eugene O'Neill that proved helpful for her career.

Her Tony for "Another Part of the Forest" led to a movie contract at Warner Bros., and she debuted in a mediocre comedy, "John Loves Mary" (1949), opposite Ronald Reagan.

Amid a run of forgettable dramas, her most striking early performance was in "The Fountainhead," based on the book by Ayn Rand, in which Ms. Neal played a temperamental newspaper columnist who at one point whips Gary Cooper's character with a riding crop when he spurns her advances.

The film was not kindly received by critics but was notable for the combustible sexual tension with Cooper, which continued off-screen for several years.

She also saved the world from destruction by yelling the code phrase "Klaatu barada nikto!" in "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), regarded as one of the best sci-fi films of the era. At the time, she viewed a sci-fi film as a major step down.

Ms. Neal was disappointed in her early film career, and she placed much of the blame on her own inexperience and stubbornness.

"There was no one I could ask for advice," she once said. "Not another actress, anyway. . . . Bette Davis was queen of the studio, and you couldn't go up to her and ask her to solve your problems. They were real stars in those days, babe."

Life like 'Greek tragedy'

Ms. Neal returned to New York and concentrated on stage work. She won enthusiastic reviews as a teacher who succumbs to suicide in a 1952 Broadway revival of Hellman's "The Children's Hour."

Having married the English writer Dahl in 1953, Ms. Neal also played a range of modern and classical dramas on the London stage and the BBC.

But it was her friendship with director Kazan that heralded a riveting new phase of her movie career. Starting with "A Face in the Crowd," she took less-glamorous roles that made efficient use of her dramatic potential. She also earned several Emmy nominations for her television work in the 1970s, notably as the Walton family matriarch in "The Homecoming: A Christmas Story."

In 1988, she wrote a confessional memoir, "As I Am," which described her many youthful affairs with married men ("in those days I had no conscience") and the baby she conceived with Cooper but aborted ("my greatest regret").

In the early 1960s, her son Theo suffered a brain injury after a taxi struck his baby carriage, and her 7-year-old daughter Olivia died from a rare complication from German measles.

These ordeals only worsened her troubled marriage to Dahl, a chronic philanderer. She wrote that he had once ordered a doctor to tie her tubes while she was helpless from a stroke. The couple divorced in 1983.

"Frequently my life has been likened to a Greek tragedy," Ms. Neal wrote, "and the actress in me cannot deny that comparison."

She said she suffered periods of depression and suicidal thoughts before finding peace as a Catholic convert.

Survivors include her four children, Theo Dahl of Naples, Fla., Tessa Dahl of Lincoln, Mass., Ophelia Dahl of Cambridge, Mass., and Lucy Dahl of Hancock Park, Calif.; a sister; a brother; 10 grandchildren, including British model and writer Sophie Dahl; and a great-grandchild.

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