Los Angeles-based actors whose careers have briefly surged and then receded based on the impact of their film and TV work know what it’s like to have had a fairly glorious peak period and then more or less treaded water (i.e., struggled, hung in there, did the dog paddle) for the rest of their lives. But at least they had that peak period, which few of us have tasted, to look back upon with pride and to some extent dine out on for decades. Not a bad life, all in all. And in the late Patty Duke‘s case, a robust and healthy one as far as it went.
I’m not saying Duke flatlined after the one-two surge of (a) playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker (both on Broadway and in the 1962 film version opposite Anne Bancroft‘s Annie Sullivan, and both times under director Arthur Penn) and (b) playing plucky twins on ABC’s The Patty Duke Show (September ’63 to April ’66). But after that period her career never caught the big wind again. And yet those seven years (’59 to ’66) were phenomenal.
Duke, who died this morning from a ruptured intestine, was a lifelong bipolar sufferer/grappler, and she was ruled, abused and financially exploited as a teenager by unscrupulous talent managers John and Ethel Ross until she turned 18 in December ’64. She wasn’t diagnosed and specifically treated for her illness until 1982. Duke became the first celebrity to go public with her bipolar disorder diagnosis, largely through her autobiography, Call Me Anna, which popped in ’87.
The general view is that Duke’s campy performance as the addicted and trampy Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls (’67) was a temporary career killer at the time. Her Wiki bio says she also did herself no favors four years later when she rambled and slurred her words while accepting an Emmy award for her performance in a made-for-TV movie, My Sweet Charlie.
I’ve never even heard of Me, Natalie, a 1969 film in which she played a homely Brooklyn teenager struggling to survive in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Al Pacino costarred.
Duke gradually bounced back, but she never again hit the statosphere. I never paid much attention, but her Wiki bio says she worked primarily in TV from the mid-’70s to the early aughts. She received a second Emmy for her performance in a ‘7 miniseries Captains and the Kings, and a third in 1980 for a TV version of her 1979 stage revival of The Miracle Worker, this time playing Anne Sullivan to Melissa Gilbert‘s Helen Keller.
Duke’s acting in the made-for-TV flicks The Women’s Room (’80) and George Washington (’84) also landed Emmy noms.
For the last 15 years she worked sporadically but kept her hand in. In March ’09 she replaced Carol Kane as Madame Morrible in the San Francisco production of the musical Wicked. On 7.29.09 Duke was given a tribute in her honor at The Castro Theatre in San Francisco titled “Sparkle, Patty, Sparkle!”
In 2010 she recorded a series of PSAs for the Social Security Administration to help promote applying online for Medicare. In May 2011 Duke directed the stage version of The Miracle Worker at Interplayers Theater in Spokane, Washington. She played the mother of a murdered deep-sea diver on the Oct. 10, 2011, episode of Hawaii Five-0. In the fourth season of Glee, Duke played a lesbian jewelry salesperson.