Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Disastrous Demise: Patty Duke 1946-2016

Here we are again, on the heels of George Kennedy's passing, addressing the death of one of the members of the '70s Disaster Movie Club (an organization that exists solely in my own mind and applies to those performers who starred in a big-screen disaster movie between 1970-1980.) Patty Duke's career, however, extended far beyond the work she did in this arena and we will address part of it in this photo tribute. Duke was taken from us far too soon at only age sixty-nine following an infection after a burst intestine.

Like many successful actors, Duke came from an unhappy home consisting of an alcoholic father and a depressed and sometimes violent mother. Her brother having done some minor acting, she was induced into the field as well by a pair of married, domineering agents who informed the young girl that Anna Marie (her birth name) "was dead" and that Patty Duke would be her name. The little girl, who was greatly adept nonetheless, began working on the daytime soap The Brighter Day (1958-1959) and in many TV programs and specials (portraying Tootie to Jane Powell's Esther in a television rendition of Meet Me in St. Louis, 1959.)
In 1959, Duke was cast in the life-changing role of young, blind, deaf & mute Helen Keller in the Broadway production of The Miracle Worker. Though it was really a showcase for Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan (who won a Tony while Duke was not even nominated), her ferocious work was still attention-getting and the play ran 719 performances.
After the play's closing in 1961, a movie version was filmed with both stars recreating their Broadway roles. Released in 1962, The Miracle Worker allowed still more people to witness, up close and personal, the visceral work that she had by now perfected as the unruly and tormented child of affliction.
With special child performance Oscars having been discontinued after 1961, Duke had to "duke it out" with the big girls when it came to the Best Supporting Actress race, but she won (as did Bancroft for Best Actress.) She's seen here with prior year's winner for West Side Story (1961) Rita Moreno and Best Supporting Actor winner Ed Begley (for Sweet Bird of Youth, 1962.) Interestingly, neither Bancroft nor Duke won Golden Globes that year. Geraldine Page (for Sweet Bird of Youth) and Angela Lansbury (for The Manchurian Candidate, 1962) took home those statuettes.
Duke had attempted a second Broadway production early in 1962 called Isle of Children, which failed after one week, but her varied work on TV and the occasional movie led writer Sidney Sheldon to create The Patty Duke Show (1963-1966) for her.
Sheldon had noticed (quite perceptively) that the actress seemed to possess two sides to her personality and developed the series so that she played dual roles of identical cousins, Patty (boisterous and a bit meddlesome) and Cathy (prim and refined.) The show was a hit and Duke was Emmy-nominated in 1964 (losing to Mary Tyler Moore for The Dick Van Dyke Show.)
During a hiatus from The Patty Duke Show, she starred in the tomboy teen musical Billie (becoming something of an iconic role model for young lesbians in the process), though the movie was only a moderate success at the box office. Shown with her here is costar Warren Berlinger.
After the cancellation of her TV series, Duke (now twenty) was eager to branch out into adult roles and when she took the plunge, she went off the high dive! Valley of the Dolls (1967), about a trio of female showbiz aspirants, was a high-gloss, high-camp, high-voltage assault on the (non)senses that droves of audiences enjoyed, but which critics outdid themselves lambasting!
Duke's performance as the talented, but strident, drug-addled and unpredictable, singer-actress Neely O'Hara was fascinating, yet scarcely modulated. A combative relationship with her director Mark Robson and a chilly one with veteran costar Susan Hayward, with whom she took part in not only a verbal sparring match, but a wig-pulling catfight, made the experience an unpleasant one for Duke and left her movie career in virtual shambles.
A rare feature film at this time came with the bittersweet romance Me, Natalie (1969) in which her quirky, unconventional character falls in love with an artist played by James Farentino. The role earned her a Golden Globe as Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical.
Having had to run for cover to mostly television movies and guest appearances, Duke's work was nonetheless considered award-worthy. In 1970, she won an Emmy for her portrayal of a pregnant Southern girl living with a Black militant refugee in My Sweet Charlie. Her disjointed, pause-laden acceptance speech, however, mirrored one of Neely O'Hara's bizarre meltdowns and raised many a Hollywood eyebrow. It also put co-presenter Julie Sommers in the same, "What the fuck just happened?" category that Liv Ullmann later entered when Sacheen Littlefeather came to decline Marlon Brando's Oscar for The Godfather (1972) - and that's surely the first and last time you'll ever hear Sommers and Ullmann mentioned in the same breath! Duke was thought to be drunk or on drugs, but was actually suffering the ill-effects of undiagnosed bipolar disorder.
Although Duke was still working steadily on TV (including browbeating Virginia Mayo on Night Gallery, 1971) and the occasional movie such as You'll Like My Mother (1972), her personal life was often out of control thanks to her undiagnosed condition. One example is her broken engagement to Desi Arnaz Jr. followed by a 13-day marriage to Michael Tell, including a pregnancy in which she didn't know the identity of the father! She later married John Astin, who adopted the boy Sean, who was eventually determined to be Tell's biological son. Duke and Astin divorced in 1985.
It was as Patty Duke Astin that I first knew her. Seen here on Match Game, she could bring startling electricity to her TV roles, but could also spiral into a babbling, raving personality at times on talk shows and game shows.
In 1976, Duke was won another Emmy for her work in the epic, generational miniseries Captains and the Kings (which starred Richard Jordan.) Jordan's character was inspired by Joseph Kennedy and, as his wife, Duke's character was beset by tragedies similar to that of Rose Kennedy, though the characters weren't identical.
Duke earned her place in the Disaster Movie Club when she accepted Irwin Allen's offer to partake in the all-star hot mess The Swarm (1978.) She played a (very!) pregnant waitress whose army husband is felled by the killer bees, leaving her in the kindly hands of doctor Alejandro Rey. Duke had already costarred in Allen's Fire! (1977) and would later appear in Hanging By a Thread (1979) as well, further solidifying her place in the '70 disaster stratosphere.
A bit of ingenious stunt casting led to Duke portraying Annie Sullivan this time in the 1979 telefilm The Miracle Worker. Her old role of Helen was enacted by Melissa Gilbert, shown here being introduced to (a "half-pint?" of) water. Ironically, both Duke and Gilbert would later serve as presidents of the Screen Actors Guild, Duke from 1985-1988 and Gilbert from 2001-2005.
During the 1980s, Duke performed in a plethora of TV-movies and a number of short-lived series. One that I enjoyed as a kid was It Takes Two (1982-1983) with Richard Crenna, which was created by Susan Harris, who later dreamed up The Golden Girls (1985-1993.) Having finally discovered the mental imbalance that had plagued her for many years and receiving treatment for it, Duke could busily continue acting (including returning to Broadway in 2002 as Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!) and enjoy a happy thirty-year final marriage.
Patty Duke faced almost as many challenges as her famed character Neely O'Hara, but unlike Neely she didn't end up face down in an alley. She wrote a cathartic autobiography ("Call Me Anna") and, unlike many folks who've taken part in lunatic camp spectacles such as Valley of the Dolls, developed the ability to laugh at the product and at herself, which can be a helpful form of salvation. 


