That voice. That was the first thing I noticed about Patricia Neal when I was a child. I was at home watching television and she was in the John Wayne movie Operation Pacific. There was something in the timbre that stood out to me and I was riveted. To this day, she ranks as one of the few actresses whom I could listen to speak, say or read anything, including the phone book. I can’t remember much about the movie, but it definitely put Neal on my radar. Ms. Neal died two days ago from lung cancer at age 84, leaving behind a great legacy as both actress and advocate.
I’ve enjoyed her film work immensely: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Hasty Heart and of course her Oscar winning turn as Alma in Hud. The latter is especially amazing to me – she is one of the few people to win a leading Oscar for a supporting role. (Awards are weird: she was nominated for the Golden Globe for Supporting Actress). Her career was curtailed by her well-publicized health troubles; a series of strokes in the early 60s which left her debilitated. Her husband, Roald Dahl, was greatly responsible for the rehabilitation she made. In 1968, she made a big screen comeback in the film adaptation of The Subject Was Roses, earning another Oscar nomination. I even remember her from television appearances, including an episode of Murder, She Wrote.
I never had the privilege of meeting the actress, but I was fortunate to see her in person on two close occasions. The first was at the 2006 Theatre World Awards, at which she presented to Jayne Houdyshell (who won for her brilliant turn in Well). Neal received a warm, spontaneous standing ovation that afternoon – the only one that afternoon. Houdyshell was moved to tears to be receiving the award from the legend; ultimately it was the highlight of the afternoon. The second time was that very weekend: I attended the dress rehearsal for the Tony Awards. Sitting up in the tiers at that barn Radio City Music Hall, there is a dry run (with fake winners selected) and a sense of great fun. Well, Neal rehearsed her presentation with Bill Irwin. That evening though, I was as surprised as everyone else when she was presented with a Tony award to replace the compact (original award) that was stolen from her the very first Tony night. Neal was the last surviving member of the first Tony Awards; winning the first-ever prize for Best Featured Actress for Another Part of the Forest.
Neal was interviewed by Rick McKay for his documentary Broadway: The Golden Age and he compiled this video montage of Neal discussing her career as a tribute. It focuses on her early career, and it is fascinating to hear her talk of how she got started in the business. After Another Part of the Forest she went to Hollywood, but returned to Broadway three times: a 1952 revival of The Children’s Hour, a shortlived comedy A Roomful of Roses and her last appearance: as Kate Keller in the original production of The Miracle Worker. Enjoy: