SHE WAS KNOWN as “White Knuckles” up in Jackson Hole, Wyo., years ago, filming that lovely pilot tor “The Waltons” – “Homecoming: A Christmas Story.”
Barely recovered from her devastating stroke, Patricia Neal stood out in the snow all day long and never whimpered, struggling fiercely with lines, holding on so tightly to tables and friendly arms that her knuckles turned white.
Determined to conquer, Miss Neal gave a wonderful performance on and off camera, a rare lady.
Her remarkable comeback story, “The Patricia Neal Story,” unfolds Tuesday night on CBS with Glenda Jackson and Dirk Bogarde as the stricken actress and her husband Roald Dahl, the highly inventive author.
“It’s a very emotional drama,” says Jane Merrow, the English beauty now living in California, cast in the role of Val Eaton, the speech therapist, a neighbor of the Dahls. Jane was summoned to London for the filming by director Anthony Harvey, who had directed her alongside Katharine Hepburn in “The Lion in Winter.“
Val Eaton enters the picture when Roald Dahl, seeking rehabilitation help, calls in the villagers to work daily with Miss Neal, pushing the paralyzed and speechless actress through memory exercises, helping her struggle with pictures, cards, and word games, working one-on-one, re-educating the damaged brain.
“Roald realized he must break Patricia’s spiral of depression, and he couldn’t do it alone,” Jane explains. “Patricia must think positive; it was vital, and Dahl took the most courageous part. He pushed, and he was mean and rotten because he had to goad Patricia on.”
These moments between Glenda Jackson and Dirk Bogarde (“one of the finest film actors alive” in Jane’s estimation) key the show. The story of Val Eaton – apprehensive about working with Patricia, only to discover she had a talent for stroke therapy, slowly re-educating the brain- has been cut considerably because there’s not enough time in the TV edition. Val Eaton plays a much bigger part in the book “Pat and Roald” by Barry Farrell, and goes on to organize England’s Heart and Stroke Association.
Beginning with the massive stroke that leaves Miss Neal- three months pregnant- paralyzed and speechless, the story also recounts earlier tragedies in the Dahl family. Oldest daughter Olivia dies from measles at age 7 and baby son Theo suffers a traffic injury resulting in eight brain operations. Today Theo is fully recovered.
Before playing Val the therapist, Jane Merrow visited the Daniel Freeman Hospital in Los Angeles to study stroke therapists in action. One thing she learned- every stroke victim knew about Patricia Neal and identified with her. There was hope ahead, positive thinking, The brain can be re-educated.
To Jane, the TV drama will act as a storybook lesson for all stroke victims.
Regretfully, Jane never met Patricia Neal or Roald Dahl. The Dahls were not consulted on the script either, but offered their assistance.
“With Glenda Jackson and Dirk Bogarde in command, and Anthony Harey directing, I think we do Pat and Roald justice ,” says Jane.