Iconic Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal, who grew up in Knoxville, has triumphed over many problems - medical and personal - that have plagued her throughout her adult life. Now she is waging another battle, this time with cancer.
While visiting in Los Angeles in February, she had a fall that resulted in a broken hip, requiring immediate surgery. A bout with pneumonia followed, and further testing revealed she has lung cancer.
Patsy, as she is known to her Knoxville friends, remained on the West Coast for radiation treatments until last week, when she was released from the hospital after the treatments were deemed "successful," said daughter Lucy Dahl. Dahl joined her mother for the flight east to Neal's summer home on Martha's Vineyard off the Massachusetts coast.
Surrounded by Tennessee antiques she found in and around Knoxville to furnish that house, the actress is convalescing and, in a telephone interview, said she is enjoying the beautiful view of the ocean outside her window.
That memorable, husky voice of hers, so familiar to her fans, sounded strong and vibrant as she talked about the new medical setback and its repercussions.
"I am so sorry that I will not be able to come to Knoxville for the 100th birthday celebration of Knoxville High School (set for May 29) as I had planned," Neal said. "I always look forward to coming back there and visiting with my old friends and the new ones I have made at the center (the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center, where she continues to visit and inspire patients there for treatment when in town).
"I saw so many films at the Tennessee Theatre while growing up. It is a beautiful place for a celebration. I do wish I could be there."
It was at Knoxville High School that the actress, who was a pretty and popular student, appeared in a number of theatrical productions, showing early a talent for acting developed under the tutelage of her late drama coach and close friend, Emily Foust.
After graduation, young Patsy was off to Northwestern University, where she studied drama for two years until the death of her father, when she decided it was time to pursue a career. She headed for the bright lights of Broadway, and after a few months of "very hard work" making the rounds of the theater offices answering cattle calls, she landed an understudy role in "Voice of the Turtle" in which she exhibited talent, commitment and empathy, musts for a serious actor.
She received her first big break not long afterwards, a major role in "Another Part of the Forest," which brought the newcomer a Tony Award as "The Best Featured Actress in a Play."
From there she was on her way to an illustrious career that, in addition to her theater work, included roles in 43 films and 16 television shows.
Her first film was "John Loves Mary," made in 1949, and her most recent, "Flying By," was made in 2009.
At age 21 she was cast as the lead female role in the 1949 film "The Fountainhead." Her leading man was Gary Cooper, then 46. They fell in love. He was married and separated from his wife, who refused to give him a divorce. The romance continued until three years later. With several successful films under her belt and her personal life in shambles, she left Hollywood for New York.
Recalling those days, Neal said, "Gary was quite charming and smarter than he got credit for being."
But it was in 1951 at a dinner party given by famed playwright Lillian Hellman that she met British writer Roald Dahl, the man who was to make the greatest impact on her life.
"I didn't like him much at first," she recalled, but all that soon changed. They were married in 1953 at New York's Trinity Church and became parents of five children.
Their firstborn, Olivia, died at age 7 of complications from the measles, and a year later their 4-month-old son, Theo, was seriously injured when a taxi hit the pram his nanny was pushing. "He's fine now, married and living in Florida," Neal said.
The film "Hud" with Paul Newman brought her the 1963 Academy Award for "Best Actress in a Leading Role." In 1965, while pregnant with daughter Lucy and filming "Seven Women," she suffered three cerebral aneurysms that left her paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak.
She credits husband Dahl, who willed, pushed and prodded her into recovery, for saving her life. Together they are said to have worked out a personal rehabilitation program with amateur therapists that reportedly is still used in England today.
Two years later she was able to do a role in "The Subject Was Roses," which brought her an Academy Award nomination. She has received major lifetime achievement awards and other prestigious honors for her work from critics and academies in the United States and Britain and remains a beloved and renowned figure on the theatrical scene in both countries.
During their 30-year marriage, the Dahls divided their time between England and the United States. The marriage ended in divorce after he fell in love with a good friend of Neal's and later married her.
What Roald Dahl was not able to accomplish in moving Neal toward complete recovery was taken up by the Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center, which specialized in stroke, spinal cord and brain therapies. In 1978, the rehab center at Fort Sanders was named The Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in her honor, and she has remained actively involved with its foundation.
Always courageous, Neal indicated she continues to face each day with joy, looking not inward but out on the world and seems to have a "whatever will be, will be" attitude. She ended the interview by saying, "I am happy. I have faith, and I am ready to face what comes."
Barbara Aston Wash is a freelance contributor to the News Sentinel.
© 2010, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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