Patty Duke's Place in Herstory
April 2016: A link to this segment was shared via social media with Anna "Patty" Duke Pearce on the day it posted. No reply, so no way to know whether she listened. Her death on March 29, 2016 requires to think of her accomplishments in the past tense, but her legacy firmly established in the present.
There was a time when the acting profession was segregated by stature. Broadway and the stage held the aura of Shakespeare. Film and movies were the expensive, extravagance…with the egos to go alongside a notion of immortality, via the Silver Screen.
Or, as Norma Desmond proclaimed in Sunset Boulevard, the 1950 Billy Wilder flick about Hollywood…
And then there’s TV, the “small” screen.
This installment of Advanced TV Herstory is a profile of an actress recognized for her performances across all those forms, Patty Duke.
Listeners young and old, bear with me. She more than starred in the ginchy TV series that bore her name. Though it’s true, there’s no catchier theme on TV ever.
Back to Patty Duke, the woman. It’s a very small club of women whose resumes feature an Oscar, Emmy statues and top billing in a Broadway play for 730 performances.
Patty Duke’s career was complicated and filled with ups and downs that are important to understand. This installment features those ups and downs as they were made public by Duke. Her 1987 autobiography, Call Me Anna, is an incredibly well-written, accessible read. I recommend it. When her book first came out, the pinnacle of the serious talk show circuit was Phil Donahue. Patty appeared with Phil and fortunately, someone converted their VHS treasure and uploaded it to You Tube.
That video is important because their voices do the storytelling – or in Phil’s case he reads the book out loud. And really, some elements of her youth and teen years are jarring. Patty’s story is about growing up in the entertainment industry at the hands of two surrogate parent-agents who abused her emotionally in wretched ways.
Patty’s career as a child phenom hit a sandbar in the 70s. She began reclaiming her life and career upon her 1980 diagnosis of manic depression. She chronicles the many episodes and acting opportunities in her book as well – perhaps the first and most famous person to do so in such a public fashion. It all makes for a remarkable story.
As a friend, parent, child, boss or colleague, you likely know someone who has a mental health condition. Knowledge is power and I’m hopeful that you come away with new knowledge or perspective in this re-telling of Patty’s story,
Really though, her name is Anna.
Born in 1946 as Anna Marie Duke, we know her as Patty because stage parents, who her own parents surrendered her to when she was 8….
In 1987, when Anna –OK I’m going to make it simpler for all of us and call her Duke – appeared on Phil Donahue, it had to have been a pretty big deal. Phil‘s topics were sometimes very heavy. It was a well-produced fairly intellectual show that was usually an interview plus Q & A format.
As you heard, Phil does his best to get Anna’s foundational story told, so they can get on to the rest of the book.
Keep the word resilient top of mind. As I said, the book is very detailed. Duke’s memory for details, even really really unpleasant ones, is rich. So among the parts of the book that don’t totally get discussed on The Phil Donahue Show are some of her great accomplishments as a young actress.
Her entry into show business came in doing small TV bits, which led the Rosses coaching her for an audition for the role of Helen Keller on Broadway, in the live version of The Miracle Worker. Duke tells of preparing for the role and getting to work with Anne Bancroft, who played teacher Annie Sullivan.
Duke’s recollection of the 10 minute fight scene – highly choreographed and filled with real bruises, real broken bones and real emotion – gives us an insight into this legendary run on Broadway. Duke was 12 and went on to play the role of Helen Keller in the movie adaptation. She claims one benefit from the intense fight scene was release of negative energy and frustration she internalized at the hands of the Rosses.
YouTube contains highlight reels and scenes of the 1962 production of The Miracle Worker. Watch them. And then watch the 1979 remake, for TV, in which Anna Marie Duke stars as Annie Sullivan. Melissa Gilbert, at the height of her Little House on the Prairie fame, plays Helen.
These are roles that require acting, real acting. Physical timing, mastery of sounds and facial expressions because the scripts – as you might guess since they are about the education of a girl who could not see or hear - both contain very little dialogue.
But as a 12 year old, Duke was living anything but a normal life.
So throughout her teens, Duke was pulling down real paychecks (which Rosses spent like drunken sailors on luxuries for themselves) as a very famous child star. The 30s had Shirley Temple. The 40s – Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney. In the 50s it was Natalie Wood.
