The untimely passing of Patty Duke will no doubt stir a great many memories for a great number of people. There are those who will remember her for her acting talents, which were on full display in a number of stage, screen and television appearances. She also had a very successful stint as President of the Screen Actors Guild. She was the author of two best-selling books which were acclaimed for their frankness and honesty. Patty was also a doting mother to her two talented actor songs as well as the son she and her husband adopted during what was probably her happiest marriage.
However, she often noted that she was most proud of being an advocate for mental illness – opening many discussions with her passionate advocacy. It was not until she was past 40 that she publicly came out and discussed her own battle with manic depression (bipolar disorder) and for the rest of her life used her celebrity as a means of lobbying and educating others as well as creating awareness about a subject that had been too often taboo. In particular, in Hollywood, a community known for wanting to present a particular image, her fearlessness was disarmingly refreshing.
Patty Duke began her enormously popular career at a very young age and was not yet a teen when she created the memorable role, on Broadway, as Helen Keller in the dramatic, “The Miracle Worker”. Fortunately she was able to recreate the role when the play was turned into a motion picture, winning an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress in the process.
Sidney Sheldon, the writer, created “The Patty Duke Show” for the gifted teen and it ran for several highly successful seasons. Patty skillfully portrayed cousins, making audiences almost believe that two actresses were playing the roles. When she decided to “grow-up” on screen with the highly coveted role of Neely O’ Hara in “Valley of the Dolls” in 1967, critics were quick to carp and find fault with not only Patty but the entire film. Nevertheless, it became an enormous box-office success and later a “camp classic” for millions. Patty, to her everlasting credit, embraced the camp following and enjoyed being a part of a film that fanatics could quote, line for line. She even attended screenings of the film, both amazed and touched by the enthusiasm of audiences.
Other film and television roles followed – some good, some not as good. However, she was always watchable and along the way she picked-up Golden Globe Awards as well as Emmy’s. She also became fodder for gossip columnists who followed her every move and regaled readers with stories about her turbulent love life.
The entire public perception of Patty changed in 1987 with the publication of her autobiographical, “My Name is Anna”. It was a compelling read – impossible to put down. Her honesty came through on every page and her courage in talking, as few had ever spoken before, about her battle with mental illness, had even her naysayers offering admiration. A follow-up book several years later entitled “Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness” further increased the public discussion of not only Manic Depression but mental illness in general.
After reading Patty’s book, “My Name is Anna”, I wrote her a long and somewhat rambling letter detailing my own battles with depression and how it had impacted my life. I thanked her for her bravery in writing about her life with such detail and not glossing over the less than happy times she had experienced. I told her how I’d been inspired as I dealt with my own demons.
To my surprise, I received a warm and thoughtful letter from her and an invitation to have lunch with her the next time I visited Los Angeles.
We met at Musso and Frank on Hollywood Boulevard. The famed restaurant is known as Hollywood’s oldest and it is a treasured part of Hollywood history. I was sitting when Patty arrived and stood up and shook her hand. Two hours later when we said our goodbyes, she embraced me warmly and told me to never stop forging forward with life.
During that lunch she looked me directly in the eye as she talked about her struggles and how difficult it had been to be in Hollywood, enduring an inner turmoil and torment that she had to keep to herself. “Sometimes my best performance was pretending to be someone that the public wanted me to be when all I wanted to do was go into a corner by myself and cry….”
I told her I was contemplating writing about my own situation and that a friend had suggested I call my story, “Something Ventured, Nothing Sane”!!! She laughed at that.
Patty continued her career both on-screen and on-stage, where she returned for roles as Aunt Eller in a revival of “Oklahoma” and in “Wicked”. Her best work holds up beautifully, showing the natural and very real talent that she possessed, despite her own personal struggles which sometimes left her private life in tatters.
She leaves a legacy that is wide and diverse and stretches far beyond the entertainment industry.
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Written By: Paul Brogan, Contributing Editor
Photographs are Courtesy: IMDB; File
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