From the PEOPLE Archive: Inside Patty Duke's Life and 'Heartbreaking' Youth as a Child Star

Patty Duke has died at the age of 69

Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty

Patty Duke, best known as Helen Keller in the 1962 film The Miracle Worker and for headlining her own sitcom, has died, She was 69. In 1985, just ahead of her 40th birthday, the actress sat down with PEOPLE to discuss love, career and her troubled past. Read the profile below:

“Little Patty Duke is gonna be 40 next year? Wow! How can that be? I’d swear she was 18 just a minute ago!”

Little Patty Duke – and at an even five feet she still Is little – giggles at her self-parody. “That’s exactly how I feel about it,” she says, “like someone who’s been watching me on TV all these years.” But Patty Duke fans who remember her as the Broadway prodigy from The Miracle Worker or as the reckless young actress who kept Hollywood gossip columnists guessing are in for a shock. Little Patty Duke is the mother of five sons, plays strictly adult roles onscreen and off and two weeks ago succeeded Ed Asner as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

For Patty it has been a watershed year, another turning point in a life that could have been written by Dickens, with music and lyrics by Freud. Running for the SAG presidency against actor Ed Nelson (she had the endorsement of Asner and the union’s nominating committee), Duke spoke and pumped hands on both coasts. Though her ABC series, Hail to the Chief, collapsed last summer after only seven episodes, she rebounded quickly, recently completing A Time to Triumph, a CBS movie in which she plays a woman who joins the Army to support her family. Her 13-year marriage to actor-director John Astin, which had its stormy ups and downs, ended last February in divorce. And she has begun to relive her entire turbulent and sometimes painful career for an autobiography to be published by Bantam Books.

Duke’s SAG victory, by 3,400 votes out of more than 19,000 cast, may have written finis to the much publicized feuding between the union’s social and political activist wing headed by Asner and more conservative members united under the rubric Actors Working for an Actors Guild, co-founded by Charlton Heston. “The so-called war between Ed Asner and Charlton Heston has been blown out of proportion,” says Duke. “The real issues for actors are wages, working hours and working conditions, and those are the issues I will address. I think I have something to offer as someone who is nonthreatening, who really does want to listen to all sides, who wants to reunite the guild and bring dignity back to being a member.”

Two nonunion issues she will be involved with are the currently moribund ERA and the movement for a nuclear freeze. “I made a promise to my youngest son to work for the freeze, and that promise means more to me than any other promise I make,” she explains. Duke has also been raising money for AIDS research and was cheered at a recent rally in West Hollywood when she told a primarily gay audience that she was concerned about the disease not only because of her own fears but because “I have two sons who are about to become sexually active, and I think they should be educated about the dangers of AIDS, just as they are educated about birth control.”

Duke is close to all five of her sons – three of them stepsons from Astin’s first marriage – and has a busy time just keeping track of them. “They are all good boys, and by ‘good’ I mean people who care about how other people feel. David, the oldest, is 26 and works in the computer industry. Allen, who is 24, has traveled to India and is a follower of the teachings of Baba Muktananda. I am fascinated by his change from a Mr. Macho, with loud music and fast women, to this searching for inner peace. If you say you are a Catholic or a Jew, everyone says, ‘Oh, fine.’ But if you are questing, you get pegged as a weirdo. I was guilty of that with Al for a while, but now we have wonderful discussions. My 20 year old, Tom, is starting UCLA. It has been a struggle getting him there, but no different from the same sort of struggle in other households.”

Despite their mother’s frequent proclamations that no child of hers would ever set foot on a stage, Duke’s two youngest sons have embarked on acting careers. Sean, 14, made his big-screen debut in Steven Spielberg‘s The Goonies and incredibly receives 4,000 pieces of fan mail a week. He is currently on location in Quincy, Calif. filming Rites of Spring with director Jeff Bleckner. Mackenzie, 12, is very audibly still at home with his collection of rock albums, which he plays when not in his seventh grade classroom or on the set of NBC’s The Facts of Life. Both kids remember that Patty discouraged their early interest in acting. “She had a bad time of it when she was a kid,” says Sean. “But when she saw that it was going to be okay for us, she changed her mind and helped us get into the business.”

Bad time of it when she was a kid? For Patty Duke, one of the most successful child actresses in history? She began at 8 in a TV docudrama with her brother. By the time she was 13, she had earned top billing on Broadway as the young Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. For her role in the movie version, she became the youngest actress ever to win an Academy Award. At 16 she was starring in her own television series, The Patty Duke Show, which ran for three years. “Yes, I was successful, but the price I paid was terrible,” she says. “My parents were very poor when I was a child, and my father left when I was 7. I never saw him again. I was introduced to acting by John and Ethel Ross, New York theatrical managers who had helped my brother, Raymond, to get started in show business. As I became more successful in small parts and commercials, they began to take over my life, as well as my career.”

Realizing Patty’s potential, the Rosses persuaded Frances Duke that she should allow her daughter to live with them. “What a horrible, heartbreaking decision that must have been for my mother,” says Duke. “She was alone and insecure and wanted to do the right thing for her child. She thought the Rosses had a kind of magic that would make my life wonderful. If you tell that to someone who is from a poor family, orphaned herself at the age of 5, separated from her husband, Catholic and guilty for breathing – well, it works. Of course to me as a child, it was a clear case of abandonment. I thought, ‘What did I do wrong? Now how do I please these folks so that I don’t get sent off someplace else?’ ”

The Rosses didn’t hesitate to suggest possibilities, effectively cutting Patty off from her mother and setting out to remake the little girl as a star. They changed her name, Anna Marie, to Patty (partly because of another child actress, Patty McCormack) and told her, “Anna Marie is dead.” They taught her what to say and how to say it, paring away her New York accent and training her in a repertoire of carefully rehearsed little speeches. Patty, who prefers to be called Anna Marie by her family and friends, remembers her childhood as a form of solitary confinement. “We lived insulated lives,” she says. “I saw no one but the Rosses except on the set. They obsessively controlled my life so that I never had an opinion about anything, including my own personal bathing habits, what I wore or even closing the door to my room. I became a perfect Stepford child.”

