Some have said that the lives of
the star-crossed characters portrayed by Tom Neal on the
screen roughly paralleled his own. But that's dismissive
of a talented actor whose career proved to be broader
than that flat statement.
Neal, of course, will always be
identified for his role in what is without question one
of the essential films noir, Detour. Directed with
inventive verve by the quirkily ingenious Edgar G. Ulmer,
the crew and cast were miraculously able to wring a million
dollars worth of ambience out of 50 cent sets. In this
story of a struggling musician whom the fates randomly
"put the finger on," Neal expertly conveyed
the ordeal of the haunted everyman, struggling to survive
in circumstances that would confuse and terrify the best
of us. Neal dominated the brooding opus, Ann Savage's
visceral portrayal as his shrewish nemesis notwithstanding.
Prior to his postwar notoriety,
Neal broke into pictures trading on his brawny shoulders
and baby face. He'd narrowly missed winning a lead in
John Ford's The Hurricane, and set about turning
in a series of solid supporting performances in A's like
Another Thin Man, Pride of the Yankees and
Flying Tigers. RKO scouted Tom as a John Garfield-type
to pep up their Jean Hersholt/Dr. Christian series, enabling
Neal to survive a ludicrous stint as a Japanese in First
Yank Into Tokyo. A couple of serials rounded out the
Neal résumé, most notably Jungle Girl
opposite France Gifford.
It was Neal's wayward romance with
sexy starlet Barbara Payton, however, that secured his
notoriety. His rival for Ms. Payton's affections was suave
leading man Franchot Tone. Returning from a date on the
arm of Mr. Tone, Payton found Neal lying in ambush on
her front lawn. "Tom Neal Knocks Out Tone In Love
Fist Fight," screamed the morning paper. News of
America's involvement in the Korean conflict was played
beneath the report on the turgid triangle.
Supposedly, Tone proposed from
his hospital bed and he and Payton were married for less
than two months. Tone named Tom Neal as correspondent.
phone stopped ringing. Work dried up and he moved to Palm
Springs, flat broke. Working odd jobs, he managed to save
enough to start his own business as a landscaper.
He married and fathered a son.
Within a year, his wife died of cancer. He packed his
son off to relatives in Illinois and visited as often
as he could.
In 1961, Neal wed again. In 1965,
he was charged with cold-bloodedly murdering his wife
as she slept. Neal maintained that the killing was an
accident. In the midst of a violent struggle the gun discharged.
Convicted of involuntary manslaughter, he was sentenced
to 15 years. He served six.
Upon his release, he shared a Studio
City apartment with his young son. One morning, Tom Jr.
entered his father's bedroom to say goodbye before leaving
for school and found Tom Sr. dead from heart failure just
18 months after his release from prison.
Was trouble drawn to Tom Neal?
Other stars had nasty run-ins with the law. Tough guy
Lawrence Tierney enjoyed a drink and a brawl as did Robert
Walker. Robert Mitchum's much-publicized pot arrest actually
enhanced his box-office appeal. Perhaps it's more important
to remember Tom Neal for the message he conveyed through
his best-known film, Detour -- it could happen