Knoxville friends mourn loss of iconic actress Patricia Neal

Actress Patricia Neal is shown during an interview in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday, April 21, 2008. Neal, who grew up in Knoxville, won an Academy Award opposite Paul Newman in 'Hud,' received a lifetime achievement award at the Nashville Film Festival Tuesday, April 22, 2008.

Photo by Mark Humphrey, AP

Actress Patricia Neal is shown during an interview in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday, April 21, 2008. Neal, who grew up in Knoxville, won an Academy Award opposite Paul Newman in "Hud," received a lifetime achievement award at the Nashville Film Festival Tuesday, April 22, 2008.

Actress Patricia Neal is shown during an interview in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday, April 21, 2008. Neal, who grew up in Knoxville, won an Academy Award opposite Paul Newman in 'Hud,' received a lifetime achievement award at the Nashville Film Festival Tuesday, April 22, 2008.

Photo by Mark Humphrey, AP

Actress Patricia Neal is shown during an interview in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday, April 21, 2008. Neal, who grew up in Knoxville, won an Academy Award opposite Paul Newman in "Hud," received a lifetime achievement award at the Nashville Film Festival Tuesday, April 22, 2008.

Actress Patricia Neal is shown May 18, 1966, 16 months after her series of strokes in 1965.

Actress Patricia Neal is shown May 18, 1966, 16 months after her series of strokes in 1965.

Iconic Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal, who grew up in Knoxville, lost her battle with lung cancer at 11 a.m. Sunday at her Martha’s Vineyard home, surrounded by her family, according to Bud Albers, a close Knoxville family friend.

A memorial service for her will be held on Wednesday in Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard.

A celebration of her life and burial is planned for later in the week at the Abby of Regina Ludis, the Benedictine Cloistered Nunnery, in Connecticut, where the actress often spent time in a little house there both for solace and healing after converting to Catholicism.

It was there that she wrote her book, “As I Am.”

Neal had planned this week differently. She’d had in mind a trip by car this week to connect with her roots — a stop in Packard, Ky., where she was born, then on to visit the graves of her parents, former Knoxville residents William Burdette and Eura Petrey Neal, before going on the Barter Theater in Virginia, where she enjoyed early stage success.

She’d planned a get-together with her Knoxville friends on Saturday before an auction/dinner benefit for the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center on Sunday and the Patricia Neal Golf Tournament in a week at Holston Hills Country Club.

She previously had planned a late May visit here to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Knoxville High School and a reception in her honor but was unable to make the trip. Four DVDs of all the activities were sent to her, and she spent some of her last days reliving those growing-up years here and her memories of school, friends and family.

Knoxville roots

The Academy Award winner found inspiration for her acting during her childhood in Knoxville.

Neal wrote in her 1988 autobiography, “As I Am,” that one of her first influences was her schoolteacher, Cornelia Avaniti, who was noted locally for her dramatic readings.

The second and most lasting was her first acting teacher, Emily Mahan (later Faust), who became a lifelong friend.

“Patricia Neal was not only our mother’s drama student but a dear and precious friend,” said Cynthia Faust Foster, daughter of the late Mrs. Faust. “Our mother was so proud of Pat and all that she accomplished — her stage and movie career, her struggle back after numerous tragedies, her contributions and encouragement to those in rehabilitation. She pursued life with such enthusiasm and hard work.

“Pat certainly enriched our mom’s life and that of our entire family. We all loved her dearly.”

Career fame

Neal left Northwestern University without graduating and went to try her luck on the stage in New York in 1945. Lucky stars seemed to be shining on her as she earned a role on Broadway within a year and was befriended by such legends as Eugene O’Neill and Lillian Hellman.

At the first Tony Awards, in 1947, she won the award for Best Supporting or Featured Actress (Dramatic) for “Another Part of the Forest.”

She resisted Hollywood at first in order to establish herself on-stage, but the studio bidding war over her talents proved too enticing. She signed a seven-year contract with Warner Bros. and moved to Hollywood.

On only her second film, “The Fountainhead,” she was partnered with screen icon Gary Cooper. Their collaboration extended off-camera as well, in a relationship that had a great impact on Neal’s life.

Throughout the 1950s, Neal worked in films that were alternately classic or forgettable. Among the former were “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “A Face in the Crowd.”

By the 1960s, no longer in ingenue territory, she began to play older, more worldly women such as George Peppard’s lover in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” It was as Alma, the cynical housekeeper who keeps Paul Newman at bay in “Hud,” that she was nominated for and won her only Academy Award, as Best Actress.

She was nominated again in the film that marked her comeback from her strokes, 1968’s “The Subject Was Roses.” But by the 1970s Neal started working primarily on television and ultimately was nominated for three Emmys. She originated the role of Olivia Walton in the TV movie that launched the long-running show “The Waltons” but was not signed for the series.

Neal showed up on-screen intermittently through the 1980s and 1990s, and even into the new century. Her last significant appearance was a brief one as the title character in Robert Altman’s 1999 “Cookie’s Fortune.”

Overcoming tragedy

Neal’s personal life was dogged by tragedy. Love was elusive. She married only once, to British writer Roald Dahl, father of her five children — Olivia, Tessa, Theo, Ophelia and Lucy — after an unhappy romance with actor Gary Cooper.

Her first born, Olivia, died of complications from measles; her son Theo was seriously injured when his pram was hit by a taxi in New York City; and Neal was paralyzed by three cerebral aneurysms and unable to speak.

Her husband pushed, prodded and willed her into recovery, only to leave her for her best friend.

Her battle back to a remarkable life that included her children, her career and eventually “her hospital,” as she regarded the Knoxville rehabilitation center bearing her name, is inspirational to many. She visited the patients at the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center each time she was in town.

“What a life, what an example of courage to face adversity with such style and grace,” said Jennie Morrow, president of the Fort Sanders Foundation, of Patricia Neal.

“She was so inspirational to the patients. She stopped to hear their stories, held their hands, applauded them on their accomplishments. And she knew a thing about the value of applause.”

Remembrances

Mary Costa, a Knoxville native and noted opera singer who has made her own mark on screen and in the philanthropic world, said Sunday:

“In my opinion, she was one of the most extraordinary women of our time,” Costa said. “She was constantly inspiring everyone by her courage and dedication. Whether on the stage, in motion pictures or in her personal life, she maintained her unique beauty and personality.”

Phil Zacheretti, president and CEO of Phoenix Big Cinemas Management and a former Regal Cinemas vice president, said: “I knew of Patricia Neal’s importance in the industry many years before I was lucky enough to meet her, spend a lot of time with her and help arrange a film premiere for her in Knoxville.

“From her stunning beauty and unforgettable voice to her legendary relationship with Gary Cooper, she was a unique actress among her generation.

“She worked tirelessly for the rehabilitation center that she was so proud of, never worrying about the long hours or the hundreds of people that wanted a few moments of her time, and she always had a smile on her face. She was first class all the way.”

Barbara Aston-Wash and Betsy Pickle are freelance contributors to the News Sentinel.

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