Ms. Neal, the daughter of a coal mine manager in Kentucky, rose to stardom before she could vote, making her Broadway debut as Regina Hubbard in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest in 1949. Statuesque, with strong-jawed patrician good looks and a husky voice, her performance won her a Tony Award and a Theatre World Award and landed her on the cover of Life magazine. She was whisked off to Hollywood, signed to a seven-year contract by Warner Brothers. Her screen debut, "John Loves Mary," was unfortunate, but she made a lasting impression in 1949 in the film adaptation of Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead," in which she played the tough-minded Dominique, who becomes obsessed with the uncompromising architect Howard Roark. The film had been highly anticipated, but failed commercially, and in it also lay the seeds of her personal unhappiness. She and co-star Gary Cooper began a well-publicized, three-year affair. When he returned to his wife, she suffered a mental breakdown.
A series of mediocre films followed, and Ms. Neal left Hollywood and Warners in the early '50s, seemingly washed up. She returned to Broadway and the work of Hellman, starring in a revival of The Children's Hour in 1952. Through Hellman, she met noted children's author Roald Dahl. They were married in 1953, and stayed together for 30 years, having five children, but the union was not a happy one. Dahl was controlling, moving the family to England, and he eventually had an affair with one of Ms. Neal's best friends. One of her children was hit by a taxi as a baby and had to endure many brain operations. Another, a girl, died of measles at the age of 7. In 1965, during her fifth pregnancy, Ms. Neal suffered a series of strokes that left her in a coma for weeks, impaired her speech and left her wheelchair-bound, semi-paralyzed.
In the years before that misfortune, she scored some intermittent triumphs. She played a reporter who falls for a manipulative, folksy entertainer played by Andy Griffith in Elia Kazan's 1957 indictment of popular culture, "A Face in the Crowd," and had a supporting role in the film version of "Breakfast at Tiffany's." And in 1963, she won the Oscar for her weary housekeeper, who deflects the advances of amoral cowboy Paul Newman with good-humored, mournful cynicism, in "Hud." Perhaps drawing from her own life, she seemed most effective when playing characters who suffered at the hands of others. She returned to Broadway in 1955 in A Roomful of Roses and played Kate Keller in The Miracle Worker in 1959.
With the help of Dahl, she battled back from the strokes to appear in The Subject Was Roses in 1968, winning acclaim and another Oscar nomination. President Johnson honored her that same year with the Heart of the Year Award. In 1983 she and Dahl divorced.
She was born Patsy Lou Neal on Jan. 20, 1926, and attended Northwestern University, leaving after two years to go to New York. She got her break understudying both the female leads in the hit play The Voice of the Turtle. She starred in the John Van Druten play when it toured. Her storybook beginnings began soon after. Playwright Eugene O'Neill saw her in a summer-stock production of Devil Takes a Whittler and became her mentor. Soon after the show opened, she was offered the lead in Another Part of the Forest. She is survived by her four children, Tessa, Ophelia, Theo and Lucy; a brother, Pete Neal; a sister Margaret Anne VanderNoord; 10 grandchildren and step grandchildren and a great-grandchild.