I meant to post the following article immediately after hearing that Hollywood icon Patricia Neal had passed. Better later than never. I had the pleasure of interviewing her a couple times, once by phone and another time in person, and in each instance I felt I was dealing with a member of Hollywood royalty, although she never lorded her status over me. Quite the opposite. She was delightfully informal and humble. My interviews with her, along with seeing her make some public appearances, all happened as a result of several visits she made to Omaha, where I live. The first of these occurred in conjunction with a screening here of The Day the Earth Stood Still. My article below resulted from a phone interview I did with her and the piece appeared in advance of the event. She was the guest of honor at the screening and that was the occasion when I first saw her in person. A few years I later got to meet her when she made two or three appearances at the Great Plains Theatre Conference here. During one of these conference appearances she made her As I Am presentation at the Joslyn Art Museum and afterwards my girlfriend and I were lucky enough to meet her backstage, where I conducted a short interview with her. She was as charming and radiant up close as she was on the phone or on the stage. I was making arrangements with her good friend and fellow actor Joel Vig for me to accompany her to a local bingo parlor – she loved playing bingo – and do a piece about her passion for the game. It never worked out, as her increasingly frail health made travel more difficult.
Her life was filled with great triumphs and tragedies, and I feel privileged to have had my small brushes with her larger than life presence.
Unforgettable Patricia Neal
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
There is an elusive, indefinable yet unmistakable quality separating certain motion picture actors from the pack and, in a bit of celluloid alchemy, transforming them from mere players into bona fide stars. Whatever It is, then Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal has got it. In spades.
With her dreamy eyes, dark hair, fair complexion, musky voice, keen wit and earthy Southern charm she’s cast an indelible presence on the big screen since her 1947 debut. Always at her best playing unadorned, independent women, she still retains an element of mystery about her. She was Alma, the sensuous but no-nonsense housekeeper spurning heartbreaker Paul Newman’s advances in “Hud,” a role which won her the 1963 Oscar for Best Actress. She was Maggie, the tough yet tender nurse romanced by John Wayne in “In Harm’s Way.” And she was the beleaguered but unbowed wife and mother in “The Subject was Roses.”
The spunk this native Kentuckian has displayed as a performer is no act. Her spirited determination in recovering from massive strokes suffered in the mid-1960s has made her a role model for stroke victims and an outspoken champion of physical rehabilitation efforts. Her fight back from the debilitating strokes, which left her partially paralyzed and unable to speak, has been documented in her 1988 autobiography “As I Am” and in a 1981 TV film, “The Patricia Neal Story.” In 1978, her example of courage led Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center in Knoxville, TN, where she grew up, to dedicate the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center.
It isn’t often a genuine Hollywood legend passes through these parts, so you can imagine the buzz building in anticipation of Neal’s scheduled appearance this month at the Indian Hills Theater in Omaha. The actress is coming from her home in New York City for a special revival showing here of one of her earliest and best pictures, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), which she co-starred in with the late Michael Rennie and Hugh Marlowe.
The one-night-only presentation, on Saturday, October 9 at 7:30 p.m., is the latest classic cinema showcase of Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford. In addition to Neal, actor and former child star Billy Gray, who played her son in the film, will be on hand, along with a replica of the film’s famous robot, Gort.
The sold-out event is a fund raiser for Children’s Square USA.
Although largely absent from the screen the past two decades, the 73-year-old Neal, also a noted stage and television actress with a Tony Award and many Emmy nominations to her credit, recently made a triumphant return to the movies with her critically-acclaimed performance as the eccentric, pipe-smoking title character in the Robert Altman feature “Cookie’s Fortune.” There’s even talk Neal may get an Oscar nomination.