Gingerguy said...

So sad! Thanks Poseidon for doing such a lovely tribute. As always this is a thorough retrospective of her career and I learned a lot. I think I saw "You'll like my Mother" ( a little like "Die Die My Darling?"). I also remember a tv movie set in WWII where she marries a Japanese guy, just as Japanese Americans were being put into internment camps. She was so great and a part of my childhood, her tv show was endlessly run in syndication. There was also a William Castle tv episode she did with her husband that really scared me as a kid. And love her being so mean to Virginia Mayo, she was a little Neely-ish in that part. I haven't watched the clip of her wacky acceptance speech and maybe don't need to, but her hair looks fabulous. LOL on half pint comment. I was lucky enough to see her at a screening of "Valley" once and she really got it, that her gay audience (and all audiences) loved the movie so much. She even pretended to pull Barbara Parkins' hair for the press. What a great lady, and a really, really good actress. The film of "Miracle Worker" blew me away on the big screen recently. I am sorry she is gone, but you did a great job here.

Anonymous said...

I saw her only in The Miracle Worker, Valley of the Dolls (just recently), and The Swarm; she was marvelous in The Miracle Worker. In The Swarm, I remember a scene in which Lee Grant helps her get into a car or something, a reunion of sorts since both actresses were in Valley of the Dolls.
Rest in Peace.

rico said...

Another sad surprise that another 70-ish star has passed too soon, with Duke joining Bowie, Glenn Frye, Alan Rickman, Gary Shandling, and Ken Howard in these last few months!

GlenH said...

I actually saw "Valley of the Dolls " for the first time 10 days ago....

Roberta Steve said...

