The Miracle of Patty Duke

Wow, Patty Duke! A huge smile automatically came to my face when my friend Rick Kautz brought an idea to me regarding the showbiz legend touring with a screening of her 1962 film “The Miracle Worker.”

It was in recognition of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the film, and I said “Absolutely! Let’s do the screening, and let’s bring her in!” It was one of the most memorable presentations I had ever done at the Arcada Theatre, and now, after her recent passing, that night has become all the more special to me.

When she arrived, I was as excited as I usually am with any rock star I meet at the theater. She was part of that black-and-white television generation I had grown up with, and just seeing her and that all-too-familiar smile was like a cup of hearty minestrone soup on a blistery fall day for me. She was as warm, and gave me a great hug upon our introduction.

After going over the plan for the evening, she remained at the theater, approachable and humble, welcoming any opportunity to talk about her career with her adoring fans.

After getting to know her, it was somewhat hard to believe and, frankly, quite a bit disheartening that this sweet, small-framed, yet big-smiled lady had a lifelong battle with mental-health issues, having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1982. What was even more painful to hear was that it wasn’t until she was almost 36 years old when her condition came to light. This was a condition she battled with since she was a successful child actor, and her personal situation didn’t help.

Her father was an alcoholic who, along with her clinically depressed mother, brought regular mistreatment and violence into their home. Her parents split up when she was just 6 years old, and at the tender age of 8, she was sent off to be cared for by “talent managers” John and Ethel Ross. They were already working with the family as they were trying to promote Patty’s brother, Raymond. Their methods were horrible, possibly indicative of the time, but still, unforgivable.

Alcohol, prescription drugs, sexual advances and money pilfering was commonplace for the young actress, all at the behest of her “caretakers.” They lied about her age and even forced her to lie to a grand jury investigating rigged game shows on television. They even changed her birth name of Anna Marie to Patty in an effort to capture residual fame from the popular teen star of the time, Patty McCormack (who also played Helen Keller in the original 1957 stage play of The Miracle Worker).

Duke appeared on Broadway in the stage adaptation of “The Miracle Worker.” She played Helen Keller in this compelling autobiographical story about a young deaf and blind girl and her frustrations with life. Her performance was so compelling, Duke was selected to reprise the role on screen opposite Anne Bancroft as her tutor.

The young actress won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, catapulting Duke to national stardom. As a result, famed television producer Sidney Sheldon was assigned the task of giving the 16 year old her own TV show.

“Sidney invited me to stay with him and his family for a week so he could get to know me better,” Patty told me. “He had no idea of what to make the show about. But he was such a genius. He noticed my two sides and came up with the idea for ‘The Patty Duke Show.’ ”

The show was about two identical cousins, one mischievous and forthright, and the other prim and proper. The show ran for three seasons, until Duke turned 18 and started making her own decisions.

“Didn’t it seem a bit ‘out there,’ ” I asked her. “I mean, identical cousins?”

“It was TV at the time,” she said. “Remember shows like ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ and ‘The Addams Family’ (starring John Astin, her third husband)? They were al ‘out there,’ ” she said.

Duke also played a pill-popping woman — the antithesis of her clean-cut established roles — in the 1967 film “Valley of the Dolls.”

“I just wanted to break out from the wholesome thing,” she said. “But nobody liked me that way. And nobody liked me in the film that way. It is a cult classic now, but then? It almost killed my career.”

Duke also successfully tried her hand at music, with two Top Forty hits in 1965. She appeared on several television shows including “Shindig” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Patty kept on acting, but her mission in advocacy really sparked her. “I was president of the Screen Actors Guild for three years because I knew what it was like to be an actor who was taken advantage of,” she said. “That charge, and creating awareness for mental-health issues, kept my blood pressure up,” she said.

She subsequently wrote a book, “Call Me Anna,” that delved deep into her mental illness, a risky proposition for such a public person. But it was turned into a television movie in which she starred, and her public welcomed her bravery and her condition with open arms.

She got to play her “dream role” of Anne Sullivan, the character played by Anne Bancroft in “The Miracle Worker” film, in a 1979 made-for-TV adaptation. She won her third Emmy Award playing opposite Melissa Gilbert, who played the young Helen Keller. Duke said it was a “surreal experience” for her.

Patty was so generous with her discussion about “The Miracle Worker” that night at The Arcada. I asked her several questions, and she graciously elaborated on each of them. “How did you get that role?” I asked. “They auditioned over 500 kids, but I landed it!” she said. “I had three auditions for the show. I had been preparing for over a year. I realized this was going to be something very special and I really wanted this part. During the audition process, Anne Bancroft and I got very physical — she hit me and I hit her back. It was like being a boxer in the ring. Anne and I had to wear a lot of padding. About a year into the stage show I started to go through adolescence and one night Anne grabbed me by the chest and I went to the moon. So my chest had to be padded down with a version of a catcher’s vest and then it had to be waterproofed. So we carried around a lot of extra weight.”

On meeting Helen Keller, Duke said: “It was very special. I was taken to her house in Connecticut and brought into the living room. When I first saw Helen walking down the stairs, she looked almost regal. I thought I was looking up at God. She walked down the stairs without using the banister. She just held out her pinkie and guided it down the stairs on a thin piece of clear fish wire. She was close to 80 years old by this time. She had a terrific smile and was very jolly. We communicated by ourselves. I spelled into her hand and then she put her hands on the vibrating parts of my neck, jaw and mouth and that’s how she heard what I was saying. It was astounding.”

Anna Marie “Patty” Duke left us at 69, decades before she should have. In some ironic sense, she had great vision and was vocal. Her role as a deaf and blind girl allowed for her to foster those attributes. If you think about all she went through, all she endured and all she accomplished, Patty Duke was a “Miracle Worker” in her own right.

I’ll never forget those hugs I got from her that night, and how incredible it was to sit next to her and to watch her watching her film. She was a true American hero with a mighty sword of sincerity who helped countless people see the light, and hear the beautiful, despite the difficult things in life.