The 19th Annual American Film Institute Life Achievement Award: A Salute to Kirk Douglas 1990 - 1991 (TV Show)
Though she initially found success on Broadway, actress Patricia Neal became a Hollywood star thanks to several memorable performances, only to see her career cut short due to a series of illnesses and personal tragedies from which she never fully recovered. Neal first gained notice on the stage with her Tony-winning performance in "Another Part of the Forest" (1947), which led to her venturing out onto the silver screen. She made her presence known with an acclaimed turn in "The Fountainhead" (1949), particularly due to her highly publicized affair with co-star Gary Cooper, which allegedly resulted in a nervous breakdown a few years later. Meanwhile, she married writer Roald Dahl and continued making movies, albeit in roles ill-suited to her talents. Neal went back to triumph on Broadway, only to return to Hollywood with two of her best films, "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961) and "Hud" (1963), the latter of which earned her an Academy Award. But just as her film career was finally taking shape, Neal suffered a debilitating series of strokes while pregnant that left her paralyzed and unable to speak. With help and encouragement from Dahl, she made a near-full recovery and returned to work, only to find film offers few and far between. She did have a critical triumph with "The Subject was Roses" (1968), but was consigned to just a few movies in the ensuing decades while suffering the death of her daughter from illness and the permanent brain damage of her son from an accident. Regardless of the numerous tragedies in her life, Neal remained a strong and resilient performer worthy of great respect.
Born on Jan. 20, 1926 in Packard, KY, Neal was raised in Knoxville by her father, William, who worked as a transportation manager for South Coal & Coke Co., and her mother, Eura. She first discovered her talent for performing by reciting monologues at her local church. When she was 12 years old, Neal began receiving dramatic coaching and later joined the Tennessee Valley Players. Neal left Knoxville High School before graduating in order to join the Barter Theatre in Abington, VA, where she served as an understudy and an assistant stage manager. Neal next studied at Northwestern University's drama department with Alvina Krause and joined Krause's theater company in Eagles Mere, PA, before making the trek to New York to find stardom on Broadway. In 1945, she was the understudy for Vivian Vance in John van Druten's "The Voice of the Turtle," and eventually replaced the actress for two weeks during the play's Chicago run. After being brought into the Theatre Guild by Eugene O'Neill, she was seen by Lillian Hellman, who cast the actress for the lead in "Another Part of the Forest" (1947), which earned her several major awards, including a Tony.
Soon Hollywood came calling, leading to Neal's film debut in "John Loves Mary" (1949). She then burst upon the scene in King Vidor's adaptation of Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" (1949) opposite Gary Cooper. Blonde, yet dark, and grownup beyond her years, Neal captivated the older Cooper, which resulted in an affair that generated unrelenting publicity, allegedly causing her a nervous breakdown and nearly wrecking his marriage to Veronica Balfe. Making matters worse was his insistence that she have an abortion after Neal became pregnant with his child. In the next few years, neither Warner Bros. nor Fox succeeded in making her a major star, despite able performances as the nice nurse who allowed Richard Todd to curl up in her lap in "The Hasty Heart" (1949) and as the wise-cracking blonde in "The Breaking Point" (1950). Leaving Hollywood behind, she returned to New York for a Broadway revival of "The Children's Hour" (1952), followed by an off-Broadway production of "The School for Scandal" (1953). After she married writer and former Royal Air Force pilot Roald Dahl in 1953, she relocated to Great Britain and began carefully selecting her roles.
Neal continued to chose Broadway over Hollywood, appearing in "A Roomful of Roses" (1955) and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1956). But she soon opened her second and richest cinematic phase with director Elia Kazan's acid portrait of political demagoguery, "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), in which her character turned the tables on Andy Griffith's power-crazed bumpkin. Meanwhile, she made her West End debut in "Suddenly Last Summer" (1958) and returned to Broadway for a supporting role in "The Miracle Worker" (1959). Neal was in top form in a supporting role as a wealthy woman who keeps a struggling writer (George Peppard) in her clutches in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961). She followed by delivering the most powerful performance of her career in "Hud" (1963), playing the likable housekeeper assaulted by Paul Newman's cold-hearted and hard-drinking Texas rancher. She picked up several awards, including a Best Actress Oscar for her troubles, and appeared to reach the height of her profession. But after filming two more movies, "Psyche 59" (1964) and "In Harm's Way" (1965), Neal suffered a series of debilitating strokes during her fifth pregnancy that confined her to a wheelchair and interrupted her career.
With unrelenting support from husband Dahl, Neal overcame partial paralysis, severely impaired speech and memory loss in order to make a brilliant comeback in "The Subject was Roses" (1968). Though it earned her an Oscar nomination, her subsequent work remained intermittent and sadly of no great consequence. Perhaps her most notable later role was that of Olivia Walton in "The Homecoming - A Christmas Story" (CBS, 1971), the original movie pilot for the "The Waltons" (CBS, 1972-1981). Neal's courage had carried through other personal tragedies, like the death of her 13-year-old daughter Olivia from measles and the eight brain operations her son Theo required after being hit by a taxi as a baby. Meanwhile, she tried to mount a comeback by playing Richard Thomas' mother in "All Quiet on the Western Front" (CBS, 1979), only to find Hollywood unwilling to take a chance on her. She was, however, the subject of her own made-for-television movie, "The Patricia Neal Story" (CBS, 1981), in which she was portrayed by Glenda Jackson. In 1988, Neal published her memoirs, As I Am, while taking roles when she could, including as Shelley Winters' sister in "An Unremarkable Life" (1989) and the titular role in Robert Altman's "Cookie's Fortune" (1999). Ten years later, Neal made her final screen appearance opposite Billy Ray Cyrus and Heather Locklear in the made-for-cable movie, "Fly By" (Lifetime, 2009). Just a year later, on Aug. 8, 2010, Neal succumbed to lung cancer in her home of Edgartown, MA. She was 84.