Poseidon thank you for a lovely tribute. I can't improve on what you said, but will offer just a few comments. I played Helen Keller in a college production of The Miracle Worker so I always had a special fondness for Patty. It's a shame her adult movie career never took off. She wasn't glamorous like Natalie Wood (another grown child Star) but she was arguably a better actress. I remember watching My Sweet Charlie and she deserved that Emmy. It was considered groundbreaking TV at the time. I also remember seeing her Emmy acceptance speech and my mom uttering "she must be on something" in the background. My mom also disdained Patty for her much publicised affair with Desi Arnaz Jr. I can remember how it was all over the movie magazines that my mom brought home from the beauty parlor. I think that Patty was about 5 years older than Desi and it was quite a scandal at the time. The remake of The Miracle Worker was considered a TV "event" back in the day, although I thought Melissa Gilbert was terrible. As Pope Francis says, Who am I to judge?
Finally, thank you for including her gorgeous headshot from the It Takes Two time. I have a pet peeve that when stars die a lot of the mainstream media uses a recent most of the time unflattering photo of the deceased Star. When Maureen O'Hara died, so many news services used photos from her sad last years instead of her younger prime. She was one of the great beauties of the screen and should have been treated better. PS Is it me or does that It Takes Two headshot of Patty bear an uncanny resemblance to real life newswoman Nora O'Donnell? I'd be interested if others see the resemblance. Thanks again Poseidon. You have such a funny, but very sweet, way of describing our favorite stars. No snark, just real appreciation. I think you must be a real softie!

Poseidon3 said...

Gingerguy, thanks for your compliments and reflections. I think I saw "You'll Like My Mother" on TNT about 100 years ago, but it's never rerun now! (WHY are so many movies inaccessible when we have 30 times the channels that there once were?) I'd love to revisit it now. Duke tackled a lot of touchy subjects in her TV-movies, which is what the best ones do (or at least used to.) Her hair in the Emmy speech is thick and pretty NOW, but in that time period - especially at a ceremony - it was probably considered unkempt and inappropriate. It's not that bad to watch, just uncomfortably slow and silent for stretches. I'm happy that you got to see her at a VOD screening. Wow! oh, and so glad you got and liked my "half pint" comment! LOL

Armando, GREAT note about how both Grant and Duke were in VOD and then had that moment in The Swarm as well. My favorite (bad) moment of Duke's in The Swarm is when she is locked in a walk-in fridge with Katharine Ross and Kath gets stung by a killer bee. Duke suddenly blurts out "HELENA!" in the most amusing way...

Yes, Rico, they are dropping like flies. All prior to April!

GlenH, welcome to the club! But you have to tell us what you THOUGHT of it! Did you asphixiate from all the hairspray and Gillmore Girl cosmetics??

Roberta, I played Captain Keller in "The Miracle Worker!" It was a profound experience for me as my best friend of 25 years played my wife. I kept the fiery bluster of the character, but also found moments to show his inner distress and vulnerability, which few actors who've played that role ever tried to do. I have to laugh at how often we all recall watching things on TV and having a parent or sibling mouth off about something in the background - it sticks with us as much or more than what we were viewing!!! Lucille Ball was VERY much against her son Desi dating Patty. I suspect a lot of the old guard took her side in the matter. Needless to say, I agree completely about gorgeous Maureen O'Hara. I had to look up Nora O'Donnell... perhaps a bit around the eyes? On It Takes Two, Patty was sporting some BIG hair on her little frame. I don't mean tall like in VOD, but just full and wide. I appreciate your comments about my approach to the stars, but do not tell a SOUL that I am a softie. I try to keep that a secret... :-) To be honest, this site is (most often) a way to pay back those stars whose work meant a lot to me in tough or unhappy times (or even in happy times.) It's a place I can try to spotlight them again when much of the world has moved on to the next flavor of the month.

Basil said...

Great tribute to an actress I was always very fond of. She was pretty much a staple of most of the TV shows I watched growing up in the 70's, and I just LOVED It Takes Two and was so PO'd they cancelled it. She was also great in the 1972 TV movie She Waits, which scared the pants off of me when I was a kid. What were my parents thinking letting me watch stuff like that at 7 years old? Of course by then my viewing tastes had evolved into much more adult fare thanks to flicks like The Poseidon Adventure, which I insisted my dad take me to go see, and seeing previews of movies like The Exorcist (annoyed me I couldn't see THAT movie because in Ontario it had the equivalent of an X rating, bunch of killjoys). And of course, Duke will always be remembered for being not only Helen Keller, but Neely O'Hara.

Poseidon3 said...

Thank you, Basil! I have never heard of "She Waits" but would LOVE to see it (along with a hundred or so other "lost" TV-movies that are sitting somewhere unattended!) I was only 5 when "Poseidon" came out and so I missed seeing that in theaters, but was taken to "Towering Inferno" at seven and it changed my life. I was PETRIFIED of all the TV ads for "The Exorcist" and would cover my eyes (and, if possible, ears) any time one of the many promos came on (for that and also "The Omen!") Probably my own scary TV-movie was 1978's "Are You in the House Alone?" though I'm sure that in retrospect its shocks were mild.

