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Fresh Air Remembers Actress Patty Duke

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Patty Duke, the Oscar-winning actress who grew up in the public eye as a child star, died Tuesday in a hospital near her home in Idaho. She was 69. At the age of 12, she won over Broadway audiences as Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker." Three years later, she played Keller in the screen adaptation and became the youngest actor at the time ever to win an Academy Award. Then she got her own TV sitcom, "The Patty Duke Show," and became one of TVs most celebrated teens. Here's a scene from 1965. Patty's at the doctor's office issues to see if she needs to have her tonsils removed. When she meets her surgeon, played by the dreamy Troy Donahue, she immediately develops a big crush.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PATTY DUKE SHOW")

TROY DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) I get the feeling you're not too thrilled about having your tonsils removed.

PATTY DUKE: (As Patty Lane) What ever gave you that idea?

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) Dr. Bidderman (ph) told me about you.

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) Well, he didn't tell me about you.

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) So why don't you sit down and we'll take a look? Aside from your throat, have you had any other symptoms?

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) Hot and cold and a little dizzy.

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) When did that start?

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) A couple of minutes ago.

(LAUGHTER)

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) Then sit back and relax. All right, open up and say ahh.

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) Ahh...

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) Well, I'm not crazy about what I see.

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) I am.

(LAUGHTER)

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) Well, I might as well give you the bad news, Patty. You're going to have to have your tonsils out.

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) Oh, that's terrible.

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) The question is when?

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) How about tonight? I'm not doing a thing.

(LAUGHTER)

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) No, Friday is the first time I can take care of it.

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) It's a date.

DAVIES: After "The Patty Duke Show," Duke co-starred in the film "Valley Of The Dolls," playing a woman addicted to sex, drugs and alcohol. In fact, her own life was very troubled. She was born into a working-class home with an alcoholic father and was trained in acting and eventually taken from the home by a couple who controlled her life, embezzled her earnings and, she later wrote, sexually abused her.

She also had bouts of mental illness and was eventually diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder. She kept acting and became a respected president of the Screen Actors Guild and a mental health advocate. Many details about her life were first revealed in her autobiography "Call Me Anna." Terry interviewed Patty Duke in 1988, not long after it was published.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Patty Duke, welcome to FRESH AIR.

DUKE: Thank you.

GROSS: Now, should I...

DUKE: It's lovely to be here.

GROSS: ...Call you Patty Duke? I feel so (laughter) asking you this.

DUKE: You can call me anything you want.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. You know, in your book, you write about all this stuff that I certainly never knew about. I'm sure most of your fans never suspected, you know, bouts with manic depression, attempted suicide, stuff like that. I want to talk with you a little bit about some of the, you know, key things...

DUKE: Sure.

GROSS: ...That have happened in your life. Your parents basically turned you over to these theater...

DUKE: Yeah...

GROSS: ...Managers when you were age 7.

DUKE: ...I prefer to put it another way.

GROSS: Yeah.

DUKE: And this is in no way meant to be judgmental about the way you phrased the question, but...

GROSS: Yeah.

DUKE: ...I prefer you to talk about the fact that my mother was really coerced...

GROSS: To do...

DUKE: ...To give me up. My mother also suffered from a mental illness - clinical and chronic depression. She was very insecure, had no money, limited education. And here were these people who seemed to be saying we have the yellow brick road in our pocket. And if you really love this little girl - if you really love her, then you'll be unselfish and you'll give her to us and we will give her all the things you cannot.

Well, I can almost imagine myself falling for that. It appeals to guilt, motherly guilt that we're never good enough for our children. It certainly appeals to someone who feels inadequate. And so that's what she responded to. My dad by this time was out of the picture. They had separated, and my father was an alcoholic. So I went to live with them, and it seemed OK to my mom at the time, though very painful.

GROSS: Did you protest?

DUKE: No. It's interesting to me that I did not because I was almost literally attached to my mother at the hip. I was a very dependent child, crazy about my mother. These discussions happened without my being around so that when the information was delivered to me, my mother had already steeled herself for this, looked angry to me. That was my child's perception - she's mad at me, I did something wrong - and we didn't have the kind of household where you ask - where you questioned your mother about what was going on.

