Remembering Patty Duke

In the beginning of the 1960s, a child actress took the stage, screen and television ratings with remarkable creative and commercial success. Her name was Patty Duke. Sadly, the Academy Award-winning actress, pop singer and TV star of her own show died this week, apparently of sepsis. She was 69.

Courtesy of UPI

Patty Duke as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker/Courtesy of UPI

The life she lived before her unforgettable and groundbreaking performance as Helen Keller in the stage and film versions of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker was one of turbulence, alcoholism, depression, sexual assault and despair, a stream of child abuse which was a secret until the 1980s. The life she lived after her initial popularity and success carried a high price, too.

I think I first saw Patty Duke on a television game show. It was a 1970s CBS afternoon series titled Tattletales, a forerunner to today’s sordid and self-contradictory reality TV genre (in which nothing, in fact, is as it seems) and she would appear with other so-called celebrity couples with her then-husband, actor John Astin (The Addams Family). In retrospect, it was a flawed premise—it was maudlin—which was often uncomfortable and there is a sense in which Patty Duke, who was born as Anna Marie Duke and constantly struggled with her identity and self-esteem, became somewhat of an early reality TV star.

In fact, in a relevant prelude, Patty Duke had already been implicated in a TV scandal. She had admitted that, as a child star, she’d been given the answers in advance on a popular quiz show when quiz shows were the dominant non-fictional television genre. The genre never recovered from the scandal. But the quiz show scandal became a lesson in America’s cultural history from which Americans, many of whom currently keep up with TV sluts, nudes and bachelors and raise and pound fists at rallies for a TV fascist presidential candidate, have not learned.

Damage became part of Patty Duke’s brand as an actress and celebrity. From portraying Helen Keller in 1962 to playing a part based on Judy Garland in the 1967 adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls (as doomed stage and movie star Neely O’Hara), with hit songs and her own hit sitcom—she was the youngest person to get her own show—in between, Patty Duke’s talent and success aligned with the turbulent times. What happened before and between playing larger than life opposites Keller and O’Hara was happening in the culture, too; from her portrayal of an American heroine in what Ayn Rand called her favorite epistemological play to starring as a hedonistic star, Patty Duke’s career matched America’s descent into the gutter. Her personal life was marred by semi-public instances of an extramarital affair, unwed pregnancy, addiction and suicide.

Patty Duke as Annie Sullivan in 1979.

Patty Duke as Annie Sullivan in 1979.

That Patty Duke endured is an integral part of her heroism. The daughter of a manic depressive mother and an alcoholic father who was taken in by a couple who managed and, by her account, robbed and abused her triumphed over the era’s terrible secrets to continue to work and shine in an exceptional life. Patty Duke went on to write her memoirs (Call Me Anna), play the first woman president (Hail to the Chief), portray Martha Washington, and, memorably and powerfully, as Helen Keller’s teacher Annie Sullivan in an excellent TV version of The Miracle Worker with Melissa Gilbert as Helen Keller. She had three sons and eventually fell in love with Michael Pearce, a sergeant she met while playing a woman in the military, marrying him and moving to an Idaho ranch.

Her son, Sean Astin, a fine actor himself, wrote this week that “Anna ‘Patty Duke’ Pearce passed away this morning March 29, 2016 at 1:20 a.m…She was a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a friend, a mental health advocate and a cultural icon. She will be missed.”

For being an individual of ability and mastering her own damaged life—for choosing to take personal responsibility instead of hiding in fear, shame and repression—I know that I will miss Patty Duke, whom I had hoped to interview. Describing the petite actress as “fragile, tender and pained” when she auditioned for the role of Helen Keller, Arthur Penn, who directed Patty Duke both on stage and screen in The Miracle Worker, added that what distinguished Patty Duke was her “spark of liveliness.” What distinguishes her now, besides her talent, is that she chose to reignite it, protect it and never let it go out. May Anna rest in peace.

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