But Duke didn’t earn her stripes just playing any child role. She was Helen Keller - - and Duke recounts in the book actually getting to meet the legend in person. “The Miracle Worker” was a celebrated national hit in the movie theaters. Duke was the youngest performer to ever earn an Oscar (Tatum O’Neal would best her by winning in 1973 for her performance in Paper Moon). Anne Bancroft received an Oscar too, for best actress in a leading role.
That year Duke won a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer – Female and a Laurel Award for Top Female Supporting Performance.
Ethel and John Ross had coached her on every aspect of successfully navigating in the public eye. In most cases, the words weren’t her first choice and didn’t bear her feelings, as witnessed in what has to be the shortest acceptance speech in the history of the Oscars.
Yes, two words. You heard it. “Thank you.” In her book, Duke tells us that was part of the humility and “don’t screw it up” pounding the Rosses inflicted on her self-esteem.
Resilient. And all of 5 feet tall.
Having proven her acting chops on the stage and in film, it was only natural that Duke’s appeal to her teenage Baby Boom peers should land her on TV.
You may or may not remember a 1961 movie that featured Hayley Mills as twins. The Parent Trap? It was remade in 1998 starring Lindsay Lohan. The parents are separated, the twins connive to reunite them. They go to camp…
This is light-hearted family fare with one actress playing two parts, with camera work joining them in scenes.
Why not put the incredibly talented Patty – Anna Marie Duke into a sitcom where she plays… identical cousins? America fell in love with Patty Lane and her European cousin Cathy in their home in Brooklyn Heights. Shot in black and white, using the same production techniques each week that had only been scene on the Silver Screen.
Think about it. A series in the mid-60s about two teenage girls? Disruptive. State of the art camera work? Disruptive. This show is a time capsule.
Show quick descrip
In her book Call Me Anna, Duke describes the transition to sitcom production, transition to California and her later teenage years, which included encounters with many men, older and younger than she.
But America just really wanted its Patty and Cathy. Duke fiound a peace and goodness in the whole experience, which a reader might conclude was as disruptive for her as it was for the country.
If it happens to be showing on some obscure cable channel, I stop in my tracks and watch a little slice of made up life, circa 1963 to 1966. Whereas Leave it to Beaver is so male-centric that you can practically smell the Old Spice and hair tonic, The Patty Duke Show was about music, growing up, competing and collaborating and in a sense, seeing two sides of an issue, problem or person…
Sadly, when we as modern women pound on the stereotypes of womanhood in the early 60s, we focus entirely too much on Donna Reed and Barbara Billingsley – June Cleaver. They were moms. Patty and Cathy were daughters – born in 1946 they’d be the same age as Hillary Rodham Clinton, as Susan Sarandon, a year younger than Debbie Harry. They’d have become identical hellraisers if you ask me!
When we draw parallels, we need to take age and life experience into account, apples to apples, ya know.
Duke discussed a few other aspects of the show and its 105 episodes in an interview with my favorite source, Emmy TV Legends – a product of the Archive of American Television.
There are also a few documentaries on Duke’s life on YouTube. They’ll tell you that her career following her own TV show was somewhat consistent, with short-lived series and guest star roles in well known dramas.
The highs and lows associated with manic depression pepper her life in the 70s. Her love life included a well-documented romance with then-underage Desi Arnaz, Jr. and Lucille Ball’s equally public disapproval of it. An emotional, highly-charged role in the made-for-TV movie My Sweet Charlie was a struggle for her to complete, which she did. And on Emmy night, at the age of 23, she was up against some of the biggest names of the Silver or Small Screen. Her hair was an early 70s masterpiece, but that was about the only thing Duke had going for her that evening.
Well this acceptance speech was more than two words long. Duke has described it as “a nationally televised nightmare.” Her walk up to the podium was the first sign that something wasn’t right. She strode up the steps, stepped around the presenters Julia Sommars (who will be played in a movie someday by Connie Britton) and Monty Hall, the legend from Let's Make a Deal. She took the statue, stared into the camera with – it’s hard to say – they seem like lifeless eyes or were they in fact deep and for once, she was standing still and broadcast in living color? The American viewer had seen her deliver such a wide range of dramatic excellence – was this just a moment of genius?