So I assumed - stupidly - that this was what she wanted. And I went because I was going to be a good little girl. It's funny, even today, I can get a little thing in my throat about it because it was the most painful separation of my life. That's something you can't ever make up for, and I admire my mother for the courage she's had to face that kind of pain.

GROSS: Well, what are some of the things that this couple did who took over your career to refashion you into to the person they think...

DUKE: All right...

GROSS: ...That they thought you should be?

DUKE: Yeah. These folks, though they come out in a very negative light for the most part in my book, were not complete villains...

GROSS: Yeah.

DUKE: ...In my eyes. And even in retrospect, I see that they had a talent. What they did was number one, start scrolling me in manners, taught me to speak in an English accent. So - their theory being that it would counteract the New Yorkese. I was a (imitating New York accent) very New York kid who talked like this (unintelligible). So there was many - there were many, many disciplined - highly-disciplined hours of that kind of exercise, plus working on how I looked.

Ethel, the wife of the twosome, often would tell me that I was very plain. Part of that I think was her attempt - though ill-guided - to keep me humble, to maintain control. And though I got much more affirmation from John Ross, the male part of the couple, her approval somehow held - carried a lot more weight for me.

GROSS: Well, they helped you get an incredible part, the Broadway...

DUKE: Absolutely. They did a lot of...

GROSS: ...Production of - yeah.

DUKE: ...Wonderful things. I started working quite early with wonderful people in live television. And then, yes, "The Miracle Worker" was a year and a half of preparation before I was ever granted an audition.

GROSS: What kind of preparation?

DUKE: The preparation began, of course, with learning about Helen Keller. But only up until Annie Sullivan arrives in her life. Again, the theory being - don't give me more information than I need and maintain control. Then on a daily basis, I was put through exercises pretending to be blind, stumbled around the house with my eyes closed.

Other exercises about being deaf - games were played, you know - I was a kid, so they used the game approach. And I was not to hear anything, let's say, for an hour and a half. If sometime during that hour and a half the phone rang or Ethel said to me there's a call for you, and I responded, I had blown the game. The difference in this kind of training is that not always were the methods kind. They were - there were often very denigrating remarks made rather than corrections. Again, it's something that I recall because it was important to me when I was raising kids to not do that to them, you know, to correct rather than, you know, call them wicked little whatever-they-ares.

GROSS: I remember the first time I saw "The Miracle Worker" the movie. When I was a child, I liked the movie a lot, and it scared me a lot.

DUKE: Really?

GROSS: Yeah. It scared me because the whole idea that somebody could go through life both blind...

DUKE: Oh, yes.

GROSS: ...And deaf terrified me. And when you're a kid, you never - you always figure, well, God, this could happen to be tomorrow, you know? (Laughter).

DUKE: Sure.

GROSS: So it was a very frightening thing, and I figured, oh, gosh, it must've been frightening for you to - especially when you were playing it on Broadway when you were younger...

DUKE: Actually...

GROSS: ...To have to think about that so much about what it would be like to be blind and deaf.

DUKE: Frankly, I can't believe this, but I never really thought of it in those terms before. I had many, many, many fears and obsessive fears as a young person, and maybe I was incorporating them into that role. And I do know for a fact that the role was very therapeutic for me...

GROSS: Oh, how?

DUKE: ...In many ways. The home life with the Rosses became quite distorted as I got to be 12 and 13 and 14, which were "The Miracle Worker" years. And to be able to go to a place every day and fight the authority figure full out hit, bite, kick and be applauded for it on top of that was incredible therapy. We now know as acting out therapy.

Of course, I didn't know it then, but I do know that probably my illness would have shown itself much sooner if I didn't have those outlets and, of course, the nurturing that I got from Anne Bancroft not only on stage but off. She really, I think, is responsible for helping me through puberty. If I had never met Anne Bancroft, I probably still wouldn't know about birds and bees and all that kind of stuff. She was incredibly generous to me.

GROSS: I just rented the movie recently to watch it again, and was really...

DUKE: That tickles me.

GROSS: ...You know, surprised at how good looking the movie is to me now...

DUKE: I was amazed, yeah.

GROSS: ...How really nicely shot and lit it is.

DUKE: It's wonderfully directed. And though I, you know, had a major crush on Arthur Penn, I didn't - I wasn't too much of a film critic in those years. But I looked at it recently myself, and it is a well-made film about, for me, the ultimate topic which is the success of the human spirit.

