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Oscar and Tony winner Patricia Neal dies of lung cancer

Neal receives a 1969 Alumni Merit Award
Neal receives a 1969 Alumni Merit Award from the Northwestern University Alumni Association.

School of Communication alumna Patricia Neal (C47), longtime star of stage and screen, died of lung cancer August 8 at the age of 84.

The winner of a Tony Award and an Oscar, Neal was known professionally for her husky voice and stage presence—and for a personal life more tragic than any of her roles.

Neal was born Patsy Louise Neal on Jan. 20, 1926, in Packard, Ky., in a mining camp where her father worked for a coal company. She grew up in Tennessee and eventually studied theatre at Northwestern, leaving for New York after two years with little more than a dream.

The gamble paid off. Playwright Eugene O’Neill took an interest in her, and soon she was seen by Lillian Hellman, who wanted her for her play, Another Part of the Forest, a role for which Neal won a Tony Award in 1946, the first year of Tony Award presentations.

Neal’s film career took off with Warner Bros., where she acted alongside John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and Gary Cooper. She starred in the adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, and others.

Despite these hardships, Neal continued to work. She had a supporting role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and starred with Paul Newman in Hud, earning herself the best actress Academy Award in 1964. But only a year later, Neal developed her own health woes. While pregnant, she suffered three strokes, undergoing extensive surgery and two weeks in a coma. Neal went home with her right side paralyzed, partially blind. She couldn’t remember anything; she couldn’t speak.

Neal, with Dahl’s insistence, fought her way back. She appeared at the 1967 Academy Awards as a presenter and received a standing ovation.

Bob Hope welcomes actress Patricia Neal
Bob Hope welcomes actress Patricia Neal to the stage at the 39th Academy Awards in 1967. She received a standing ovation as she took the stage. She won an Oscar two years prior, but had since sustained and recovered from a nearly fatal stroke. (AP Photo)

Neal had married British writer Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and Giant Peach) in 1953, but had an affair with the married Cooper that led to a nervous breakdown. In 1960, her infant son Theo sustained brain damage when his baby stroller, being pushed by his nurse, was crushed between two vehicles in New York City. Two years later, Neal’s daughter, Olivia, only 7 years old, died of encephalitis as a result of measles.

Neal turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate due to her health, but did return to the screen in 1968. She received Oscar and Emmy nominations and, in 1999, stole scenes in Robert Altman’s Cookie’s Fortune from her much younger co-stars.

“Frequently my life has been likened to a Greek tragedy, and the actress in me cannot deny that comparison,” Neal wrote in her autobiography, As I Am, published in 1988.

Neal received an Alumni Merit Award from Northwestern in 1964 and an honorary degree in 1994.

Neal became an advocate for stroke victims, and was actively involved with the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville.

Neal and Dahl were divorced in the early 1980s. He died in 1990.

Neal is survived by her children, Tessa, Theo, Ophelia, and Lucy Dahl; her sister; her brother; 10 grandchildren and step-grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.