Patty Duke died Tuesday at the age of 69. And while her legacy will certainly live on in her many celebrated performances in both film and television, those close to the actress say they’ll remember her most for one thing: her ability to love.
“The true story of her life isn’t her work and it isn’t her advocacy, it’s the love relationship she’s had with her husband Mike for the last 30 years,” Duke’s son, actor Sean Astin, told the Associated Press.
But while Duke found happiness with her husband Michael Pearce, she traveled a winding road to get there. Duke was married three times before tying the knot with Pearce, a former military drill sergeant, in 1986.
In a desperate attempt to break free from her abusive surrogate parents and acting managers John and Ethel Ross, Duke married Harry Falk Jr., a 32-year-old assistant director on The Patty Duke Show, at the age of 18.
With a marriage marred by Duke’s increasing manic mood swings due to her then-undiagnosed bipolar disorder, which often manifested in bouts of severe drug and alcohol use, the couple split after just two years. They divorced in 1967.
“I didn’t know how to be an adult,” Duke told PEOPLE in 1999 of that turbulent time. “I had no preparation.”
Three years later, Duke, then 23, embarked on an affair with a 17-year-old Desi Arnaz Jr., whose mother, Lucille Ball, publicly opposed the relationship. 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 “total stranger” who had been subletting her apartment (they were together for 13 days and the marriage was annulled a year later). But just prior to their marriage, Duke had discovered she was pregnant.
The actress later deduced that the father of her baby was actor John Astin, star of the Addams Family TV series, who was married at the time. They kept their affair secret until after their son Sean was born and Astin’s divorce was final. They ultimately tied the knot in 1972.
Duke and Astin had a second son together, Mackenzie, in 1973.
When Sean was 14, Duke confessed that Astin was not the boy’s father. Instead, she explained that Arnaz was, in fact, his biological father.
After his mother told him about Arnaz, Sean and Arnaz developed a relationship. But when Sean was in his 20s, he met a relative of Tell’s who suggested they were related. In order to get the final, truthful answer, Sean underwent a DNA paternal test involving all three men.
The outcome: Michael Tell was Sean’s father.
“Desi Arnaz Jr. loves me, and I love him. We are so close,” Sean told ABC in 2004. “Science tells me that he’s not my biological father. Science tells me that Mike Tell is.”
Sean has since maintained a relationship with all three men, but regards the man who raised him since birth, Astin, as his father.
“I can call any of them on the phone any time I want to,” Sean explained to ABC. “John, Desi, Mikes or Papa Mike … my four dads.”
Duke and Astin divorced in 1985, but remained amicable. “There is a deep and abiding love between us, but we just don’t get along,” she told PEOPLE in 1987. “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.”
In 1986, Duke married Sgt. Michael Pearce, whom she met while filming A Time to Triumph. Duke became an enthusiastic stepmother to his daughters Raelene, then 10, and Charlene, 8. Kevin was adopted in 1988.
The two remained married and lived happily together on a farm in Idaho until Duke’s death on Tuesday.
“He became her 30-year project, and she finally in her life had a protector,” Sean told the Associated Press. “And so she showed him the world and he took care of her and until this morning at 1:20 they were connected with a bond that is impossible to describe.”