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R.I.P. Patty Duke: Dec. 14, 1946 to March 29, 2016

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Anna Marie “Patty” Duke won an Oscar and three Emmys, had four husbands and spent much of her adult life trying to make peace with a very traumatic childhood.

She died at age 69 Tuesday after coming full circle and embracing her emblematic The Patty Duke Show for what it meant to millions rather than what it did to her at the time.

During a 1990 interview with television critics during that year’s summer “press tour” in Los Angeles, Duke said emphatically, “I hated The Patty Duke Show (which ran from 1963 to 1966 on ABC). “I hated everything about it, except the people on the set.”

But nine years later, in our extended telephone interview, Duke talked about why she finally consented to a reunion movie in which she played adult versions of “identical cousins” Patty and Cathy Lane.

The Patty Duke Show: Still Rockin’ in Brooklyn Heights aired in April 1999. Duke, 52 at the time, had finally grown weary of running away from the TV series that a generation still fondly remembered. Never mind that Oscar for The Miracle Worker, which she won as a 16-year-old in the same year The Patty Duke Show premiered. You couldn’t sing along to Helen Keller’s travails. On the other hand, “meet Cathy, who’s lived most everywhere. From Zanzibar to Barclay Square. But Patty’s only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights. What a crazy pair!”


“In the year when I turned 50, I was asked about doing a reunion movie,” Duke said at the time from her home in Idaho. “As usual, I said no. But then I had to examine myself and try to separate the painful stuff in my life at that time from the fact that the show and the people on it were really a safe haven for me. When I was 18, with a very broad stroke, I sort of erased it all from my mind and went into the denial stage. Because you know, I was going to go off and be a ‘sophisticated actress.’ “

Diagnosed as manic-depressive in 1982, Duke took lithium for her illness since that time. It helped her to cope and eventually tell all in her best-selling autobiography Call Me Anna, which became a same-named ABC movie in 1990. Duke played herself as an adult after some searing scenes of a childhood without pity. As Duke told it, her aunt Ethel and Uncle John virtually abducted her from an unstable mother for the purposes of continuing her budding show business career. They also renamed her Patty (“Anna is dead”) and plied Patty with Ethel’s “little wonders” (barbituates) to help her make it through the nights. She continued to pop pills as a teen TV star.

In the 1990 interview promoting the film version of Call Me Anna, Duke said she had found peace in forgiveness.

“I cannot go on with my life if I carry anger and hatred and bitterness,” she said. “It’s my opinion that the things they (her aunt and uncle) did that were wrong were borne more of distortion and alcoholism and pill addiction and fear than they were borne of two people who sat down maliciously to see how they could devastate this little girl’s life.”

By that time, Duke had met and married her fourth husband, Michael Pearce, with whom she remained until the end. Her second marriage was to John Astin, who became famous as the star of ABC’s The Addams family during the closing two seasons of The Patty Duke Show. During their 13-year marriage (1972-’85), Duke won acting Emmys for both Captains and the Kings and the TV version of The Miracle Worker, in which she played Helen Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan. Her third Emmy came in 1970 for the groundbreaking film My Sweet Charlie, which depicted the interracial friendship of a pregnant white teenager and a black escaped convict.

“I’ve gotten to the age where I like that stuff,” Duke said of the official accolades for her acting. “I’ve actually taken the awards from the basement and put them upon the mantel. When you’re trying to convince people that you’re a ‘regular person,’ you don’t want to have all your awards out. But then you realize that they want to see them, too. I’ve finally come to enjoy them, enjoy the fun they mean. And I choose to ignore the competition that they mean.”

Still, The Patty Duke Show, for which she won no awards, remained a touchstone she couldn’t escape. So she stopped trying, and by the time of our 1999 interview tied to the reunion movie, Duke was even game to analyze Patty (“a hot dog makes her lose control”) and Cathy (“adores a minuet”) as both adults and teenagers.

“Patty’s this developmentally disabled woman, but I know people like that,” Duke surmised. “She’s perfectly responsible in the grown-up portion of her life, but otherwise forget it. She’s committable. Cathy, of course, was always easier for me to play because she was brought up to be the sane, logical, centered one. I liked that, and I still like that. But I’d say this is the first time I really had fun playing Patty, too. As a kid I didn’t know what teenagers did. I wasn’t raised as a real teenager, so I felt awkward. But I didn’t have any of that to worry about this time.”

Duke co-starred in three other TV sitcoms after The Patty Duke Show left ABC. But 1982’s It Takes Two, 1985’s Hail to the Chief (in which she played the small screen’s first woman president) and 1995’s Amazing Grace were all quickly canceled.

In It Takes Two, though, the then unknown Helen Hunt and Anthony Edwards played the two children of Molly and Sam Quinn (Duke and Richard Crenna). Edwards went on to NBC’s ER and Hunt to that network’s Mad About You while also winning a best actress Oscar for As Good as It Gets.

“It’s eerie. It’s wonderful,” Duke said. “I never miss either of their shows. I have to admit there’s a part of me that really feels like I’m their mother. And I take all the congratulations people are giving me for having such wonderful kids.”

Her real-life stepdaughter, Raeline Michelle Pearce, died in 1998 at the age of 22 in a motor vehicle accident. During the 1999 interview, Duke brought up the tragedy while talking of her newfound “calm and healthy acceptance” of life’s peaks and valleys.

“As impossible as her death is to make peace with, I’m just recently beginning to steal some insight from her passing,” Duke said. “They’re things that seem so normal and trite, but I didn’t understand them before. Such as living for the moment and telling someone you love them now rather than later. It’s been a very maturing year for me, because this topic of life and death has always haunted me in a negative way. And now the worst thing that could happen has happened. So if somebody doesn’t call me to play Will’s mother on Will & Grace, I’ll get by.”

Then again, Duke had been a high-profile working actress since age 12, when she took on the role of Helen Keller in Broadway’s version of The Miracle Worker. She was bred to be in front of audiences, and the yearning never left her.

“We just try to stay positive and go out and play with the horses and the cows and the donkeys, and hope that somehow the phone will ring. My actor son, Sean (Astin), says, ‘Mom, you’re not aggressive enough. They don’t just bring you parts. You have to go out and get them.’

“And I tell him, ‘They know where I am if they want me.’ “

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