The Gershwin Theatre is the scene for the 33rd annual Theater Hall of Fame honors on Monday, January 26. Overseen by Terry Hodge Taylor, the induction ceremony celebrates nine honorees -- three deceased (Madeline Kahn, Peter Stone, and Julian Beck) and six living: Judith Malina (Beck's widow), Vanessa Redgrave, Kevin Kline, Jane Greenwood, Richard Wilbur, and the ever-lovely Patricia Neal.
Hosting the evening and introducing Neal is Marian Seldes, who has known the honoree "since the 1940s, when I saw her in Another Part of the Forest" -- Neal's Broadway debut, for which she won the very first Best Featured Actress Tony Award in 1947. "She deserves the honor," says Seldes, "not just because she's a great actress but because she's a great woman. That voice, the face, her beauty -- extraordinary! When you spend time with her, you feel lucky. She treats people beautifully and has such radiance."
As I speak with Pat Neal in her East End Avenue apartment, her smiles and laughter brighten the room. She's "deeply grateful" to receive her latest honor. The actress downplays the tragedies in her life, including the death at age eight of her firstborn, Olivia; her son Theo's brain injury, which occurred when his pram was struck by a Manhattan taxi; the three strokes in 1965 that nearly claimed her life; and her divorce from writer Roald Dahl after a 30-year marriage. "Other families have suffered worse," observes Neal, "such as the Kennedys."
Neal's awards room is adorned with numerous plaques, trophies, and photographs; her 1963 Best Actress Oscar for Hud, two Best Actress British Academy Awards (Hud, In Harm's Way), and her Tony Award, "a compact with P.N. engraved on it. Isn't it good to be there at the beginning?" (For the first two years of the Tonys, actresses received compacts and actors got money clips.)
The second of three children, Patsy Lou Neal began life in Packard, Kentucky, a mining town that later ceased to exist. At three, she moved with her family across the border to Knoxville, Tennessee. Inspired by a woman monologist, the youngster requested drama lessons and began performing dramatic monologues. At Knoxville High, she had the lead in And Along Came Spring and directed Jane Eyre. She also acted with the Tennessee Valley Players and a favorable review brought her to the famed Barter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia. Neal spent the summer of 1942 as a Barter apprentice and had the lead in Thunder Rock, which played an engagement in Knoxville. In summer stock she played in Hay Fever; as a Northwestern University student,
she portrayed Olivia in Twelfth Night. After her sophomore year, she came to New York.
"I started as an understudy -- not good enough," declares Neal, speaking of her first Broadway job in The Voice of the Turtle. She covered the roles of Sally and Olive (played by Martha Scott and Vicki Cummings, respectively) in John Van Druten's long-running comedy. Producer Alfred de Liagre "changed my name to Pah-TREE-sha," Neal relates. "Soon after I was hired, they sent me to the Chicago company [which starred Hugh Marlowe, K.T. Stevens, and Vivian Vance]. On New Year's Eve , I had to go on for Vivian. Hughie was frightened to death because I was so young. The first night, I was magnificent; the second night, not so good. I almost played Olive one night in New York: Vicki Cummings had to go to Boston and got caught in snow. I was all made up, with my costume on, when she arrived. 'Oh, you break my heart,' I told her. She said, 'You want to go on, go on.' I said, 'You'd better ask Martha Scott,' who insisted that Vicki play her part."
Neal was billed fourth in the comedy Bigger Than Barnum, which opened a pre-Broadway engagement in Boston in 1946. It lasted six performances and she returned to her understudy job in Turtle. She also auditioned for A Moon for the Misbegotten -- which was not to be produced until years later -- and met Eugene O'Neill in the process. According to Neal, "We became very good friends. He once told me, 'If I were young, I would be very much in love with you.'"
During the summer of 1946, Neal had the role of a hillbilly named "Wildcat" in something called Devil Takes a Whittler at Connecticut's Westport Playhouse. Her performance brought her two good offers: Richard Rodgers, who was producing Norman Krasna's John Loves Mary, asked her to play the female lead, and Lillian Hellman's agent asked her to read for Another Part of the Forest, the playwright's prequel to The Little Foxes. Neal accepted the latter; ironically, she would make her 1949 screen debut in the movie version of John Loves Mary.
Another Part of the Forest, which Hellman also directed, made Neal a Broadway sensation at 20. As Regina Hubbard, she won a Theater World Award as well as a Tony. She was hailed as "a young Tallulah Bankhead," a reference to the actress who had played Regina in The Little Foxes. Neal recalls that Bankhead "came to see me and said, 'Dah-ling, you were as good as I was -- and if I said you were half as good, it would have been a hell of a compliment!'" Neal remembers that, when she signed for Forest, "The third act was not yet written. I was in it very little, which pissed me off." Playing her mother was Mildred Dunnock, who would become a dear friend and who would play herself in the 1981 TV movie The Patricia Neal Story, which starred Glenda Jackson as Neal and Dirk Bogarde as Dahl. "I adored Millie," says Neal. "She was a great woman."
Prior to a tour of Another Part of the Forest, Neal worked at Elitch's Garden Theater in Denver, appearing in several roles including Saint Joan and Elizabeth Barrett. After the Forest tour, she was invited to join Robert Lewis's advanced class at The Actors Studio, along with Marlon Brando, Maureen Stapleton, Anne Jackson, Eli Wallach, Herbert Berghof, and Mildred Dunnock.
Signed by Warners, Neal went to Hollywood. John Loves Mary was the first of two films, both based on Broadway hits, in which she played opposite Ronald Reagan; the second was The Hasty Heart (1950). Reagan's marriage to Jane Wyman was ending at the time, and Neal says this was "because she had won the Oscar. He was so sad! When we went to England to make Hasty Heart, we'd have meals together. He didn't want anybody [due to the divorce] and I didn't, either [since she had begun a romance with Gary Cooper]. It is tragic that he has Alzheimer's."
