Interview: Oscar Winner Patty Duke On a Life in Duality

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CHICAGO – In one of the most famous TV openings in the medium’s history, “identical cousins,” Patty and Cathy Lane, were introduced. Those two ends of one person were played by Patty Duke, a previous Oscar winner for “The Miracle Worker” and subsequent stellar acting career. Ironically, she also fought bipolar disorder.

Anna Marie Duke (her friends call her “Anna”) became Patty Duke after two unscrupulous show business managers took over her affairs and life when she was only eight years old. She went on to fame in the role of Helen Keller in the original 1959-61 Broadway run of “The Miracle Worker,” co-starring Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan. The film version (1962) garnered Duke the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, the youngest to ever win at the time at age 16.

Anna Marie: Patty Duke Before She Introduced ‘Valley of the Dolls’ at the Music Box Theater, Chicago, November 20th, 2010’
Anna Marie: Patty Duke Before She Introduced ‘Valley of the Dolls’ at the Music Box Theater, Chicago, November 20th, 2010
Photo credit: Joe Arce, Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com

The next year Duke starred in “The Patty Duke Show,” with its familiar theme song beginning with “here’s Cathy who’s lived most everywhere…” Duke played the identical cousins opposite of each other. Years later, Ms. Duke noted the irony as she struggled with bipolar disorder, and became an advocate for mental health issues.

After that famous sitcom, Duke kept working, taking the lead in the infamous cult film “Valley of the Dolls” (1967), and turning back to television to win Emmy awards for “My Sweet Charlie” (1970), Captains and the Kings (1977) and for portraying Annie Sullivan in a TV remake of “The Miracle Worker” (1979). It was for that first Emmy in 1970 when Duke made a rambling, disconnected speech, which observers blamed on drug use. It was revealed later by Duke that it was part of a manic cycle due to her disorder.

Patty Duke is happy, healthy and still working. She called HollywoodChicago.com by phone from Los Angeles, and spoke about her marvelous career.

HollywoodChicago.com: You famously entitled your biography ‘Call Me Anna,’ walking away from the stage name Patty. What does the name Patty symbolize to you now, and have you come to terms with the fact that you are both Anna and Patty?

Patty Duke: Yes, I have finally come to terms with the fact that all those names symbolize parts of me. I went back to my original name, Anna, or Anna Marie if you really want to be formal. If you’re mad at me it’s Annie Marie. [laughs] Because when I was a kid, the change of names came about in an odd way, and I’m sure the people didn’t recognize it as being cruel. The woman of the team who managed me came in one day and said, ‘Anna Marie is dead, you’re Patty now.’ I had no idea what an impact that had on me. So in my thirties I needed Anna to be alive. But I didn’t need to kill Patty Duke.

HollywoodChicago.com: That would be killing the golden goose.

Duke: I guess. It’s getting to be a silver goose now. [laughs]

HollywoodChicago.com: Since you have portrayed both Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan in ‘The Miracle Worker,’ which side of those portrayals do you think comes closest to the essence of your being and worldview on life?

Duke: I hate to give you a glib answer, but actually both. Helen’s wild need for attention and information is certainly a part of me, and the teacher’s discipline and determination is also a part of me.

HollywoodChicago.com: Did you think about Anne Bancroft’s performance at all when you took on the Annie Sullivan role?

Duke: I always think of Anne Bancroft and her portrayal. It was vital to me that I not do an imitation, and because it is such a part of my life, Annie Bancroft’s performance that was with me for almost 20 years, there was almost a degaussing that had to happen. When Melissa Gilbert and I finished our version of ‘The Miracle Worker,’ I went home and watched the original movie again, and I realized that indeed I hadn’t done an imitation of Annie, because no one can. It turned out what were Annie’s strengths were certainly in me, but I emphasized the vulnerability of the teacher.

HollywoodChicago.com: What kind of place was New York City for a young girl in the late 1950s, early ‘60s during your run on Broadway. Can you still conjure up images of those days?

Duke: Oh, of course I do, it was my oyster. [laughs] I’m not sure I realized it all the time. Yeah, it’s a very different perspective when you’re 12 in comparison to when you’re about to be
…64. I’m telling you, that’s a shock.

HollywoodChicago.com: Having worked with Arthur Penn so closely on the stage and screen version of The Miracle Worker, and since he recently passed away, what do you think his greatest contribution to the arts or cinema culture was?

Duke: He intuitively knew how to get past a person’s B.S. And I think it’s evident when you watch the body of his work, that actor’s reached a different and more insightful level having worked with him. Anyway I had a crush on him when I was 12, and I have very good taste.

