Saturday, August 14, 2010

Remembering Patricia Neal

What a life force Patricia Neal was.
As I remember we met on a park bench in a Toronto park in 1973 --she was promoting a little seen Canadian movie (Happy Mother's Day, Love George) she'd made with Ron Howard playing her son and her own daughter Tessa Dahl in a small part.
In 1965 she'd suffered a series of brain aneuryisms that had left her paralyzed and unable to talk. Yet with prodding from her husband Roald Dahl she did walk and talk again.
And act, too.
I remembered interviewing her on the phone to promote her 1971 CBS TV movie The Happening. That's right, she was the original Ma Walton and she looked forward to making the series.
But CBS replaced her and co-star Andrew Duggan because the network was looking for younger actors to portray the parents. And quite frankly CBS executives whispered they were not sure Neal could act on a weekly basis.
"I could have," Neal mumbled with some bitterness. "I would have."
Born in 1926 in Packard, Kentucky, Neal stormed Broadway, aged 21, in the star part in Lillian Hellman's play Another Part Of The Forest (the prequel to the Little Foxes) and won a Tony.
Hired by Warners she debuted in the innocuous 1949 comedy John Loves Mary opposite Ronald Reagan. "Not a good actor, not a good president but a nice man," she giggled.
Her second movie The Fountainhead opposite Gary Cooper was "a bomb. Stinker." But she started a three year affair that only ended when Cooper returned to his wife.
She returned to Broadway and did lots of live TV and still managed a few great movie turns: A Face In The Crowd (1957), Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961) and Hud (1964) which won her a coveted Oscar.
And she rebuilt her career after the stroke with The Subject Was Roses (1968), Ghost Story (1980) and dozens of TV appearances. But even in 1973 she was hunting for parts and in her last decade only made a few appearances preferring to devote her energies to helping the handicapped.
With all the bad things that happened to her (the death of a child from measles, the accident of her little boy being hit by a truck in his pram) it was natural for people to compare her life to a Greek tragedy.
But I found her gentle and reserved that day and still beautiful.
And she would have made a fine Olivia Walton in the series.

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