Obituary: Patricia Neal

Oscar-winning actress who married writer Roald Dahl had a life tinged with tragedy

• Patricia Neal, actress.

Born: 20 January, 1926, in Packard, Kentucky.

Died: 8 August, 2010, in Edgartown, Massachusetts, aged 84.

Patricia Neal was an Oscar-winning actress whose life alternated between triumph and tragedy. In 1964 she received an Academy Award as best actress for her performance as the tough, shopworn housekeeper who did not succumb to Paul Newman's amoral charm in Hud. But a year later, she had three strokes, leaving her in a coma for three weeks. Although she was left semi-paralysed and unable to spea, she learned to walk and talk again.

Despite a severely impaired memory that made it difficult to remember dialogue, she returned to the screen in 1968 as the bitter mother who used her son as a weapon against her husband in The Subject Was Roses. Once again, she was nominated for an Academy Award.

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Her career had started swiftly and brilliantly. Before she was 21, she had swept the major acting prizes for her Broadway debut in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest. Her photograph was on the cover of Life magazine.

Signed to a seven-year contract by Warner Brothers, she went to Hollywood as the sought-after young actress of her day. She had talent, a husky, unforgettable voice and an arresting presence but no training in acting in front of a camera. Of her movie debut opposite Ronald Reagan in the comedy John Loves Mary (1949), Bosley Crowther, the movie critic for the New York Times, wrote that she showed "little to recommend her to further comedy jobs" and added: "Her way with a gag line is painful."

Yet Neal had already been assigned the role that Barbara Stanwyck and other top actresses coveted - the leonine Dominique in the film adaptation of Ayn Rand's best-selling novel The Fountainhead (1949). As Dominique was swept away by the uncompromising, godlike architect Howard Roark, the 23-year-old actress fell passionately in love with the 48-year-old movie star who played Roark, Gary Cooper. Their affair burned brightly for three years but ended when Cooper chose not to leave his wife and daughter.

The Fountainhead was a failure. Neal saw it at a Hollywood premiere. "You knew, from the very first reel, it was destined to be a monumental bomb," she said. "My status changed immediately. That was the end of my career as a second Garbo."

Her next movie, Bright Leaf (1950), an epic story of a 19th-century tobacco farmer played by Cooper, was also a failure. Ill served by Warner Brothers, Neal acquired screen technique while being wasted in a series of mediocre movies. The exceptions were The Hasty Heart (1950), in which she played a nurse who tries to comfort a dying soldier, and The Breaking Point (1950), based on Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, in which she played a tramp opposite John Garfield. "Warners finally let me know they weren't so keen on my staying on," Neal said in an interview. "They didn't fire me. I took the hint."

She was 27 and apparently washed up in Hollywood after five years and 13 movies when Lillian Hellman insisted that she star in the Broadway revival of her play The Children's Hour in 1952. It was at Hellman's house that Neal met a writer of macabre short stories, Roald Dahl - the man she would marry in 1953 and who would be the father of their five children during a troubled, 30-year marriage that was marred by tragedy.

In 1957, Neal triumphantly returned to the screen in A Face in the Crowd. Demonstrating an authority, a range and a subtlety that she had lacked before, she won acclaim for her portrayal of a radio reporter who builds the career of a folksy guitarist (played by Andy Griffith).

As the 1950s ended, she appeared to great acclaim in Suddenly Last Summer in London and The Miracle Worker on Broadway then went on to even greater screen success in Hud and In Harm's Way with John Wayne. Riding the crest, she signed to star in the John Ford movie Seven Women. But at 39 and pregnant with her fifth child, she was struck down by the strokes.

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Neal was born Patsy Lou, the daughter of a coal mine manager. At the age of ten, she attended an evening of monologues in the basement of a Methodist church and wrote a note to Santa Claus: "What I want for Christmas is to study dramatics." By the time she entered high school, Patsy Neal was giving monologues at every local social club and had won the Tennessee State Award for dramatic reading.

After two years as a drama major at Northwestern University, she learned that the Theatre Guild needed a tall girl to play the lead in Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten and headed for New York. Alfred de Liagre, the producer of Voice of the Turtle, gave her a job understudying the two female leads and insisted his new actress call herself Patricia.

Success came quickly and easily. She was seen by Eugene O'Neill, who became her mentor, and in less than 24 hours, she had two offers to star on Broadway. Neal turned down Richard Rodgers' offer of the lead in John Loves Mary for Another Part of the Forest.

During her affair with Cooper, she became pregnant. She had an abortion and according to her 1988 autobiography, she cried herself to sleep for 30 years afterwards. "If I had only one thing to do over in my life," she wrote, "I would have that baby."

Desperate to have children, she married Dahl, even though, she wrote in her autobiography, she did not then love him. A former RAF fighter pilot who became a renowned writer of children's books such as James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl took control of her life. After their four-month-old son, Theo, was left brain-damaged when his pram was crushed between a taxi and a bus on a New York street in December 1960, Dahl decided they would move permanently to the village of Great Missenden in England. Two years later, their eldest daughter, Olivia, who was seven, died of measles encephalitis.

Neal survived the strokes because of the knowledge Dahl had acquired during the years when Theo had eight brain operations. After the shunt that drained fluid from Theo's brain kept clogging, Dahl worked for two years with a retired engineer and a neurosurgeon to design and manufacture a better one, the Wade-Dahl-Till valve.

When his wife collapsed in their rented Beverly Hills house, Dahl knew enough about her symptoms to immediately call one a leading neurosurgeons. Fourteen days after a seven-hour operation to stop the bleeding, the neurosurgeon told Dahl his wife would live.

Dahl badgered his wife into getting well. He nagged her into walking, held things out of her reach until she managed to ask for them, arranged for hours of physical and speech therapy each day.

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Early in 1967, he announced she was ready to perform and would give a speech in New York that spring at a charity dinner for brain-damaged children. Terrified, Neal worked day after day to memorise the speech, which she delivered to thundering applause.

As she wrote in her autobiography: "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."

She and Dahl were later divorced after she discovered he had been having a long affair with one of her best friends. Dahl died in 1990.

She is survived by four children, Tessa, Ophelia, Theo and Lucy, ten grandchildren - including the writer and model Sophie Dahl - and a great-grandchild.

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