Actress Patricia Neal, who died Sunday, Aug. 8, 2010 at the age of 84, touched the lives of many during her illustrious stage and film career. But she touched even more lives through the hope and inspiration she brought to patients at the rehabilitation center named in her honor in her hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. Opened in 1978 at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center, the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center cares for patients suffering from disabilities and traumatic life events such as strokes, spinal cord injuries, and brain injuries. A stroke survivor herself, Ms. Neal was a frequent visitor to the center.
In 1965, in the middle of a successful film career, Ms. Neal experienced three massive strokes. Few would have anticipated that she would resume her career, or that she would live an abundant life as a performer and author who loved travel and was known for her elegance, perseverance, and sense of humor. In fact, many were convinced that she died after the trauma of the strokes. “Patricia Neal, 39, last year’s Oscar-winning best actress who copped five prizes for her first Broadway performance in 1947, died at midnight last night at UCLA Medical Center,” read a front-page banner headline in the February 22, 1965 issue of Variety. Although the newspaper editors and many others thought she had died, Patricia Neal refused to let that be her fate. She remained in a coma for 21 days following the strokes, refusing to give up.
“I think I was born stubborn, that’s all,” she said. “I almost died many times from broken hearts…when my daughter Olivia died, when my baby son Theo was hit by a car, and when I had my strokes. There were many who didn’t think I would pull through. I had to have an operation that lasted seven hours, and I know very well my doctor thought I would conk out in the middle of it; but as I told him later, we Tennessee hillbillies don’t conk that easy, so I stayed alive.”
Patsy Louise Neal was born January 20, 1926. Even in her youth, growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, she recognized her interest in acting and frequently recited monologues at church and other gatherings. As a Christmas present from her parents, she was given acting lessons when she was 12. Her teacher was Emily Mahan Faust of Knoxville. Neal counted Faust and her college drama coach, Alvina Krause, among her greatest inspirations.
After two years at Northwestern University and summer theatre work in Pennsylvania, Miss Neal headed for New York. She got her first job as understudy for the two main female parts of Voice of the Turtle. Now calling herself Patricia instead of Patsy Louise, she was cast by the Theatre Guild in the summer theatre production of Devil Take the Whistler, where she was seen by Lillian Hellman, Richard Rodgers, and Eugene O’Neill. Shortly thereafter, she accepted an offer from Miss Hellman to play in Another Part of the Forest, for which she received several awards including a Tony and the Drama Critics Award for Best New Actress. She had become a star, and she was not yet 20.
Her triumphant stage success in 1946 led to many offers from Hollywood where Miss Neal signed with Warner Brothers and proceeded to make 13 movies in the next four years, including John Loves Mary and The Hasty Heart with Ronald Reagan, The Fountainhead and Bright Leaf with Gary Cooper, Diplomatic Courier with Tyrone Powers, and Operation Pacific with John Wayne. While continuing to appear in films, both in Hollywood and England, she returned intermittently to the stage, where she did The Children’s Hour, A Room Full of Roses, Suddenly Last Summer, and The Miracle Worker. She met author Roald Dahl during this time, and they were married on July 2, 1953.
But tragedy struck three times. A taxi hit their infant son, Theo, while in his carriage and caused severe injuries, requiring him to undergo extensive rehabilitation. The eldest of five children, Olivia, contracted measles encephalitis and died at the age of seven. Resolving to go on with life, Miss Neal continued her acting career and won an Academy Award (Oscar) as Best Actress in 1964 for her performance with Paul
Newman in Hud, and then filmed In Harm’s Way with John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, and Larry Hagman.
At the peak of her success, when she had started work with director John Ford, Anne Bancroft, and Eddie Albert on MGM’s Seven Women, tragedy struck again. On February 17, 1965, when she was three months pregnant, she suffered a series of strokes which left her partially paralyzed. Undaunted, Miss Neal began a successful struggle through years of rehabilitation. Her fifth child, Lucy was born healthy.
Miss Neal returned to her career and received an Academy Award nomination for The Subject Was Roses with Martin Sheen. Distinguished television roles including The Homecoming, The Lou Gehrig Story, and All’s Quiet on the Western Front garnered three Emmy nominations.
In 1978, Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center dedicated the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. Since then the center has served more than 28,000 inpatients and 86,000 outpatients, as they re-learn to walk, talk, eat and live independently following stroke, traumatic injury and disease. Miss Neal has become a champion in the rehabilitation field and a worldwide symbol of hope and victory to stroke victims and others with disabilities.
“I’ve learned many lessons in life, but the most important is this – be tenacious and determined, even in old age,” said Miss Neal. She continued her acting career in addition to traveling and lecturing extensively. Her autobiography, As I Am, was published in 1988 by Simon & Schuster and has been reprinted all over the world. She appeared with Glenn Close in the movie Cookie’s Fortune in 1999, and was featured in Lifetime’s television movie Flying By with Billy Ray Cyrus in 2009.
Miss Neal visited the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center each year until her death. Those visits were a source of great inspiration for the patients and staff. She paused to hear each patient’s story, applauded their triumphs over adversity, and encouraged them to continue the fight. Miss Neal’s tenacity and determination are an enduring legacy for the Center that bears her name.
On the eve of her death, Miss Neal told her family, “I’ve had a lovely time.”
- Another Part of the Forest (1946)
- The Children’s Hour (1952)
- A Roomful of Roses (1955)
- The Miracle Worker (1958)
- Suddenly Last Summer (1958, London)
- John Loves Mary (1949)
- The Fountainhead (1949)
- The Hasty Heart (1949)
- The Breaking Point (1950)
- Bright Leaf (1950)
- Three Secrets (1950)
- Operation Pacific (1951)
- Raton Pass (1951)
- Weekend with Father (1951)
- The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
- Something for the Birds (1952)
- Diplomatic Courier (1952)
- Washington Story (1952)
- A Face in the Crowd (1957)
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
- Hud (1963)
- Psych ’59 (1964)
- In Harm’s Way (1965)
- The Subject Was Roses (1968)
- The Night Digger (1971)
- Baxter (1973)
- Happy Mother’s Day, Love George (1973)
- Widow’s Nest (1976)
- The Passage (1979)
- Ghost Story (1981)
- An Unremarkable Life (1989)
- Cookie’s Fortune (1999)
- The Homecoming (1971)
- Little House on the Prairie (1975)
- Including Me (1977)
- Tailgunner Joe (1977)
- The Bastard (1978)
- All Quiet on the Western Front (1979)
- The Nun Story (1981)
- The Country Girl (BBC Television)
- Days & Nights of Bee Finsternmaker (BBC)
- The Royal Family (BBC)
- Clash by Night (BBC)
- Murder, She Wrote (1990)
- A Mother’s Right (1992)
- Heidi (1993)
Subject of TV Movie:
The Patricia Neal Story (1981), Starring Glenda Jackson
Another Part of the Forest – NY Critic’s Award, Tony Look Magazine’s Best New Actress
In Harm’s Way – British Academy Award
The Subject Was Roses – Academy Award Nomination
Hud – Academy Award, Best Actress; NY Film Critic’s Award British Academy Award, Best Foreign Actress
The Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center and this website are not associated with any entertainment organizations or fan clubs for Ms. Neal.
Photos and memorabilia from Ms. Neal’s career are not available from the Center or through this website.