Between her pictures with Reagan, Neal co-starred in The Fountainhead, her first of two films with Gary Cooper. Though 25 years older and married, he became the love of her life. Neither The Fountainhead nor Bright Leaf (1950), her second feature with Cooper, was a success. Over a half-century later, Neal remains bitter that the part she wanted in Bright Leaf went to Lauren Bacall: "I could have killed her! They wouldn't test me for that part; they wanted me to play the bitch."
In 1951, Neal made Operation Pacific, her first of two pictures with John Wayne. "I hated him in the first film," she tells me. "He was getting a divorce and trying to direct the movie. He was a horror! But in the next one [In Harm's Way (1965)], he was happily married and was so great to me. I love our scenes together. We got along superbly."
"Klaatu barada nikto" was the now-famous line that Neal delivered to a robot in The
Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Robert Wise's science-fiction classic. She remembers that Michael Rennie, her co-star, "got a little pissed off at me because, each time I tried to say it, I laughed. Now I see the film and I think it's good." During her first four years in Hollywood, Neal made 14 films; she also appeared at the La Jolla Playhouse, opposite Vincent Price, in T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party.
Neal returned to Broadway in a 1952 revival of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, again under the writer's own direction. "It was such a fabulous reading that I could choose between the two leads," Neal relates, "so I chose Martha." Cast as Karen was Kim Hunter, whom Neal "loved so much. I spoke at her memorial." In June 1953, Neal appeared at Off-Broadway's Theater de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel) in a
repertory engagement of The School for Scandal and The Scarecrow; she was part of a company that included Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, and James Dean. She then toured with The Children's Hour before returning to Broadway in A Roomful of Roses (1955), directed by Guthrie McClintic. (In the film
version, entitled Teenage Rebel, Ginger Rogers played Neal's role.)
During Barbara Bel Geddes's three-week vacation from the original Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1956, Neal took over as Maggie the Cat. "I loved playing Maggie," she says. "I had done a scene from it at the Studio and [director Elia] Kazan put me in the Broadway company. I got to work with dear Millie Dunnock [Big Mama] again." Kazan also cast Neal as Marcia Jeffries in A Face in the Crowd (1957), one of her favorite films; her other favorites are Hud, In Harm's Way, and The Subject Was Roses. Released in 1968, Roses was the first movie she made following her strokes.
Neal had been offered the part of Nettie Cleary in Roses on Broadway but had to
decline because of a conflict with the shooting schedule of In Harm's Way. (Irene
Dailey played the role.) The film version co-starred the two original Broadway actors, Jack Albertson and Martin Sheen. Neal received a second Academy Award nomination for her performance; she recalls, "That was the year that Katharine Hepburn [The Lion in Winter] and Barbra Streisand [Funny Girl] tied."
In 1956, she expected to play the lead in N. Richard Nash's Girls of Summer on Broadway but discovered that, somehow, Shelley Winters had managed to get the part. Neal makes a ferocious face as she hisses Winters's name: "Can you imagine that she did that to me? I blame Shelley -- and I also blame the producer [Cheryl Crawford]." The role of Catherine Holly in Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer, which Neal played at the London Arts Theater in September 1958, remains her favorite
stage role. Producer Sam Spiegel bought the film rights, supposedly with the intention of starring Neal in the movie, but the part went to Elizabeth Taylor. "That was the hardest professional blow of my life," says Neal. In 1959, Neal returned to Broadway to play Helen Keller's mother in The Miracle Worker. "I said that I'd do it but I knew I wouldn't get leading parts afterwards," Neal remarks; Patty Duke played Helen and Anne Bancroft had the starring role of her teacher, Annie Sullivan.
On British TV, Neal starred in adaptations of Clash by Night, The Country Girl (opposite Eddie Albert), Biography, The Royal Family, and The Days and Nights of Bee-Bee Fenstermaker. Among her American television credits are three for which Neal received Emmy nominations: as Olivia Walton in The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (the forerunner to The Waltons series), Tail-Gunner Joe (in which she portrayed Sen. Margaret Chase Smith), and All Quiet on the Western Front (as the dying mother of a German soldier played by Richard Thomas, a.k.a. John-Boy Walton).
A proud mother, Neal tells me that "Theo was cured of his brain injury. Now he's married and lives in Fort Myers, Florida. Lucy [with whom Neal was pregnant when she had her strokes] lives in California; she's married, has two daughters and two stepdaughters. Ophelia lives in Cambridge, just outside of Boston, and is writing a book on Roald Dahl. Tessa's here now but is going back to England; she's married to a very nice and very rich man. Sophie Dahl, her daughter, my granddaughter [a successful model], is a love and a beauty. Her father is Julian Holloway [son of Stanley Holloway of My Fair Lady fame]. Tessa and Julian never married."
As we each enjoy a Jack Daniel's and water, Neal shows me her awards room. She tells me that, right before the holidays, she went to Atlanta for a Robert Osborne cable-TV interview that will air on TCM in June. Come February, Neal will take another of her frequent Theater Guild cruises, sailing aboard the new Queen Mary: "I'll give my speech, 'An Unquiet Life.' I'll answer questions and maybe sing. I like to sing!"
Photo gallery loading...
Patricia Neal in a publicity photo for The Children's Hour...
...with Ronald Reagan in the John Loves Mary film...
...with Wesley Addy (seated) and Scott McKay in Another Part of the Forest...
...with Michael Rennie and the robot Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still...
...with Patty Duke and Torin Thatcher in The Miracle Worker.