Scene from ‘The Miracle Worker,’ Patty Duke’s Oscar Winning Performance as Helen Keller, with Anne Bancroft (right) as Annie Sullivan
Scene from ‘The Miracle Worker,’ Patty Duke’s 1962 Oscar Winning Performance as Helen Keller,
with Anne Bancroft (right) as Annie Sullivan
Photo credit: © MGM Home Entertainment

HollywoodChicago.com: You looked so beautiful at the Oscars when you won. Since you were a younger person amidst the fading glamour of the studio system and Old Hollywood, what memories do you cherish of that night, and which movie star amazed you the most that evening?

Duke: As much as I had a crush on Arthur Penn, I had a longer and much deeper crush in my life on Gregory Peck. Seeing Gregory Peck was like seeing God. [laughs] I will tell you something else, when I was President of the Screen Actor’s Guild [in the 1980s], we were in serious negotiations during a strike situation. I get a message that Gregory Peck was on the public telephone in the hallway. Of course I go there in a daze and there was the dangling phone, I picked it up and said hello, and God was on the other end of the line. And he explained to me that he was just to start a film called ‘Amazing Grace’ the next day, and were we going to strike? I had no authority, none, outside of the boardroom, to say to this man, ‘Greg, dear, you just go right ahead, you’ll be just fine.’ What was I going to say to Gregory Peck, no you can’t start filming? I’m not sure the board ever knew about that, and we didn’t strike so I was saved.

HollywoodChicago.com: Having gone through the rigors of series TV very early in your career, what pressure or expectations did you experience in the responsibility for the success of ‘The Patty Duke Show?’ And given your struggles with bipolar issues later in life, do you find it ironic that you played two personas at different ends of the spectrum?

Duke: I’m going to answer the second part first, most definitely, I noticed the irony. Thank goodness I was able to visit Sidney Sheldon [writer for the show] before he passed away, and I said to him, ‘Sidney, you have no idea how close you came to the proper diagnosis.’ [laughs] I didn’t know it when I was a kid at the time, my bipolar manifestations didn’t start until my twenties.

HollywoodChicago.com: You had the creme de la creme of the sitcom world at the time, William Asher, Sidney Sheldon, all the top people…

Duke: Absolutely, the people who had worked with Lucy and Desi, the people [Asher] who went on to work with Elizabeth Montgomery and ‘Bewitched.’ Again, I was a kid, so I’m not sure the full impact struck me then. It certainly has since. I always felt pressure as a child to perform, but again that came from the people who were managing my career. There was no such thing as halfway, I had to do it to the hilt.

HollywoodChicago.com: During your hit making phase of your singing career, you appeared on Ed Sullivan, Shindig, The Tonight Show, Kraft Music Hall, etc. What was different about those iconic shows that seems to be missing from our entertainment experiences today?

Duke: Oh my god, if I knew the answer to that I’d be a trillionaire. [laughs] I’m a TV viewer, and as a viewer I am constantly frustrated by the lack of human dignity and integrity in the current scene. I sit here in house and wonder how we can get it back. I don’t know. I’m just going to keep plowing my way through, and try to keep the type of entertainment I offer to be one that touches you as a person.

Two of a Kind: Patty Duke in ‘The Patty Duke Show’
Two of a Kind: Patty Duke in ‘The Patty Duke Show’
Photo credit: © Shout Factory! DVDs

HollywoodChicago.com: What was backstage at the Ed Sullivan show like?

Duke: Of course I was terrified. If you were going to be on the Ed Sullivan Show, you had reached the pinnacle. I was not a trained singer. And nobody knew that better than me. [laughs] So the 15 seconds they counted down before you go on were 15 seconds of utter torture.

HollywoodChicago.com: You were in your early twenties during the Summer of Love in 1967. What event or happening that you experienced during that time best symbolizes the era for you, either in a good or not-so-good connotation?

Duke: Again, my experience is a little skewed because of what eventually became diagnosed as manic depression. I desperately wanted to be on the streets with the Vietnam War protesters, I would hook up wherever I could to chime in, but for many years of my life I spent one foot in one generation, and one in another, and therefore in conflict.

HollywoodChicago.com: Although the early reviews and career expectations were compromised in your performance in “Valley of the Dolls,” you’ve come to terms with it magnificently.

Duke: I’ve had a lot of help. [laughs] When it came out it was a true disappointment, and I was a true disappointment to me. I was in some fairyland I guess, thinking we were telling an honest story on how people get addicted to success and substances. What a crock! [laughs] I was just mortified.

