Obituaries

Patty Duke, at 69; attained fame as young Oscar winner

Patty Duke also served as president of the Screen Actors Guild and she lobbied for causes including mental health, AIDS awareness, and nuclear disarmament.

Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review via Associated Press/File 2011

Patty Duke also served as president of the Screen Actors Guild and she lobbied for causes including mental health, AIDS awareness, and nuclear disarmament.

NEW YORK — Patty Duke, an Oscar-winning actress renowned at midcentury as a child star of stage, film, and television, who, amid public struggles with bipolar disorder, went on to cultivate a respected screen career in adulthood, died Tuesday at a hospital near her home in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. She was 69.

Her husband, Michael Pearce, said the cause was complications of a ruptured intestine that Ms. Duke suffered Thursday.

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Ms. Duke came to wide public notice in 1959, when, at 12, she starred as Helen Keller in the original Broadway production of William Gibson’s drama “The Miracle Worker.” Anne Bancroft played Helen’s teacher, Annie Sullivan.

For her work in the 1962 Hollywood film adaptation, in which she and Bancroft reprised their roles, Ms. Duke won the Academy Award for best supporting actress.

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She came to even wider attention the next year, with the debut of “The Patty Duke Show,” the popular ABC sitcom in which Ms. Duke played the dual roles of Patty Lane, an unaffected Brooklyn girl, and her worldly, British-accented “identical cousin,” Cathy Lane.

The show, which also starred William Schallert as Patty’s father, ran for three seasons.

Homey, comforting, and sentimental, the show, with its emblematic theme song (“Where Cathy adores a minuet,/the Ballets Russes, and crêpes Suzette,/Our Patty loves to rock and roll,/a hot dog makes her lose control;/What a wild duet!”) remains a touchstone of American nostalgia.

Reuters/File

Ms. Duke in 2001.

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But in an irony not lost one iota on Ms. Duke, the fame she won for playing a typical teenager — who inhabited a world of bubble gum and bobby socks and few real problems — belied the lifelong upheavals that began in childhood.

Among them were a threadbare upbringing; parental alcoholism; her removal from her home by her managers, who co-opted not only her earnings but also, Ms. Duke later wrote, her very identity; implication in the TV quiz show scandals of the late 1950s; four marriages; and more than one suicide attempt.

In the end, however, Ms. Duke found contentment in an enduring fourth marriage; the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild; public lobbying for causes including mental health, AIDS awareness, and nuclear disarmament; and a renewed television career that brought her three Emmys.

Anna Marie Duke was born in Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan and reared in the Elmhurst section of Queens. Her father, John Patrick Duke, was a handyman and a cabby; her mother, the former Frances McMahon, was a cashier.

Her mother, Ms. Duke later said, was chronically depressed; her father was an alcoholic. When Anna was 6, her father left the family, and she saw him again only occasionally.

Anna began acting at 7, after she was taken on by John and Ethel Ross, husband-and-wife managers who represented her older brother Ray. They immediately changed her name to the pert, less ethnic-sounding Patty.

“Anna Marie is dead; you’re Patty now,” she was told, as she recalled in a memoir, “Call Me Anna.”

‘I’ve beaten my own bad system and on some days, on most days, that feels like a miracle.’

Patty Duke 
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As Patty Duke, she landed bit parts in films and on television before being cast in “The Miracle Worker.” To prepare her to audition for the part, the Rosses took to blindfolding her and moving the furniture around.

Playing the young Helen Keller — a rigorous role that required her to act, persuasively but without sentimentality, the part of a deaf-blind child subject to fearsome rages; to learn the manual alphabet; and to engage nightly in an ad-libbed, highly physical onstage fight with Bancroft that could last nearly 10 minutes — she won critical plaudits and enduring fame.

In the view of many critics, Ms. Duke’s passage from Helen Keller to Patty Lane was a voyage from the sublime to the ridiculous.

From its pilot episode, scripted by Sidney Sheldon, the show gloried in its preposterous premise: two cousins so genetically indistinguishable that, as its theme song proclaimed, “They laugh alike, they walk alike, at times they even talk alike.”

But the public ate it up, along with vigorously marketed merchandise like dolls, clothes, puzzles, and board games.

The show’s success — and Patty Lane’s popularity in particular — was something Ms. Duke came to deplore.

Ms. Duke accepted the Academy Award for best supporting actress in 1963.

Associated Press/File

Ms. Duke accepted the Academy Award for best supporting actress in 1963.

“I hated being less intelligent than I was,” she later wrote. “I hated pretending I was younger than I was, I hated not being consulted about anything, having no choice in how I looked or what I wore, I hated being trapped.”

The Rosses, who by now saw Ms. Duke as a golden goose, removed her from her mother’s home against her wishes and took her to live with them. They monitored her every movement, she later said, telling her what to wear, what to do and what to eat, and fiercely controlling her mother’s access to her.

They also, Ms. Duke said, fed her uppers and downers and introduced her to alcohol. Both members of the couple, she later wrote, sexually molested her on occasion.

There was also financial malfeasance. In 1959, testifying before a congressional committee, John Ross admitted that Ms. Duke, who had appeared not long before on the TV quiz show “The $64,000 Challenge,” had been fed the answers by the show’s producers.

She won $32,000 on the show, of which John Ross took his standard 15 percent fee.

To extricate herself from the Rosses’ Svengali-like clutches, Ms. Duke married Harry Falk, an assistant director on “The Patty Duke Show,” when she was still a teenager; the marriage ended in divorce. A second marriage, to Michael Tell, was annulled after 13 days.

In 1972, Ms. Duke married the actor John Astin and was billed during their marriage as Patty Duke Astin. They divorced in 1985.

Ms. Duke’s other roles include the female lead in “My Sweet Charlie,” a 1970 TV movie in which she portrays a pregnant runaway who falls in love with a black man, played by Al Freeman Jr. Her performance garnered her the first of her three Emmy Awards.

On the big screen, she appeared in “Valley of the Dolls,” the 1967 adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s novel, playing Neely O’Hara, a woman addicted to sex, drugs, and alcohol.

But all the while, Ms. Duke was dealing increasingly with a real-life emotional instability for which she had no name. She attempted suicide several times, and was committed to mental hospitals.

Only in 1982 did she receive a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, along with proper medication. She recounted her experiences in another memoir, “A Brilliant Madness: Living With Manic-Depressive Illness.”

Ms. Duke’s survivors include her fourth husband, Pearce, an Army drill sergeant whom she married in 1986 (she preferred afterward to be known in private life as Anna Pearce); her brother, Raymond; two sons, the actors Sean Astin and Mackenzie Astin; a stepdaughter, Charlene Gibson, from her marriage to Pearce; a son, Kevin, with Pearce; and six grandchildren. Another stepdaughter from her fourth marriage, Raelene Pearce, died in 1998.

In a quotation on her website, Ms. Duke summed up her quicksilver life in lines whose final word fairly rings with resonance:

“I’ve survived,” she wrote. “I’ve beaten my own bad system and on some days, on most days, that feels like a miracle.”

Watch the intro from the “Patty Duke Show”:

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