How could one not adore Patricia Neal? I first met her when she arrived from London to portray a character based on my own mother in a television special called “The Homecoming.”
True to her dedication to her work she had memorized the script word for word. She asked for one change which I happily made. The character she was to play I had originally named Dorrie. Pat revered the role and asked if I would change the name to Olivia after the daughter she had lost. And the name remained Olivia through the long running sequel to “The Homecoming” when the series became “The Waltons.”
The scenes between Richard Thomas, who played the young mountain boy who aspired to be a writer and Patricia who portrayed his mother were especially moving. No one in the my family had ever gone to college much less to have an ambition so foreign to our backwoods way of life. Nevertheless Patricia captured just the right attitude of doubt and wonder and support of this unlikely son. Richard in turn was a stunning partner in the scenes.
Most adult actors would rather face a firing squad than work with a cute child. The youngsters who played the Walton children weren’t just cute. They were accomplished actors posing as children. Every one of them should have been arrested and sent to jail for scene stealing. But Patricia was a pro and she gave each of the children the same respect she gave to her fellow adult actors, and their scenes are extraordinary to this day.
All of the exterior scenes of “The Homecoming” were to be filmed in the Grand Tetons. Fielder Cook, the director, in making out his schedule, decided to lighten Pat’s work load when possible. So he arranged for Pat’s exterior scenes to be filmed on the CBS backlot here in town. Pat wouldn’t hear of it and insisted that she make the trip to Wyoming, and did several of the most demanding and compelling scenes there. In one scene, where Pat takes a long walk along a county road, the script called for snow. But the skies were clear. There was not a cloud in the sky. Fielder Cook, ever striving for miracles, bowed his head, and said prayerfully, “Now Sir, if You would be so kind!” And snow began to fall!
Another memory of Pat that I treasure came about when my son, during a college vacation was visiting London. I gave him Pat’s telephone, told him to call her and give her my love. When Scott phoned, Pat insisted that he come to tea. She sent Ronald Dahl down to London to pick up Scott and bring him out to Great Missenden. I doubt if Scott has had such a distinguished chauffeur since, or such good company at tea.
Some years later Pat was in town on her way to Vancouver to make a movie. She let me know that she was here and I informed her that my mother was coming to visit. “Oh, I want to meet her,” Pat exclaimed. But my mother was to arrive the day after Pat was to leave. “I’ll just have to change my schedule” declared Pat. So the day my mother arrived I took her over to the Beverly Wilshire where Pat was staying. Pat met us at the door and said to me “Shoo. I already know you. I want to know your mother. Come back later.” About an hour and a half later when I knocked on the door they were still in animated conversation.
My mother was a country woman who had spent most of her life having children and nurturing a huge family. Her life was a dramatic contrast to the life of a legendary film actress. I was curious.
“What did you and Pat talk about?” I asked my mother on our way home.
“Oh,” my mother replied, “Lots of things, but mostly about our children.”
Two great ladies whose lives briefly touched. It was a privilege to know each of them.