GROSS: I think everyone who's seen the film remembers the scene of the breakthrough where Anne Bancroft as Helen Keller's teacher, Annie Sullivan, is working with you as Helen Keller in trying to teach the association between objects and words. And there's the scene at the water pump where she's pumping water, and she's spelling it out to you.

DUKE: And she's angry if you recall.

GROSS: She's angry, right.

DUKE: She's angry at me because I've just done something very naughty in front of the rest of the family.

GROSS: But as the water's pouring on your hand, things pause for a second, and you suddenly - it's your only lines in the movie, really (laughter).

DUKE: That's right.

GROSS: You start to sound out water. I'd like to play that excerpt of the film.

DUKE: Oh, how interesting. I've never done this before.

GROSS: Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MIRACLE WORKER")

ANNE BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) W-A-T-E-R, water. It has a name. W-A-T...

DUKE: (As Helen Keller) Water, water, water, water.

GROSS: It's the scene from "The Miracle Worker" in which Patty Duke as Helen Keller speaks for the first time.

What kind of advice were you given about how to make those sounds, the first controlled sounds you utter?

DUKE: I don't think I've ever told this out loud in public before. I think I wrote about it in the book. Arthur Penn wanted a particular sound, obviously the one we just heard. And I was a little girl with a little voice, and it just kept coming out (imitating little voice). And that wasn't it. And he gave me what I think is an absolute brilliant direction and an impossible one for a little teenage girl who has a crush on the director to take.

He came to me and he said, have you ever been constipated? I thought I would die. I mean, here he is. God, he's talking to me about constipation. I said, huh? He said, well, you think about that and then when it comes to that time besides all the other things that you're feeling and doing, I want you to incorporate that. And, of course, that's what you hear. And it is a wonderful symbol for Helen's intellectual constipation for those six years.

There's a line that comes a little bit after this that belongs to Anne Sullivan. It's when the parents come out of the house, and they're wondering what's going on it and what is all this yelling about? And she says she knows. I tell you to this day when I watch that movie or hear that or even hear those words, it has such impact on me. That tells me that knowledge and communication and understanding are probably the keys to what I'm all about.

DAVIES: Patty Duke speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. Duke died Tuesday. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's 1988 interview with actress Patty Duke. Duke died Tuesday at the age of 69.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You know what's really amazing? You went from "The Miracle Worker," doing it for years on stage and then on screen, to starring in this sitcom about this...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: About two well-adjusted teenagers.

DUKE: Not a logical progression?

GROSS: (Laughter) really.

DUKE: Again, believe it or not, the cleverness of the Rosses. And I mean this in a most positive way.

GROSS: These are the people who managed you.

DUKE: Yes, the mentors. They predicted that - remember, back then, we didn't have quite as many shows for teens as we do now. And they predicted that there was going to be a transition problem. Many young actors didn't make it through the teens and into adult acting. So the plan was as long as we'd got this offer for this television series, we'll put her in that. That'll get her through those, quote, "awkward years."

Now, it made sense to them. But I must tell you, I was not there for the telephone call, but I'm aware that Arthur Penn when he heard this was the deal that had been made, called up and just wanted to whip them soundly for this hideous mistake.

GROSS: Who came up with this idea of identical cousins? And for our listeners who don't remember the show, Patty Duke played this, like, really popular American teenager and also played this American teenager's Scottish cousin who was much more prim, proper and conservative...

DUKE: My goodness, you've been paying attention.

GROSS: ...And didn't know about rock 'n' roll (laughter).

DUKE: And didn't seem to know much about anything that had to do with the, quote, "real world."

GROSS: Now, they were identical cousins.

DUKE: Identical cousins...

GROSS: They looked exactly the same. Patty Duke...

>>DUKE ...Do you not love that?

GROSS: ...Played both of them.

DUKE: I have no idea why. Sidney Sheldon is the man who created the show.

GROSS: Mr. "Bloodline?"

DUKE: Yes.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DUKE: Why cousins? I don't know. I think it had something to do with, you know, why wouldn't they have been in the household the same - you know, all these years behaving the same way? Also, I think they wanted some version of God knows what that accent was that I did.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DUKE: But I must say, most people when they talk to me about it, you know, folks on the street, talk about the twins. They forgot the cousin part.

