Patty Duke, best known as Helen Keller in the 1962 film The Miracle Worker, has died at the age of 69. After surviving the dark side of child stardom, Duke sat down with PEOPLE in 1999 to open up about her battle with manic depression and reveal how she turned her life around. Read the profile below:
It’s feeding time at the 40-acre northern Idaho farm that actress Patty Duke calls home. Clad in faded overalls and work boots, Duke ignores three donkeys braying for their breakfast in favor of Tommy, her pet tortoise, to whom she proffers a banana. But while Duke tries to coax Tommy out of his shell, Brother, her chocolate Labrador, chomps the banana in Duke’s hand. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to be,” says Duke, laughing. “But then,” she adds, “things often don’t turn out the way you plan.”
In Duke’s case, that has to be the understatement of the year. As perhaps the most celebrated child star of her generation, she wowed Broadway theatergoers at age 12 in her stunning debut as the blind and deaf Helen Keller in 1959’s The Miracle Worker. Who would have guessed that Duke, who went on to play perky all-American teen Patty Lane and her demure Scottish cousin Cathy on TV’s The Patty Duke Show (1963-66), would grow up to be hooked on tranquilizers and later diagnosed as a manic-depressive? Nor could anyone have imagined that the mercurial starlet who at 18 tied the knot with a TV director nearly twice her age – the first of four marriages – would end up devotedly married to a retired Army drill sergeant.
“I lucked out and found goodness personified,” says Duke, 52, of her husband, Michael Pearce, 44. She is sitting on the living room rug of the spacious four-bedroom farmhouse they share with their son Kevin, 10. “Mike’s selfless, and he has humor and remarkable strength” – traits his wife seems to share. Since moving to Idaho nine years ago – and getting fewer acting roles – “a certain amount of ego has gone by the wayside,” says the three-time Emmy winner. “Here, I clean the toilets, shop at the grocery store and visit the pawn shop with Kevin for Beanie Babies. And I love it.”
Of course, she still loves acting too and last November flew to Montreal to shoot a TV movie sequel – airing April 27 on CBS – with her old Patty Duke Show family. Among those who turned up were William Schallert, now 76, who played her dad, Martin; Jean Byron, 73 (mom Natalie), Paul O’Keefe, 48 (kid brother Ross) and Eddie Applegate, 63 (then boyfriend – now ex-husband – Richard). Duke had long resisted the idea of a sequel. “I pooh-poohed the show for many years. It wasn’t sophisticated or classy,” she says. “But as I got close to 50, it became important to touch base with those people again.” Says Schallert of Duke: “She’s much more together and mature. She’s raised two kids [and five stepchildren], and she’s a grandmother. I can’t get over that.”
Nor can she. “One of the reasons I survived as well as I did,” she says, “was my genetics. My mother and father both had very tough lives, and boy, were they survivors.”
Anna Marie Duke – Patty’s given name – was just six years old when her mother, Frances, a restaurant cashier who suffered bouts of depression, kicked her alcoholic husband, John, a cabbie and handyman, out of the family’s bedbug-infested New York City walkup. Though Duke would see him – usually at his favorite bar– only a few times before his death in 1963, “I worshipped my father,” she says today.
At seven, Anna Marie met the couple who would become her surrogate parents. John and Ethel Ross were managers who specialized in child actors, including her older brother Ray. (Ray eventually lost interest and is now, at 57, a payroll consultant; sister Carol, 58, is a financial aid counselor.) When the Rosses asked Frances if they could take on her younger daughter as a client, she agreed. Soon they had taken over the girl’s life, “everything from what I wore to when I slept to what I ate,” says Duke. When she was eight, she recalls, Ethel announced: “We’re gonna change your name. Anna Marie is dead. You’re Patty now.”
As Patty Duke, she began to build an acting resume – in TV ads, daytime soaps, bit parts on live dramas – more than 50 shows by the time she was 12. At that point, with her mother’s consent, Duke moved into the Rosses’ apartment. There, she began training for her biggest role. “I remember John Ross teaching her how to walk blind and look blind for a year before the audition for The Miracle Worker,” Ray Duke says. She wound up beating out 100 other girls, and on opening night she, Anne Bancroft (who played teacher Annie Sullivan) and their castmates received 13 curtain calls. “She was fantastic in the role,” says Patricia Neal, who played Helen Keller’s mother. “She just worked from the heart. She was an actress, pure and simple.”
