Patricia Neal, the Oscar-winning star of “Hud” whose own life was sadder and more dramatic than most of her onscreen work, died of lung cancer Sunday in Edgartown, Mass. She was 84.
Rarely has a life been marked by such a heady mixture of triumph and tragedy. Neal became an overnight star at age 20 in Lillian Hellman’s “Another Part of the Forest” on Broadway; by 40, after winning an Oscar for “Hud” (1963), she was near death, the result of three successive strokes. In addition, she suffered the death of a young daughter from measles and a tragic accident to her only son. After 30 years of marriage in which he helped her post-stroke recovery, husband Roald Dahl left her for another woman.
But Neal consistently managed to rebound from her tumultuous personal life. Her deep, purry voice even graced coffee and painkiller commercials.
Hollywood didn’t always know what to do with Neal, but onstage she was a lioness. In 1947, in “Another Part of the Forest,” as the young Regina Giddens (in the prequel to Hellman’s “The Little Foxes”), Neal was compared with Tallulah Bankhead. She brought home a Tony as featured actress and several other acting awards.
Between her 1949 film debut in “John Loves Mary” and her last film, the 2009 Heather Locklear-Billy Ray Cyrus pic “Flying By,” she starred in such notable pics as “The Fountainhead,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “A Face in the Crowd” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” in addition to “Hud.” On TV, her roles included the mother in the 1971 telepic “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story,” which became the basis of the series “The Waltons.”
Born Patsy Louise Neal in Packard, Ky., she grew up in Knoxville and appeared with the Tennessee Valley Players while in high school. At 18, she entered Northwestern U. to study drama. She was still in school when she was hired for the touring company of John Van Druten’s “The Voice of the Turtle” to understudy Vivian Vance. She took over the role for two weeks on Broadway and never went back to Northwestern.
Working odd jobs, she got a break with the Theater Guild’s summer production “Devil Takes a Whittler.” Her performance resulted in offers to appear in Norman Krasna’s play “John Loves Mary,” which she declined, and the Hellman play. Critics dubbed her “superb,” Broadway gave her the award for featured actress at its first Tony Awards ceremony. Hollywood soon came a calling.
After starring in “John Loves Mary” onscreen, she made two films with Gary Cooper, “The Fountainhead” and “Bright Leaf”; her public affair with Cooper brought her more attention than her performances, but she ended up on the verge of a nervous breakdown when Cooper refused to divorce his wife.
The 1949 film “The Hasty Heart” brought her some attention, and by 1952 she had almost a dozen starring roles under her belt, including “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” But Hollywood kept giving her roles in pics such as “Three Secrets,” “Week-End With Father,” “Washington Story” and “Something for the Birds” — films that tapped into her common sense and decency but ignored or stifled her sensual earthiness and sly sense of humor.
Back on Broadway in a revival of Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour” and nursing her broken heart, she met and married British author Dahl. In 1953, she appeared Off Broadway in “The School for Scandal” before moving to England.
She returned to the Main Stem in 1955 in “A Roomful of Roses,” and she filled in for Barbara Bel Geddes in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
In London she debuted in Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer” to raves, with Kenneth Tynan describing her voice as “dark-brown.”
She was back on Broadway in 1959 with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in “The Miracle Worker,” playing Helen Keller’s mother. She made her television debut in 1954, and made more than a dozen appearances, including meaty assignments on such dramatic anthology series as “Playhouse 90” (“The Gentleman From Seventh Avenue,” “The Playroom”), “Studio One” (“Tide of Corruption,” “A Handful of Diamonds”) and “Omnibus” (“Salome”).
During this time, she also made one of her best films, 1957’s “A Face in the Crowd.” The Elia Kazan-Budd Schulberg pic was a prescient look at manufactured celebrity and manipulation of the masses, with Kazan casting her after being impressed by her Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” But she still continued primarily in TV and didn’t appear on the bigscreen again until 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in a supporting role. But Martin Ritt wanted her as Alma the housekeeper opposite Paul Newman in “Hud” in 1963. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called her “brilliant.” Hollywood agreed, giving her the Oscar.
The previous year, she had suffered the tragedy of losing her 7-year-old daughter, Olivia, to measles; soon after, her infant son Theo was in a serious auto accident that required several major operations.
Her film career finally moved into high gear with a starring role opposite John Wayne in “In Harm’s Way” and the lead in what was to be John Ford’s last film, 1966’s “Seven Women.” Four days into production, she suffered three massive strokes that left her near death. When she regained consciousness, she had lost her memory and use of the right side of her body.
Pregnant throughout this ordeal, she gave birth to another daughter.
She was one of several stars considered for the role of Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate,” but Hollywood lore says she declined over concern about doing a demanding part so soon after her stroke.
With the help of Dahl, Neal taught herself how to speak and to walk again. That emotional and physical odyssey was recounted in the 1981 telepic “The Patricia Neal Story,” which starred Glenda Jackson and Dirk Bogarde.
In 1967, she was honored with “An Evening With Patricia Neal” in New York. And in 1968, President Johnson gave her the Heart of the Year Award from the American Heart Assn.
Presenting the Oscar for foreign-language film at the Academy Awards, she received a standing ovation, to which she responded: “It really is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful to be back with you. I’m sorry I stayed away so long.”
She received a second Oscar nomination for her role as the mother in the 1968 family drama “The Subject Was Roses” opposite Jack Albertson and Martin Sheen.
Though she appeared in several subsequent movies such as “The Night Digger,” “An Unremarkable Life” and “Ghost Story,” much of her better work came from television.
Other TV work included “Tail Gunner Joe,” “Things in their Season,” “The Bastard” and “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
After discovering that Dahl had been having an affair with her best friend for 10 years, the couple divorced in 1983. In 1988, Neal published her autobiography “As I Am.”
Survivors include three daughters, a son, five granddaughters and two grandsons.
(Timothy M. Graycontributed to this report.)