The Ups and Downs of Patty Duke

People just a little bit older than me have a much different picture in their heads of Anna Marie “Patty” Duke (1946-2016) than I do. When I first knew her, she was billed as Patty Duke Astin — she was married at the time to John Astin of The Addams Family. My first clear memory of learning about her was in the 1979 TV movie remake of The Miracle Worker opposite Melissa Gilbert of Little House on the Prairie. There was much publicity about this television event, because Duke had originated the role that Gilbert was now playing, Helen Keller, in the original Broadway production (1959-61) and the 1962 movie (for which she had won an Oscar). 20 years later she was now playing Annie Sullivan, the part originated by Anne Bancroft, and Gilbert was Keller. (In retrospect it is almost amusing that Melissa Gilbert took on this project at this time. A few months earlier her TV sister, played by Melissa Sue Anderson, had gone blind on Little House. It’s almost as though the girls were competing as to who could do the best blind scenes. Gilbert may have trumped Anderson here however by being deaf as well.) At any rate, this was my first impression of Duke, one that’s never been quite dispelled: a former child star who now did lots and lots of schlocky television.

People older than me, however, see her very differently. After her initial splash in the original The Miracle Worker, Duke immediately went on to another success in the form of her own hit television sitcom, The Patty Duke Show, which ran from 1963 through 1966. On the show she played two teenaged twin cousins who lived in tony Brooklyn Heights (Duke herself was from Queens). One, Patty, was a trouble-prone American girl. The other, Cathy, was an obedient girl from Scotland. And their physical similarities led to all kind of “Comedy of Errors” style mix-ups. Her dad/uncle was played by the delightful William Schallert. So Boomers especially have a certain conception of her, and very much associate her with the the Gidget/Beach Party/ Elvis musical era of entertainment. I was too young to have experienced this, and the show wasn’t rerun where I lived, so I didn’t discover it until much later. But three years is a good run for a TV show. The Patty Duke Show remains one of her best known achievements.

From here, she went on to one more (qualified) early triumph. She starred in the 1967 screen version of Jacqueline Susanne’s Valley of the Dolls. The film was a box office hit. And yet it did not make Duke a movie star. It’s worth unpacking to speculate as to why. As monstrous stage and screen actress Neely O’Hara, Duke sings, dances, and chews the scenery. It’s less a tour de force than an indulgent showcase. And it is frankly a bit over the top. I don’t know how much it was regarded as camp at the time, but it certainly was by 1972 when Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert made Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Her character is a boozer and a pill-popper and an out-of-control emotional handful. And for the rest of her career, Duke seemed to relish these showboaty, tawdry kind of projects that allowed for these kind of pyrotechnics. It later emerged that she was bipolar (a fact even The Patty Duke Show, as devised by creator Sidney Sheldon, underlines). Offscreen apparently she was kind of like Neely O’Hara, with huge mood swings between depression and mania. She later wrote a lot about her issues, dramatized them, and spoke in public about them.

Duke’s next starring film for cinematic release, Me, Natalie (1969) did not fare well at the box office. For most of her career she was to toil in television. She starred or co-starred in four additional TV series, all of them short-lived. Three of them were sit-coms: It Takes Two (1982-83) with Richard Crenna; Hail to the Chief (1985) with Ted Bessell; and Karen’s Song (1987) with Lewis Smith and Lainie Kazan. Amazing Grace (1995) was a drama in which she played a minister who is a recovering alcoholic. There were only five episodes of that one. And naturally she was a highly visible guest star on things like The Love Boat and Touched by an Angel.

But mostly I associate her with gobs and gobs of hokey TV movies (and a couple of theatrical ones), usually in the horror or exploitational melodrama veins. These include You’ll Like My Mother (1972), Nightmare (1974), Look What Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976), Irwin Allen’s Fire (1977), Dan Curtis’s Curse of the Black Widow (1977), Killer on Board (1977), Irwin Allen’s The Swarm (1978), Hanging By a Thread (1979), Babysitter (1980), Please Don’t Hit Me Mom (1981), The Violation of Sara McDavid (1981), Fatal Judgment (1988), Amityville Horror: The Evil Escapes (1989), Everybody’s Baby: The Rescue of Jessica McClure (1989), Call Me Anna (1990, in which she portrayed herself), Grave Secrets: The Legacy of Hilltop Drive (1992) etc etc etc. She played Martha Washington in the 1984 George Washington mini-series and 1986 sequel, which was marginally more dignified. She also had a decent role in the mainstream film Prelude to a Kiss (1992) with Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan.

From 1985 to 1988 Duke served as President of the Screen Actors Guild, which explains the little gap during the ’80s you see in the list in the paragraph above. She was the second female to serve in that job. We are delighted to note that one of her last roles was a guest shot on Glee. And in 1999 she starred in the inevitable Patty Duke reunion movie The Patty Duke Show: Still Rockin’ in Brooklyn Heights.

Duke died suddently and mysteriously at the age of 69 of sepsis following a ruptured intestine. This fact had me frantically googling her obituaries and then medical sites. I wanted to know the rest of the story. I mean WHAT ruptured her intestine??? That can just happen? Often there are logical causes for such a rupture, but none of the news accounts mention a cause for Duke’s. I suppose that one day, one’s parts can just wear out and give way and that’s that. I did read that smoking and drinking can increase the risk of such a thing happening to your digestive organs. And one can reasonably surmise that Patty Duke did plenty of both. But though she was taken early, she built a legacy of work over a career that spanned 60 years. And her sons, actors Sean Astin and MacKenzie Astin have added to it.