Saturday, April 9, 2016

Patty Duke: In Memoriam

By Ed Garea

At the age of 13, her name was listed over the title on the marquee for her Broadway hit play. At the age of 16, she starred in a sitcom that is still beloved by fans today and began a career in television that saw her win three Emmys. She also campaigned tirelessly for mental health awareness, AIDS research, and nuclear disarmament in addition to serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild. But her best accomplishment may have been her real-life role as a survivor; a force that refused to yield to whatever obstacles came her way.

Patty Duke, Oscar-winning actress and ‘60s television icon, died March 29 at a hospital near her home in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. She was 69. The cause of death was sepsis caused by a ruptured intestine that she suffered a couple of days before, according to Duke’s husband, Michael Pearce.

Duke first came to public notice in 1959, when at the age of 12, she starred as Helen Keller in the original Broadway production of William Gibson’s drama, The Miracle Worker. Anne Bancroft co-starred as Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan. 

When Duke and Bancroft reprised their roles for the 1962 film version, Duke won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. 

She followed this by starring in an eponymous sitcom created by Sidney Sheldon that was launched in 1963 and ran on ABC until 1966. In the sitcom, Duke played the dual roles of Patty Lane, a typical Brooklyn teenager, and her worldly Scottish “identical cousin” Cathy Lane.

Quite a few critics were nonplussed over how a talented actress such as Duke could travel so quickly from the sublimity of an Oscar winning role to playing identical cousins living in Brooklyn.

But Duke supplied the answer in her 1987 memoir, Call Me Anna. She was a meal ticket.

Patty was born Anna Marie Duke in New York City on Dec. 14, 1946, the youngest of three children to John Patrick Duke, a handyman and cabby, and Frances (McMahon) Duke, a cashier. Patty, who was reared in Queens, described her mother as chronically depressed and prone to violence, and her father as an alcoholic who was forced by her mother to leave the family home when she was six.

Anna began acting around the age of 8, when she was taken on by John and Ethel Ross, a husband-and-wife-managing team who represented her older brother Raymond. The Rosses began by neutralizing Anna’s distinct Queens accent and changed her name to the more “all-American” sounding Patty, most likely after successful teenage actress Patty McCormick. 

As Patty Duke, she worked bit parts in television, appearing on the soap opera The Brighter Day, and also in print ads and television commercials. There were also tiny parts in films such as The Goddess and 4D Man. In 1959, before landing the part of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, Duke appeared in a television adaptation of Meet Me in St. Louis as Tootie Smith, the role played in the 1944 film by Margaret O’Brien.

To land the part of the young Helen Keller, the Rosses prepared her by blindfolding her and moving the furniture around. She also intensively trained by learning to do things without sight. The work paid off when producer Fred Coe cast her to play Keller. The role was a daunting one, requiring her to engage nightly with co-star Anne Bancroft in an ad-libbed, physical onstage fight that could last up to 10 minutes. At 13, her name was raised above the title on the marquee, believed to be the first to have her name above the title at such an early age.

Shortly after winning her Oscar in 1963 at age 16, the youngest at the time to win an Academy Award, she also scored another first when she became the youngest star at the time to have a television series bearing her name. The series, written by Sidney Sheldon, revolved around an incredible premise: two cousins so indistinguishable that they could pass for one another, which they often did over the course of the series. The public loved it and tuned in every week, along with purchasing related merchandise like dolls, clothes and board games.

For her part, as related in her memoir, Duke felt trapped, having to pretend she was younger than she was; not being consulted about anything; and having no choice in how she looked or what she wore. She wrote about the Rosses removing her from her home to live with them where they monitored her every movement, telling her what to wear, what to eat, what to do; even controlling her mother’s access to her. They billed Duke as being two years younger than she actually was and padded her resume with false credits. Duke also wrote about the Rosses introducing her to alcohol and feeding her uppers and downers to get her in shape to work. She also wrote that both sexually molested her on occasion. 

In addition, there were financial shenanigans. In 1959, Ross admitted to a congressional committee that Patty, who had appeared not long before on the TV quiz show The $64,000 Question, had been fed the answers by the show’s producers. Her area of expertise was spelling. She won $32,000 on the show, less the 15% fee the Rosses took. After she had broken with the Rosses as a young woman, she discovered that they had embezzled the vast portion of her earnings, about $1 million.

To escape from the Rosses, she married Harry Falk, an assistant director on The Patty Duke Show who was 13 years her senior, in 1965. During their marriage, she suffered from repeated mood swings and anorexia, drank heavily, and overdosed on pills a number of times. They divorced in 1970. A second marriage, to Michael Tell, was annulled after only 13 days.

In 1972, Patty married actor John Astin, billing herself as Patty Duke Astin during their marriage. They divorced in 1985. Her fourth, and final, marriage was in 1986 to Michael Pearce, an Army drill sergeant. They had met during the production of A Time to Triumph. It's the story of Concetta Hassan, a woman who struggles to support her family after her husband is injured but who eventually becomes a United States Army helicopter pilot, for which Pearce served as a consultant. The couple moved Idaho and adopted a son, Kevin, who was born in 1988. During the course of her marriage Duke occasionally used the name "Anna Duke-Pearce" in her writings and other professional work.

After The Patty Duke Show was canceled, Duke began her adult acting career by playing Neely O’Hara, a character loosely based on Judy Garland in the 1967 film adaptation of Jacqueline Suzann’s crap classic, Valley of the Dolls. It was a role she had campaigned to play, and one she hoped would cause audiences to leave her teen persona behind. However, while the film was a box-office success, audiences and critics alike had a difficult time accepting Duke in her new persona as an alcoholic, drug-addicted singing star. While the film is heralded today as a something of a camp classic, thanks in part to Duke's over-the-top performance, at the time, it almost sunk her career.

In 1969, Duke won the Golden Globe for Best Actress (Musical or Comedy) for her starring role in Me, Natalie, a film in which she played an "ugly duckling" Brooklyn teenager struggling to make a life for herself in Greenwich Village.

In 1970, she won the first of her three Emmy awards for her starring role in the TV movie My Sweet Charlie, in which she portrayed a pregnant runaway who falls in love with a black man, played by Al Freeman Jr.

Duke won her second Emmy for her work in the 1976 NBC mini-series Captains and the Kings, and her third Emmy for playing Annie Sullivan (to Melissa Gilbert’s Helen Keller) in a 1979 TV adaptation of The Miracle Worker.

Duke played herself from her mid-30s onward in Call Me Anna, a 1990 TV movie based on her memoir. And over the years she had guest roles on many shows, including The Love Boat, Amazing GraceTouched by an Angel and Glee.

And as if all this weren’t enough, Duke also has a successful signing career, including two Top 40 hits in 1965, "Don't Just Stand There" (#8) and "Say Something Funny" (#22).

Off-screen, she served a term as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1985 to 1988, the second woman (actress Kathleen Nolan was the first) to be elected to the position.

For years, Duke dealt with an emotional disability for which there was as yet no name. It led her to attempt suicide several times, and commitments to mental hospitals. Only in 1982, was she finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and given proper medication, which included lithium as a medication and therapy. 

The treatment stabilized her and she became an activist for numerous mental health causes. She lobbied Congress and joined forces with the National Institute of Mental Health and National Alliance on Mental Illness in order to increase awareness, funding, and research for people with mental illness.

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