At any rate, about 10 years after it premiered, the gay community across the United States sort of took it up as their anthem. At first I was a little shocked that people would sit and laugh at stuff that I thought was so serious. But as the years have gone by they and it have brought me tremendous joy and an exchange of love with people that I wouldn’t have had if it wasn’t for that movie.

HollywoodChicago.com: Going back to the actual filming, did you trust that director Mark Robson was getting the truest take on the performances, or did you suspect that the ship was sinking?

Duke: I didn’t trust Mr. Robson and he has passed, so I will try and not speak ill of the dead. To say that we didn’t communicate, is a major understatement. Plus which, he pissed me off a great deal at the time. Instead of getting out of me the performance he thought he wanted, he got a battle.

HollywoodChicago.com: Is it any wonder the film came out as it did?

Duke: You know, one would have to look toward the source, wouldn’t one? But so many other things came out it, including being friends with Sharon Tate. One of the true highlights of my life. And of course, later, one of my more painful experiences when she was murdered.

HollywoodChicago.com: Did a lot of Los Angeles think the party was over after that?

Duke: Everyone was beyond terrified. Right after, no one had known who had done this and why, certainly Sharon had never garnered any evil from anyone. So people got guard dogs and alarmed their houses to the hilt. I mostly just felt deep sadness and depression, it didn’t occur to me that anyone would be after me.

HollywoodChicago.com: What have you learned about men in your long life and your relationships with them?

Duke: That I finally got the right one! [laughs] Mike [Pearce] and I are coming up on our 25th wedding anniversary, which is amazing, particularly for someone who is bipolar, when we’re undiagnosed we have a hard time hanging onto anything. In my history, I married three really lovely men, I just wasn’t marriage material. Thank god when I became marriage material, there was my husband, he was waiting for me. I met him at Ft. Benning where he was an actual Drill Sergeant. It was the Drill Sergeant and the Showgirl. [laughs]

HollywoodChicago.com: You had a tempestuous relationship with Desi Arnaz, Jr., when you were younger. Did you make up with Lucille Ball over the circumstance of the situation?

Duke: Yes we did, it was very brief. It was nothing more than a look between us and a handshake. Thank god, because I would have been unhappy if she had passed without us having done that.

HollywoodChicago.com: What did you most become aware of regarding the thoughts, hopes and struggles of your past life when you were finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and began treatment. What emotion became the most intense for you thereafter?

Duke: Joy. And the other thing, whether it’s a feeling or not, but certainly balance. When I specifically began dealing with that illness, I felt a kind of freedom that I had never felt before, I owned the illness, it didn’t own me. I became a more creative Mom, and I had a long road back in that department. I was very bad to my children, which is hard to recognize, but I was. Thank god they are the people they are and have found in themselves to forgive, not forget, but to forgive and live in the moment.

HollywoodChicago.com: Going back to the 1960s, when you were a ‘celebrity,’ did you meet anybody that really made an impression?

Duke: I did get to meet, in July of 1963, President Kennedy. I mortified myself, of course, because the minute he walked into the Oval Office, I started crying, and I didn’t stop crying until he left. [laughs] He was very gracious and dear, and it was a huge thrill. As SAG President, I had an opportunity to meet Pope John Paul II. I didn’t cry though, I was more grown up. [laughs]

HollywoodChicago.com: As a performer, what thrilled you the most – the amazing reviews on Broadway, the major awards you have won, or hearing your hit song on the radio and why?

Duke: None of the above. It is the contact with people, regular Joes, to know that my work, that for some reason, has meant something very specific to them. In a positive way. That is the thrill.

HollywoodChicago.com: Still, it must be cool to hear your song on the radio?

Duke: No, not necessarily. [laughs] Because I’m in the car, I sing along the first few bars, and then I turn it off. You know what’s really shocking. When I’m driving along and a DJ plays a song and says, ‘can you imagine that Patty Duke is 64 today!’ What?!? [laughs]

HollywoodChicago.com: In your infamous Emmy Acceptance speech in 1970, you said the best words you’ve ever learned was ‘hello,’ ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘thank you.’ Are there any other words you’ve learned over the years that have become your personal best?

Duke: The same words apply, but I will add one. Forgiveness. Of others, but mostly of one’s self. When you can forgive yourself, you can then go on and make a contribution. I’m still working on that.

“Call me Anna” the autobiography of Patty Duke, is still available wherever books are sold. The three seasons of “The Patty Duke Show” are available here through The Shout! Factory Store.

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2010 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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