She’s come a long way from Packard, KY, the now defunct coal mining camp she was born in in 1926. Her father worked as traffic manager for the local coal company. After moving with her family to Knoxville, she showed an early interest in acting, reciting monologues at church meetings and social gatherings. As a Christmas present her parents enrolled her in acting lessons when she was only seven. After her high school graduation she attended Northwestern University and its prestigious speech and drama department. Two years later she joined her drama coach for summer theater in Eagles Mere, Pa. and then followed her fancy to New York, where like so many aspiring actresses she supported herself with modeling jobs while studying her craft (as an early member of the Actor’s Studio) and auditioning for parts on Broadway. The theater was her first love.
“I wanted to be a STAGE actress,” she emphasized in her throaty voice during a recent phone conversation.
After debuting on Broadway in 1946 she made her mark the next year when she reprised the role of Regina originated by Tallulah Bankhead in Lillian Hellman’s “Another Part of the Forest.” Her performance wowed critics and audiences alike, earning her the coveted Tony and Drama Critics’ Awards. Soon, Hollywood came courting and she signed with Warner Brothers Studio and headed West.
“Well, I was thrilled to go,” she explained. “The play I was in closed and everybody wanted me in Hollywood and so I thought, ‘Why not?’ So I went under contract with Warner Bros. and I was with them three or four years until we parted and then I did some pictures for Metro Goldwyn Mayer, some for 20th Century Fox and some for Universal.”
Her early years in Tinsel Town were frustrating ones. She found it difficult adjusting to the new medium. And it seemed studio moguls were unsure what to make of this lovely new starlet. Neither a glamour queen nor a femme fatale, she was instead a smart down-to-earth woman whose grit let her hold her own with any man on screen, yet whose aura of deep lament lent her an appealing vulnerability. A character actress at heart, she simply didn’t fit the leading lady mold of the day and found herself assigned to a string of weak parts in mediocre pictures.
She ultimately did cause a stir those early years, but not for her acting. When the single Neal’s romantic involvement with married American screen icon Gary Cooper was made public, a scandal ensued. Cooper and Neal had starred together in “The Fountainhead” and “Bright Leaf” and while news of the affair left his stardom untarnished it unquestionably hurt her fledgling career.
Still reeling from her failed tryst, she started work on “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Understandably, she held small hope for the project, which appeared another in a long line of forgettable films. After all, it was “just” a science fiction story, which in that era usually meant a low budget, low brow B-picture aimed at the Saturday matinee crowd.
One plus, however, was its director, Robert Wise, whom she’d worked with previously and admired. Even though Wise was then a still up-and-coming filmmaker, his reputation for quality and professionalism preceded him.
Referring to Wise, she said, “He was very good. A fine director. I had done “Three Secrets’ with him and obviously he liked me because he wanted me for his next one.” Still, she said, she found it hard to take “The Day the Earth Stood Still” seriously. “Oh, I thought it was hysterical when I did it. I didn’t buy all that outer space stuff. I could hardly keep a straight face, but boy it turned out to be a good one didn’t it? Oh, I love that movie.”
Her jaundiced reaction then is understandable given the plot. Capitalizing on the UFO scare at the time, the film opens with a flying saucer landing near the Washington monument. Emerging from the craft is an alien emissary, Klaatu (Rennie), and his robot protector-enforcer, Gort. Klaatu announces an ultimatum: If humans cannot mend their violent ways, Planet Earth will be destroyed. Klaatu is shot and imprisoned and, after escaping, hunted. The strange visitor is finally befriended by Neal’s character, an earnest single mother, and her son. Now regarded as a classic, “Day” is a message picture in the guise of sci-fi. It is both an ageless plea for peace and tolerance and a time-capsule glimpse at the paranoia and tension existing under the placid surface of post-war prosperity.
While all quite silly to Neal, it was business as usual for Billy Gray, then 13 and far too young to appreciate the film’s campy elements or its serious intentions.
“It was more business-like than a romp in the park,” he said by phone from his home in Tapango, Ca. “I didn’t realize how brave it’s subject matter was. I didn’t have any understanding of its message. I’ve had a chance to see the film a few times over the last two decades and it’s amazing how well it holds up as a piece of movie making. You buy into it even though it’s a bit stylized. You accept the concept and just go along for the ride.”
