who rebuilt a troubled career to win an Academy Award only to face a
more desperate battle for survival when three strokes left her
paralyzed and unable to speak or remember, has died. She was 84.
Neal died Sunday of lung cancer at her home in
A succession of tragedies marked the life of the actress whose bright promise on
Her infant son’s brain was damaged when his stroller was struck by a
taxicab, a daughter died as a result of measles and then — only a year
after she finally won critical acclaim and an Oscar for her portrayal
of the weary housekeeper in the 1963 film “Hud” — she suffered three
strokes that appeared to end her career.
With the determined help of her husband, Neal
recovered sufficiently to return to films, but then lost Dahl to
another woman whom she had accepted as a friend.
“I am bitter, yes,” she told an interviewer in 1984,
the year after she divorced Dahl. “But I keep remembering that Roald
and I had some good times together … and he did so much for me after
my strokes …. It was a terrible blow when I found out.”
After 30 years of living in
and wished for more opportunities to perform. “My problem is convincing
people that I’m well again and able to work,” she said. “Of course, the
right side of my body has been a bit of a mess since my strokes, but
otherwise I’m fine.”
She never really got over Cooper, the great love of
her life. In her 1988 autobiography, “As I Am,” she wrote, “He is one
of the most beautiful things that ever happened to me in my life. I
love him even now.”
But Cooper remained a married man until his death, and the affair left Neal crushed.
She was born
where the family moved while she was in grammar school, she was
precocious and showed talent in reciting monologues at church
Her parents encouraged her, and she received
dramatic coaching at 12. She performed with the Tennessee Valley
Players and then studied drama at
After two years there, Neal went to
There, she was seen by
who wanted to cast her as the female lead in “John Loves Mary.” She
chose the Hellman play — and that 1947 engagement brought her five
major awards, including a Tony and the New York Drama Critics’ Award.
It also brought her several screen offers. She signed with
Appearing in the movie with her were actors
She also made “Hasty Heart” at Warner’s with Reagan. Years later, when
he was in the White House, she told an interviewer, “He was a pleasant
fellow. We had adjoining suites and dined together each evening, but he
never made a pass at me, dash it all.”
Neal’s film career, however, did not deliver on the promise of her early stage success.
She made nine films in three years, the most notable
of which probably was “The Fountainhead” (1949), in which she portrayed
the spoiled, neurotic Dominique of
Her co-star was Cooper. She was sneered at by the critics, who also
panned “The Bright Leaf” (1950), the second film in which she starred
“Three Secrets” (1950), “Operation Pacific” (1951), “
(1951), “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), “Diplomatic Courier”
(1952) and “Something for the Birds” (1952) were hardly films to make
her a memorable star.
was cast in heavy romantic roles, silly little comedies, sophisticated,
lacquered-beauty roles — everything that was wrong for her.”
Her unhappiness was growing, too, because of her futile romance with Cooper.
“He was married,” she pointed out 30 years later,
“and declined to leave his wife. And rightly so.” Some published
accounts suggested that the affair led her to a nervous breakdown.
Having been suspended by
Later she recalled that she just wasn’t ready for the movies the first
time around. “I blame nobody but myself and my immaturity,” she said.
She returned to
In 1953, she married Dahl, an RAF flier who had been shot down early in World War II and assigned to a post in
where he began writing short stories. It was Dahl who invented the term
“gremlins” for the mythical creatures blamed for flying problems during
After their marriage, Neal’s television and stage
work enabled Dahl to continue writing short stories at his measured
pace. They bought a home in
As she rebuilt that career, she played in
She also scored a film success in “A Face in the Crowd” with
But that same year the first tragedy struck. Her infant son, Theo, was being wheeled across a
street by a nurse when the stroller was struck by a passing cab. The
child underwent a series of operations and was left with water on the
Two years later, her daughter, Olivia, 7, died from brain inflammation after a case of measles.
In 1963 she made “Hud” with
“It’s strange to find myself suddenly in demand again,” she said after that abrupt return to the
spotlight. “My professional life in the last few years falls into two
sections, pre-‘Hud’ and post-‘Hud.’ I’m not a very ambitious woman and
had been very happy just living with my family in the country, perhaps
making a film every couple of years.”
She then appeared in other films, “Psyche 59” and “In Harm’s Way.”
39, after the first day of filming for “Seven Women,” she suffered a
brain hemorrhage while giving her oldest daughter, Tessa, 8, a bath.
She had two more strokes after her arrival at the
Neal, who was pregnant, was in a coma for more than
two weeks and on the critical list for three. Throughout that time, her
husband sat by her bedside day after day talking to her, trying to
penetrate the darkness.
When she finally was allowed to return to their rented
home, Dahl described her as “exceedingly cheerful.” He called her “a
tremendous fighter.” But her entire right side was paralyzed. She was
partially blind. She had no memory and she could not speak.
Three months later, however, as she left
the actress was able to joke haltingly with reporters about her speech
difficulty. She walked with a brace on her right leg and there was
lingering evidence of her paralysis. She had a black patch over her
she gave birth to another daughter, Lucy, and went through prolonged
therapy at the insistence of her husband, who was determined that she
recover. He had her swimming in a hospital pool, walking, playing
memory games and doing crossword puzzles. A strong-willed friend,
“I loathed life when I first went back to
Neal subsequently said. “I had exercises to do every day. My husband
had people coming in to teach me — three a day. I wanted to commit
suicide, but I didn’t know how.”
Farrell said in his book, “Pat and Roald,” that Dahl
kept predicting a 100 percent recovery, which distressed friends who
didn’t believe it. But in six months, the actress began to perk up and
smile a little.
remembered clearly from then on, she suddenly “wanted to live again.”
She said, “When I ‘woke up’ and had been ill for 18 months, I began to
like life again.”
real public appearance since being stricken. At the insistence of her
husband, she spoke to 2,000 people in
at a benefit for the New York Association for Brain Injured Children.
In that speech, she told of the friends who, with incredible patience,
had struggled to turn “a complete idiot … an enormous pink cabbage
… into a human being again.”
And she gave most of the credit to Dahl: “My husband is a great man. I love him.”
In her autobiography, however, she wrote that she
did not love Dahl when she married him but that she admired him and
wanted children. As the
“I knew at that moment that Roald the slave driver,
Roald the bastard, with his relentless scourge, Roald the Rotten, as I
had called him more than once, had thrown me back into the deep water.
Where I belonged.”
Her husband also pushed her into appearing at the
1967 Academy Awards ceremony to present the best foreign film award. As
she did after her
Although initially reluctant to attempt stage parts
because of her difficulty memorizing lines, Neal was cast in the 1968
film “The Subject Was Roses” with
It was regarded as a triumph.
then the Los Angeles Times’ entertainment editor, noted that traces of
her physical problems, a slight deliberateness of movement and speech,
only made her performance more credible.
She had not wanted to do the film, she admitted to a reporter. Her husband made her do it.
And although she said then she was not particularly
interested in more movie parts, she worked in “The Road Builder” (a
1970 English film written by Dahl), “Widow’s Nest” (1977), “The
Passage” (1979), “Ghost Story” (1981) and “All Quiet on the Western
Front” (1980). In 1999, she starred in the
She made her television debut in “The Homecoming”
(1971), which launched “The Waltons” series. She, however, did not work
in the long-running series.
By 1984, she confided to a writer, she was weary of
being told she was brave, courageous and plucky. She was, she said,
just someone who had absorbed more than her share of rotten luck.
“I’m going to start living my life again,” she said then. “Its time for good things to happen to me, don’t you agree?”
A complete list of survivors was not available.
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