Hollywood's quintessential low-budget film noir hero Tom Neal earned some notoriety at an early age when his banker father persuaded him to drop the idea of eloping with Inez Martin, a buxom former Follies girl and the mistress of slain mobster Arnold Rothstein. A former college athlete, the handsome, mustachioed Neal entered the theatrical profession playing summer stock at West Falmouth, MA, and went on to make his Broadway debut in the short-lived anti-war melodrama If This Be Treason (1935). He later performed opposite Maria Ouspenskaya in Daughters of Artreus, but although critically acclaimed, the play was yet another box-office failure and Neal hightailed it to Sunny California. Contracted by MGM, who obviously saw him as another Clark Gable, Neal bided his time in secondary assignments and loan-outs to other studios for such fare as the 1941 serial Jungle Girl. In 1943, a now freelancing Tom earned some recognition for playing a U.S.-educated Japanese in the propaganda film Behind the Rising Sun, but lasting fame had to wait until Detour, Edgar G. Ulmer's cult classic. Although dismissed when the cheaply made drama was released in 1945, Neal and Ann Savage's fiery chemistry did much to earn Detour a lasting place as the quintessential low-budget film noir and remains one of the few memorable films to emerge from PRC, the now infamous Poverty Row company that otherwise more than lived up to its nickname of "Pretty Rotten Crud."
Along with another well-remembered but poverty-stricken Ulmer production, Club Havana (1945), Detour marked a definite decline in the actor's cinematic fortunes and by the early '50s he had become better known for his offscreen escapades. A very public brawl with actor Franchot Tone over the dubious charms of starlet Barbara Payton left Tone hospitalized with a fractured cheekbone, a broken nose, and brain concussion, and made Neal all but unemployable. He later worked as night manager of a restaurant in Palm Springs, CA, and for a while operated a landscaping business, but in 1965 he was arrested and charged with second degree murder in the shooting death of his second wife. A jury returned a verdict of involuntary manslaughter and Neal served a six-year prison term. Sadly, the former actor suffered a fatal heart attack a little more than eight months after being paroled in late 1971. His son, Tom Neal Jr. (born 1957), starred in a 1992 remake of Detour. ~ Hans J. Wollstein, Rovi