GROSS: Well, I think I went through a - my early years thinking can there be identical cousins?

(LAUGHTER)

DUKE: Oh, God.

GROSS: Is this possible?

DUKE: I love it. Oh, we were filled with misinformation on that show. But I must say, I just saw - again, I was never allowed to watch that show, so I saw it only recently. And I was kind of happily surprised. All these years, I'd been kind of embarrassed by the whole thought, and I really would kind of, you know, turn my head and eyes away when people would mention it.

For its genre, it was quite a lovely little show. And they were nice people, and they weren't saying nasty, hideous things to each other all the time. And I kind of miss that element of a family show.

GROSS: We know you mentioned that you weren't allowed to watch it. That's 'cause the people who you were managing you thought it would go to your head if you got to see yourself.

DUKE: Exactly, yes. We dealt a lot in keeping me humble.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what...

DUKE: It worked (laughter).

GROSS: When you watched it for the first time as an adult, this was recently that you saw it for the first time?

DUKE: It was two years ago. My husband was still in the Army. I was visiting from Los Angeles and he was in Georgia. And I was waiting at the hotel for him to get off duty. And so I turned on the television thinking I'd watch some talk show in the middle of the afternoon, and I heard the theme. Now, the theme I had heard before because people sing it to me verbatim on the street corners often.

So there I was all alone in this hotel room and I was going to turn it off. And now, I don't know if that was a knee-jerk reaction from the Rosses or I was afraid I was going to be mortified or what. And I said, nope, this is it. I'm going to watch it. And I sat there on the edge of the bed - and, yes, I was at first embarrassed particularly about how I looked.

How could anybody let me go out of the house looking like that with that flipped up hair and the turned under hair? And the more I watched, the more I thought, oh, she really wasn't that ugly, that girl.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DUKE: And this is kind of a nice show. And then I noticed that I was also doing some very nice acting work. It was, you know, based on very thin premise, but nonetheless, there was some very real work going on there. So I was glad I finally saw it and I don't have to go cringing and skulking through hallways anymore when I hear the music.

GROSS: You know, throughout our conversation, we've been referring to the two people who managed you and did...

DUKE: John and Ethel Ross.

GROSS: You know, we're pretty tyrannical about it. How'd you get away from them?

DUKE: Oh, the typical way I guess a young girl in those days got away from the family they didn't like - I got married.

GROSS: Right.

DUKE: I was ill-equipped to do that or anything else at that point because once I made the move, the manic depressive symptoms came out. Once there were not the Ross's disciplines on the behavior, the demons, if you will, woke up, and I was quite out of control in the late '60s.

GROSS: Patty Duke is my guest, and she's currently serving in her second term as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

DUKE: I have to tell you...

GROSS: You're not?

DUKE: You know what...

GROSS: Oh.

DUKE: ...That sounds like to me? Oh, yes I am. Yes, I am.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DUKE: It's beginning to sound to me like it's a prison sentence.

GROSS: Oh.

DUKE: I'm - yes, I'm serving my second.

GROSS: Why did you want to do that - to go into organizing and to be in an administrative and a leadership position, which is very different than performing?

DUKE: I wish I could tell you that I had thought it out that completely. I had become very active in my union and about time, I might say. Most of us sort of, you know, get our card and that's it, we don't pay attention.

When it became apparent that union-busting was becoming a way of life in our country, I became just as a citizen more and more concerned. Yes, I wanted more of a leadership role. When some people suggested that I should run for the presidency at the Guild, it was at first a very heady kind of idea. But I also needed to know that I could back it up, that I could do the work.

Once I decided that I could do that, I also wanted the label of respectability. When you've been manic depressive and you have done very strange things, it's very important to you to show people that you are responsible and respectable. And once you do that, then you can relax and be responsible and respectable. You don't have to keep showing everybody.

GROSS: I wish we had more time to talk, but we're out of time. It's really been a pleasure to have you here.

DUKE: You're a delight, and this is a wonderful program. And I'm so glad it's so successful and it'll stay on.

GROSS: Oh, well, thank you.

DAVIES: Patty Duke speaking with Terry Gross recorded in 1988. Duke died Tuesday. She was 69. After a break, we'll hear from novelist Vendela Vida. Her book "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty" is about the sense of dislocation that can come with overseas travel. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.