It wasn’t. She was suffering in a big way and unfortunately lived another decade without a concrete diagnosis until her manic depression was discovered through a drug interaction. So literally – by accident. Anna Marie Duke turned a corner toward stable mental health and never looked back.
That’s the lion’s share of what the audience in Chicago, in Phil Donahue’s studio, was soaking up that afternoon in 1987. The room was filled with folks of all ages, many of whom had probably seen every one of Duke’s works. They probably knew all the lyrics to the TV theme song and maybe had bought her LPs when the Rosses told her that music was as lucrative as acting, at this stage in her career. Whether the audience had had the chance to read the book or not, they were there out of respect and admiration for a woman who spoke with honesty and courage.
As we understand mental health and recovery better today, we hear in her words an effort to forgive and move on. Phil asks Duke why she included John and Ethel Ross in her book dedication.
Her body language was open. I don’t know enough about how the Phil Donahue show processed audience questions to know whether they were vetted. Duke answered scores of questions, usually with information contained in the book. Otherwise, they were one or two sentence statements. She kept a swift pace during this part of the show, sharing as much as she felt comfortable sharing, but also demonstrating she owned her life.
Had anyone on TV ever talked about lithium before Patty Duke?
How many entertainers were secretly on lithium? How many of her peers AND regular people, sought help after reading her book?
Audience members asked her questions about her suicide attempts – like which was the worst and her experience in analysis – what we today call talk therapy. They were so eager for information. Watching this is not only a step back in time for hair and fashion, but also where we were, as a nation, in understanding and accepting those with mental illness.
Ways to cope
In this and every interview conducted since, Duke is in control. The book shared her brutal childhood story that a 21st century reader would believe unthinkable today. Positively Dickensian in its cruelty, striding alongside good intentions of the adults.
She wrote the book, went public, starred in regional theater productions and worked occasionally on TV. Those years are highlighted by a somewhat unexpected two year term of her service to the Screen Actors Guild as its president. In the book, she talks about the importance of union representation. Her term accomplishments as president are detailed at SAG’s website.
America loves the black and white images of the identical cousins of Brooklyn Heights. America may or may not have seen either version of The Miracle Worker. I didn’t. Sure it’s heavy material, but there are so few widely acclaimed movies that feature two strong women leads, it’s a shame TV or the distribution networks have passed it over. Oh and yes, the made-for-TV version of The Miracle Worker, Duke bagged another Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Special.
A future installment of Advanced TV Herstory will focus on Duke’s public profile as an advocate for mental health services and education. Her TV presence has shifted from wearing capris and hairbands to providing commentary on mental health topics for national TV networks. Which gets me to wondering if a producer, maybe from CNN, was urgently trying to get a hold of Duke on the evening Brittany Spears had her live meltdown and shaved her head.
Sadly, I have to say that the media interest in women, particularly young women, melting down is far stronger than it is of men and young men. Alec Baldwin? Forgotten. Mel Gibson? Huh? Shia LaBeouf? Who?
Duke has shared her life and gifts with us. If you are unfamiliar with them, the loss is yours. America may only remember her in black and white, as teenage cousins, which was all some clever PR person at the Social Security Administration needed for this set of public service announcements that recently aired. I just have to believe it was a woman who came up with the idea.
Yes, that last one contained the living actors from the show that aired 50 years ago, including William Shallert who turns 94 this year…
Aren’t we the lucky ones that Anna Marie Duke is resilient? Her strength and conviction has changed lives, something I’m guessing is more important than industry trophies.
You’ve been listening to Advanced TV Herstory, a podcast that studies women and TV and hair and public moments. Audio clips come from video that is all available on YouTube. There are five parts to the Phil Donahue episode that aired in 1987. The Social Security Administration has proudly posted their PSAs to YouTube, along with shorter and longer versions.
Emmy TV Legends audio set the context for Duke’s perspective on the development of her TV series and the clips from the awards shows are simply stunning.
Thanks for tuning in and please, leave comments or feedback at the hosting sites – Libsyn or iTunes. Track the podcast down on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. Our handle is at TVHerstory. Patty Duke is on Twitter too and has more followers.
If you prefer to keep your thoughts a bit more private, they’re safe with me via email at advancedtvherstory at gmail.com. Let’s dream up the next groovy installment together! I’m your host Cynthia Bemis Abrams.