Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal was raised in Knoxville, where she studied theatre and performed in various venues. In 1942, following her junior year of high school, Neal landed a summer stock position at Robert Porterfield's Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia. After high school graduation Neal entered Northwestern University but left to move to New York, where working as an understudy, she caught playwright Lillian Hellman's attention. Neal appeared in Hellman's The Little Foxes, and by 1947 she had signed a contract with Warner Brothers. Her first important film role was in King Vidor's screen adaptation of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (1949).
The Fountainhead secured Neal's reputation as an actress and led to an affair with married costar Gary Cooper. After making The Hasty Heart (1949) with Ronald Reagan, she appeared with Cooper again in Bright Leaf (1950). Their affair became more brazen, and she endured an illegal abortion at Cooper's request. The ongoing affair took its toll emotionally on Neal, driving her to psychotherapy. Her contract was not renewed, and she moved to Twentieth Century-Fox and completed The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Neal returned in 1952 for a revival of Hellman's The Children's Hour in New York. While there, she met and married novelist Roald Dahl in 1953. Their first child, Olivia, was born in 1955.
Neal went to work in television, and later she played Maggie the Cat in Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in an off-Broadway production. Director Elia Kazan created her Hollywood comeback in a dark comedy, A Face in the Crowd (1957), also starring new comic sensation Andy Griffith. She appeared in the Broadway production of The Miracle Worker in 1959 and gave birth to a son, Theo. She was named Tennessee's Woman of the Year in 1962, but her oldest daughter's death from measles that same year devastated the entire family.
In the midst of her grief, Neal was offered the role that earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress: Alma in Martin Ritt's production of Hud (1963). More work followed, including In Harm's Way, but three years to the day after her daughter's death, on November 17, 1965, Neal, pregnant with her fourth child, suffered an aneurysm. Paralyzed and unable to speak, she underwent a slow and painful recovery, yet her daughter was born healthy. Dahl devoted himself to her recuperation with sternness. Though bouts of severe depression along with her difficult pregnancy impeded her progress, by 1968 Neal was fully recovered. Her first film after her illness, The Subject was Roses (1968), was a personal and professional triumph. In 1970 Good Housekeeping reported that she was one of the ten most admired women in America. She dedicated time and money to the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center, a not-for-profit research facility dedicated to stroke research and therapy. Working steadily throughout the 1970s, Neal became associated with roles of strong, wise, world-weary women. Dahl, her husband of thirty years, sued her for divorce on November 17, 1983, and the publicized proceedings were another traumatic time in Neal's life. She chronicled both the bad times and the good times of her career in the autobiography As I Am (1988).
Neal continues to act on stage and on screen in such movies as Cookie's Fortune (1999). Much of her energy over the last twenty years, however, has been devoted to developing the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville. The center began in 1978 at the Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center; today it is nationally recognized for its work and study in the rehabilitation of stroke, spinal cord, and traumatic brain injuries.