But success carried a price. The Rosses curtailed their prot g e’s visits with her mother and close friends. In fact, concerned that the chronically depressed Frances would embarrass Patty, they even kept her from attending the 1963 ceremony at which her daughter won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the film version of The Miracle Worker.
There were limits to Patty’s submissiveness. On two occasions, says Duke, John and Ethel each tried to fondle her in bed. “My response both times was to vomit,” she says. The abuse ended.
Their spell over her was broken only after Patty, 17, fell for Harry Falk, 31, an assistant director on The Patty Duke Show, which was then produced in New York City. Seeking to quash their romance, the Rosses got the sitcom moved to Los Angeles. A furious Duke left the Rosses and moved into her own L.A. apartment, then got them barred from the set. John died in 1970, Ethel eight years later. “I forgive them for the bad,” Duke says today, “and have come to acknowledge that if I love this life I have – and I do – then certainly they are responsible for it in a large part.”
Duke and Falk wed in November 1965, just shy of her 19th birthday. But, she says, “I didn’t know how to be an adult. I had no preparation.” Nor did either of them know how to handle her increasingly manic mood swings. Their side effects were disastrous: She briefly became anorexic – dropping at one point to a skeletal 76 pounds. Duke also began drinking heavily and taking Valium – on which she overdosed, she estimates, eight times. “They were cries for help,” she insists.
Falk twice persuaded her to go to a psychiatric hospital, but both stays were short-lived. The couple divorced in 1967. Three years later, Duke, then 23, embarked on an affair with the 17-year-old Desi Arnaz Jr., whose mother, Lucille Ball, demanded that he end it. But they continued to see each other, off and on, for several months. In June 1970, Duke, in a manic state, impulsively wed Michael Tell, a rock promoter who had been subletting her apartment. Their 13-day marriage, never consummated, was annulled. Just prior to their union, Duke had discovered she was pregnant. Afterward she deduced that the father of her baby was actor John Astin (formerly of TV’s The Addams Family), with whom she had been secretly trysting.
They agreed to keep their affair a secret until after their son Sean was born and Astin was divorced. At their 1972 nuptials, 17-month-old Sean (now 28 and an actor) cried out, “Daddy.” Soon after the 1973 birth of Sean’s brother Mackenzie (now 26 and also an actor), John’s sons, David, Allen and Tom, moved in with them.
With five rambunctious boys, the Astin household was hardly the Brady Bunch. “It was terrible,” Duke says of those years. “I was a truly loving mom, but I didn’t have the tools to do the job.” As in the past, she would retreat to the bedroom and her tranquilizers. Once, in a manic rage, she threw her Oscar across the room, shattering it.
In 1982 a psychiatrist diagnosed her manic depression and prescribed lithium to control her mood swings. “It saved my life and it gave me life,” says Duke. “Prior to that, I wasn’t able to make any long-term decisions.” Astin, 16 years older, had been a father figure. In 1984 he became a Buddhist whose fervor to convert his family alienated his wife. “We had gone as far as we could,” she says. They divorced in 1985.
Later that year, Duke went to Fort Benning, Ga., to shoot A Time to Triumph, a TV movie about a housewife turned Army helicopter pilot. There she met Sgt. Michael Pearce, who had been assigned to toughen up the actress he nicknamed Private Pyle. “She looked like a tomato, in her green suit and red hat [on] the obstacle course,” he recalls. But the then-married but separated sergeant and his divorced trainee soon found themselves smitten. Following his divorce, they wed in 1986, and Duke became an enthusiastic stepmother to his daughters Raelene, then 10, and Charlene, 8. Kevin was adopted in 1988.
In Pearce’s native Idaho, Duke’s survival skills were tested anew. Her mother, who had moved in with the family a few years earlier, died in 1992. Then, last April, Raelene, 22, drowned when the car she was driving skidded into a river near the farm. The tragedy “drew our family closer together,” says Duke, “but there isn’t a day that goes by that some part of you isn’t anguished.”
Still, life on the farm goes on. “Anna’s back door is always open,” says her friend Liese Thompson, 40, a bank officer, “and the coffee is hot.” Sipping some now, Duke muses, “I’ve taken a lot of detours, kind of like a myopic homing pigeon, but I’ve finally made it. With my marriage and my children, and with those strangers who come up to me in the supermarket. When they say, ‘I love you,’ I think they mean it. And I get to say it back.”