When I was in high school, Patty Duke was not a universal favorite. We serious drama kids of course looked down our noses at her amiable “twin-cousins” sitcom, The Patty Duke Show. True, there was also her gripping portrayal of the blind and deaf young Helen Keller in 1962’s film version of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker. The role had made her (at age 16) the then-youngest competitive winner in Oscar history, but we were reluctant to give her too much praise. After all, two of our classmates had just resoundingly won first prize at the Los Angeles County drama festival by performing a dramatic scene from The Miracle Worker. Our teacher plainly preferred the work of his student -- a teacher’s pet type -- to that of the young actress he disparagingly nicknamed “Debbie Fink.” (He’d borrowed this name from an obnoxious child-star character in Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” comic strip.) If our dramatic mentor hadn’t much use for Patty Duke’s s triumph, who were we to argue?
Now that Duke has passed on, at the shockingly young age of sixty-nine, it’s time for me to rethink her career accomplishments. Unlike Helen Keller she was neither deaf nor blind. Still, she had some serious physical and emotional obstacles to overcome. And, much like Keller herself, she surmounted them magnificently.
Duke’s path to Hollywood was via Broadway, where (at age 13) she created the Helen Keller role on stage. To get the part, she’d been carefully coached by her talent managers, who’d assembled a stable of child actors. They’d come into the life of Anna Marie Duke when she was eight, essentially taking over from her alcoholic father and clinically depressed mother. Hoping to remake her in the mold of another child star, Patty McCormack (the evil little girl in The Bad Seed), they changed Anna’s name to Patty Duke, abruptly announcing that “Anna Marie is dead; you're Patty now.”
A 1987 autobiography, Call Me Anna, that she wrote with drama critic Kenneth Turan details years of mistreatment at the hands of her unscrupulous managers, who financially exploited her, while also introducing her early on to alcohol and prescription medications. After the cancellation of The Patty Duke Show, she made a surprising jump (at 21) to the over-the-top role of Neely, an actress prone to booze, drugs, and cat fights in Valley of the Dolls. (Here’s an unforgettable sample of her campy tough-gal dialogue, as she discusses her latest flame: “Ted Casablanca is NOT a fag . . . and I'm the dame who can prove it.”) The role of Neely is loosely based on the life of Judy Garland, but an ample share of Patty Duke’s own misery seeps into her performance as well.
It was not until 1982, when she was in her thirties, that Duke was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, for which she was successfully treated. From that time onward, she became a strong public advocate for mental health issues. She also served three years as president of the Screen Actors Guild, while continuing to earn respect for a wide variety of acting roles. Her domestic life was often rocky, but apparently her last years were peaceful ones. Following her death, son Sean Astin paid tribute to “our beloved wife, mother, grandmother, matriarch and the exquisite artist, humanitarian, and champion for mental health.”
The Miracle Worker was the rare popular film built around the relationship of two females. Anne Bancroft, five years before The Graduate, won her Oscar for playing Helen Keller’s devoted teacher, Annie Sullivan. So sad that we have now lost both these great actresses.