Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, 1972. I was 22, and had been cast as Yolanda, Patricia Neal's daughter-in-law, in a semi-spooky B-movie, Happy Mother's Day, Love George. An amazing aggregate had been assembled in the coastal town which, with its multicoloured clapboard houses, was standing in for New England.
The cast included the late Bobby Darin, Cloris Leachman, Tessa Dahl (Ms. Neal's 15-year old daughter) and Ron Howard (still called Ronny). Our cinematographer, Walter Lassally, had won the Academy Award for Zorba the Greek. The fledgling director was actor Darren McGavin. Primary funding came from a Swiss banker.
A cinephile father had addicted me to film at age five. In cinematheques everywhere, from then to now, I've seen as many films as I could, from as many places as possible. Wanting to be an actor, I had screen she-roes. One of the first of these was Patricia Neal the Oscar- and Tony Award-winning star who passed away last week at age 84.
Cast and crew were billeted in a local inn, where I reported to the improvised makeup room at the assigned time.
Miss Neal sat in the makeup chair, as the makeup man applied shading to the glorious Neal cheekbones. She looked at me through the wall mirror in front of her. Already smiling to aid in the cheek-shading, she smiled a bit wider, saying "Hello. Very sorry to keep you waiting. I need more work than I used to."
"It's fine, Miss Neal. I'll wait next door in the hair room."
She looked at me more intently.
"You've got a great voice, babe."
"Thank you. Some people say I sound like you."
"Yes. That's what's great about it." she said, and winked.
Our friendship began at that moment. Over quiet after-dinner glasses-of wine, she told me she was born Patsy Louise Neal in Packard, Kentucky, a coal mining town that ceased to exist when they closed the mine.
"A very Hollywood thing, that. It's as if Packard stopped shooting, and they struck the set. I can still see it, the Packard Kentucky set. Now I play Patricia Neal, but I'm Patsy Louise."
Patsy was always candid, as she would prove in her autobiography, As I Am (1988). And very funny. Once, I was seated across from her in a Lunenberg restaurant when the ex-starlet wife of a famous Hollywood producer entered the room.
"Why is she here? Must be something here worth money. Quick, babe, sit on my left side. My right side has dodgy hearing and a blind eye." The woman stopped briefly at our table. After reciprocal insincerities, she left, having been barely seen or heard.
Post-prandial white-wine-evenings were usually in my room. Despite 23 years' difference between us, often the conversations were like girls' dorm confessions. I had recently ended a serious relationship with a married man. Patsy, who'd ask personal questions of anyone, queried me re all aspects of this liaison, and then, reciprocally, said, "Gary, the great love of my life, was married."
My guy was a small-theatre director in Toronto. Patsy's guy was Gary Cooper. The lopsidedness of this, not in evidence during girl talk, did not dawn on me until the following morning.
Patsy had already received awards for her post-stroke performance in The Subject was Roses. Film director Martin Ritt noted that "Patricia Neal has core honesty. You can see and feel it in every frame." That core honesty shone through each scene of hers in our little potboiler.
The horrendous series of strokes that had pole-axed her in Great Missenden, England in 1965, had made memorization difficult. Daughter Tessa, making her film debut, would cue Patsy in the evening, as would I. What was extraordinary was that, when filming, Patsy always knew what her character wanted in a given scene. While lines were not usually word for word, they were desire for desire. Exchanges were far more alive than they would've been with fastidious adherence to the thin text. Acting skills that Patsy had honed from her earliest days in Tennessee and Virginia theatre gave her improvised lines a cue you could pick up. For over 40 post-stroke years, actors would say that her thorough understanding of her character produced memorable vitality and connectivity for scene partners.
In character or not, one never knew what Patsy might say. Or ask.
"Are you a lesbian?"
I'd been cueing her for the following day.
"Well, babe, I had to ask. McGoo" - Darren McGavin - "says you're a lesbian, and that I should be careful about Tessa. I know many lesbians, but Tessa is only fifteen, and…"
I assured her that, though I too knew lesbians, I was not one. She said she didn't think so, but, as a mother, thought she should ask.
Cloris Leachman and Patsy had been classmates at Northwestern University in Illinois, studying with the legendary Alvina Krause. Patsy, a chain smoker, said of the militantly anti-nicotine Leachman: "Didn't like her much at school. Don't like her much now. She was a bully. Still is."
In 1991, Patsy loaned me her beautiful oceanfront home at Martha's Vineyard, in which I began my first novel, Visible Amazement. My night reading was Patsy's autobiography.
There I learned the extraordinary details of her post-strokes rehabilitation, determinedly orchestrated by her then-husband, author and war hero Roald Dahl. When I saw her in New York after my Vineyard stay, we went to dinner in a small neighbourhood restaurant with her longtime friend, actor Anthony Quinn. Leaving for dinner, I helped her into an old mink coat. "Gary gave me this coat. And these pearls." She grinned like a prom queen.
She was hurt and angry when Roald Dahl left her for her friend Felicity Crossland. "She'd been a guest in our home. And my children knew, but didn't tell me. I'm still angry about that… but, you know, babe, Roald always knew: I never stopped loving Gary. Perhaps this is punishment for that. Perhaps Felicity loves Roald as much as I loved Gary. And Roald did save my life. Roald and God." A longtime frequenter of spiritual retreats, she had also become a Catholic.
Patsy worked until 2009, both as an actor and with the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville, Tenn. In a phone conversation, she once said, "Find me a film. I still love to work, if there aren't too many lines. Good screen time, few lines. Got it?"
From 2007 to 2009, we spoke on the phone, trying to arrange a Vineyard visit.
Mutually good dates kept eluding us. "I can't read much now, babe," she said, "lousy vision. But you can read to me, in 'our voice.'" We were going to do all that. We didn't. In this multitasking world, people must, I think, try harder to see their beloveds.
Bye-bye, Patsy. I treasure your friendship, your work and your everlasting gift for hanging out in the girls' dorm. If you turn to be right about an afterlife, I hope to see you then. If not, I'm exultantly grateful to have known you here.
Gale Zoë Garnett is a writer and actor who has spent most of her life, thus far, as an actor and writer.
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