So perfect was her obedience that in 1959 she perjured herself before a New York grand jury investigating TV quiz shows. The year before she had tied with child star Eddie Hodges on The $64,000 Challenge, answering questions about popular music. Like many other contestants, Patty had been told in advance what to say, and the Rosses later coached her to lie to the grand jury. Then she was summoned to appear before a House subcommittee, where she lied again. “At the very end of my testimony, a Congressman looked at me very sternly and asked me if I was sure I had told the truth,” she remembers. “I have no idea what came over me, whether it was fear or a sense that the jig was up. I said, ‘No, sir. Everything I just told you was a lie.’ We started all over again and I told everything I knew about anybody, anywhere, anytime, anyplace. I was only 12 years old, and I didn’t want to go to one of those reform schools! Of course it was a good thing I said what I did because Charles Van Doren had already told the truth and the subcommittee knew that I was lying.”

Onstage and onscreen and even in newspaper interviews, Patty Duke was a happy, talented prodigy. “But behind that facade something dark and sinister was going on,” she says. “The fear of losing me so permeated the Rosses’ psyches that on every level of human relations there was distortion. There was an inordinate amount of drinking and of behavior based on that loss of control. You name it, it happened.” She continues, refusing to be more specific, “I have been trying to sort it out in years of analysis, and I am finally ready to talk about it in my book. But I want to tell it all. And I want to try to understand the Rosses.”

A baroque twist to the story is that Patty’s mother was hired to go once a week to the Rosses’ apartment to do their laundry by hand. “I know now that she noticed what was going on, but she obviously felt powerless to do anything about it,” says Patty. “She was overwhelmed. Every time I talked to her she was upset…. I’ll never know the depths probably, but I can have a pretty good idea of how much and how long she suffered. This is a woman who barely spoke for years because of the pain she was in. She only forgave herself about three years ago. She’s 73 years old, and she has just blossomed since she came out of that tunnel of depression.”

Patty finally broke with the Rosses’ in 1965 when, at 18, she married Harry Falk Jr., a 32-year-old assistant director on The Patty Duke Show. Two years later she co-starred in the film version of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, playing the pill-popping, boozing neurotic Neely O’Hara. Many people came to suspect it was a case of casting to type. Rumors linking Duke to drugs, alcoholism and erratic behavior were reinforced by her rambling and incoherent appearance on the nationally televised Emmy Awards show in 1970. “The truth of the matter is that my condition had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. I was having a serious emotional breakdown,” she says. “Unlike most people in trouble who fall apart in the privacy of their bedrooms, I fell apart on network television.”

[IMAGE “2” “” “std” ]

Considering the circumstances her condition was hardly surprising. Still recovering from her divorce from Falk three months earlier, Duke had found herself pregnant by John Astin, who was married to someone else. For a good Catholic girl, abortion was put of the question. A short time after the Emmy ceremony, Patty, frantic with guilt, proceeded to marry a “total stranger” whom she met when he came to sublet her apartment in Las Vegas. (They were together for 13 days and the marriage was annulled a year later.) Meanwhile Patty had attempted to resolve her anger toward her surrogate father, John Ross. But before she could mail a letter of reconciliation, she received the news of his death. “On top of this my mother was having problems, and I was the only one in the family who could deal with them, although I was barely able to cope myself.”

She pulled herself through with the help of a psychoanalyst and the loving support of John Astin, to whom she still refers with obvious warmth. Discussing their recent divorce, she says, “There is a deep and abiding love between us, but we just don’t get along. It’s sort of like fingernails on the blackboard. He does it to me and I do it to him. We even laugh about it sometimes because it’s so absurd.” She pauses, the eyes glisten. “Since I’m learning not to deal in absolutes, even though we’re divorced the possibility exists that we might be back together,” she says.

Perhaps wishing that might be true, Patty has made no move to date other men. “I spent more than a third of my life with John,” she says. “Getting used to the idea of dating is very difficult. I’m not the only 38 year old with this problem, but what do you do? What are the rules?” After a moment she adds, “Also there is this shadow – and I say ‘shadow’ not meaning anything spooky – but there is this ghost that hasn’t found its resting place yet. So it’s hard. It’s not tragic. It’s not really painful anymore. It’s just strange.”

Recently, as a kind of occupational therapy, Patty found herself surrounded by men, all more corporeal than ghostly, at the Fort Benning, Ga. location for A Time to Triumph, where she worked herself into shape without benefit of aerobics and leotards. “I was in basic training for the first week of the show and lost eight pounds,” she says. “I had two drill sergeants teaching me how to march and do push-ups, and I had to learn how to fly a helicopter – or at least look like I knew how to fly it.”

Says director Noel Black: “Patty threw herself into this part with all her energy, which is exactly why we chose her. We couldn’t have done this story with some glamour girl. We needed somebody who can act the hell out of it.” That of course is what Patty Duke has been doing all her life, through occasional thick and much thin. From indentured juvenile to tortured adult to union leader before her 39th birthday, she has paid heavy dues and plans to keep paying. “I can assure you,” she says, still sweating from one of her workouts, “the roles don’t get any easier, either onscreen or off.”

Related Articles