After the film Gray went on to his best-remembered role, as Bud, in TV’s popular “Father Knows Best” series. He still acts occasionally on TV and in theater.
Following the film Patricia Neal appeared in a few more pictures before returning to the stage. She met and married author Roald Dahl, now deceased, and started a family with him. The couple eventually raised five children in his native Great Britain. In 1957 she was lured back to Hollywood by the opportunity to appear in “A Face in the Crowd,” a brilliantly-written and acted film under the direction of Elia Kazan, who directed her on stage in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Despite glowing notices, the film did little for Neal’s career, so she resumed stage work and raised her children.
As the decade of the ‘60s dawned, Neal and her family endured a series of tragedies that ironically coincided with her greatest success as a movie actress. First, her infant son Theo suffered severe injuries when hit by a taxi in his pram. Next, her daughter Olivia contracted measles encephalitis and died at age seven.
“Sad things have happened in our family,” she said.
Then, in 1962, along came “Hud,” and the Oscar. In 1965 she was fresh off co-starring in Otto Preminger’s “In Harm’s Way” when she started work on legendary director John Ford’s last film “Seven Women.” It was while in production on the Ford film that Neal, then three months pregnant, suffered the strokes that altered her life.
Neal credits Dahl with devising an innovative rehabilitation program enlisting the intensive aid of family and friends. Little by little her recovery progressed.
“Roald didn’t like the idea the doctors were going to send a person once a week for 15 minutes, so he had all my friends come in and teach me, and that was so good. They played bridge and croquet with me. It really worked perfectly. Roald did a lot, you know.”
Years later, she and Dahl divorced.
Miraculously, the child Neal was pregnant with at the time of her strokes was born a healthy girl, named Lucy. It turns out Lucy is her lucky charm.
Neal, who made her a heroic film comeback in “The Subject was Roses,” had not done a feature since 1989 when Lucy, now a screenwriter, ran into director Robert Altman at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and discovered he was still looking for someone to fill the title role of Cookie in his new film. Lucy suggested her mom. Altman liked the idea. Later, Lucy arranged for the two to meet at a part she threw at her Hollywood home. Altman hired Neal on the spot.
As Cookie, Neal plays a colorful older woman who talks a blue streak, just the kind of part she likes sinking her teeth into. “Oh, I loved it. I’m a character actress. I’m meant to be 85 in it, but I ain’t that old, so I’m really made up. I have a wig on. It’s fantastic.”
Asked to explain her method of creating characters, she answers: “I sort of have an actor’s feeling for things. That’s all I can tell you. I just do my best.” When it’s suggested she purposely shunned fame, she surprisingly replies, “Oh, I’d like to be a star. I’d like to be a bigger star than I am. But I’ve done all right.”
Finally, asked to venture why so few roles have come her way recently, she quips, “Oh, I don’t know, but I’m getting, shall we say, not a lot younger.”
When not acting she stays busy traveling as an enthusiastic participant in the Theater Guild’s Theater-At-Sea cruise programs, which have taken her from Alaska to Australia. “I love to travel. Oh, it’s gorgeous.” From Omaha she’ll travel to Atlanta to belatedly celebrate the 100th birthday of her mother, Eura Petrie Neal.
She often visits with fellow stroke victims and is a vocal advocate for rehab efforts addressing the whole person. She’s pleased by the progress made in brain injury therapy. “It’s wondrous what they do now for people with strokes.”
Also a frequent public speaker, Neal talks about her life and recovery in the hope she can provide inspiration to other disabled individuals. Her simple message: “Never give up.”
- Knoxville friends mourn loss of iconic actress Patricia Neal (knoxnews.com)
- Patricia Neal: American actress and former wife of Roald Dahl who won an Oscar for her performance in ‘Hud’ (independent.co.uk)
- Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal dies at age 84 (today.msnbc.msn.com)
- Patricia Neal’s Heart (onecatholicnews.wordpress.com)
- A Q & A with Theater Director Marshall Mason, Who Discusses the Process of Creating Life on Stage (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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