Basil said...

Well, it just so happens that She Waits is on YT. (If you decide not to publicly post the link no worries, but YouTube doesn't tend to sic the copyright police on old made for tv movies.)

The channel this gem is on, TVterrorland, has alot of great old movies from the 70's, if you decide to check it out.

Another old Patty made for TV gem is Killer on Board, also starring Jane Seymour (whom I have met BTW)

Enjoy all Patty fans!

Ken Anderson said...

Have to chime in with a thanks for doing such a lovely tribute to Patty Duke and her career. She was a TV/media stalwart throughout my entire life in one way or another.
I think her appearance as Rosemary in the TV movie sequel to Rosemary's Baby was for me more jarring than anything else she did in her career, but I'm forever grateful "Valley" and happy that she was one of the first to show that you triumph over a career-killer like that by showing you can have a sense of humor.
Still waiting on Faye Dunaway on that score.

Poseidon3 said...

Thank you, Ken! I somehow (and it's probably for the best) missed watching "Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby" (which I think was the title?) and perhaps its best that I did! LOL What a strange replacement of actresses! And, yes, the filming of VOD was really a torturesome time for Patty and probably held a lot of sour memories (and bittersweet ones connected to Sharon Tate), so it's great that she could embrace the humor of it and join the party. I suspect our Faye will NEVER go that route, though I also wish she would.

Gingerguy said...

I remember that tv movie! Patty makes an unfortunate choice in greyhound buses and then Tina Louise takes over, lol. Also the fabulous Donna Mills.

DevilYouKnow said...

Verrrry late to this post but, as usual Poseidon, job well done. You treat everyone with such dignity and care which is a rarity. That said, I audibly gasped when I read Patty died. I've been a huge fan since I was about ten. Back in the early 90s, my parents worked nights and I stayed home alone from 7pm to 5pm. My babysitter was Nick At Nite and the NAN classic lineup became (pathetically) my family and friends. Donna Reed, Fred MacMurray, the Laugh-In cast (probably not great "friends" for a 10 year old) and Patty. Patty especially because how cool is the Patty Duke Show? I still binge watch the Patty Duke Show more than I'd like to admit and yes, it's still damn cool to me. Then there are the records ("Don't Just Stand There" ya jackass!) and of course, Valley of the Dolls. I even have Me, Natalie on my old hard drive which I seriously need to watch.

Anyhow, I wanted to thank you for the usual fantastic write up and let everyone know that You'll Like My Mother is set to be released on blu-ray on May 10. It came up in my Amazon recommends feed just yesterday. Here's an article all about the release.

Poseidon3 said...

DevilYouKnow, thank you so much for your kind words. I know I can definitely be cutting and snarly about certain things and people, though I try to be funny about it at least whenever I can! Otherwise, I think I just have a (possibly misguided when you hear some of the backstage and behind the scenes tales!) sense of loyalty and devotion to most of the stars who get mentioned here. I don't see the point of tearing them down when tabloid journalists and creative biographers are already in place with their poison pens in hand to do just that. I would say that my general tone is probably in line with the old A&E Biography program that would be hosted by Peter Graves, Jack Perkins or Richard Kiley, at least that's the sort of angle I usually aim for, but with perhaps a tad more humor and, when possible, sexiness. Thanks again and I'm glad you enjoy it here!

Gregory said...

Classic 'Poseidon'! You hit all the right notes (and I, too, said aloud, "He did NOT just say "half-pint!!"...HAH!!). Brilliant, as always. Clearly, the '70's Disaster Movie Club" extends well beyond your own head--we, your 'key demographic' out here, speak your bad movie argot fluently. So I thank you for the truly touching obit for Patty Duke. Having loved her since her TV show as a tot--and then becoming a full-fledged "Dolls"-addict at the age of 10, it thrilled me to be one of her Facebook "friends"--and I honestly felt gut-punched when I heard the news that she'd died. The only "good news" here is knowing she had a happy ending, and seemed to have found peace. I'm SO glad she finally accepted her Neely past. Yes, she was one for the ages.

Poseidon3 said...

Gregory, how wonderful that you enjoyed this so much - and how terrific that you were able to connect with Ms Duke on FB. I have never really done much of that, which is surprising since my interactions with the sole person I did "befriend" on FB who was a celebrity - Monica Lewis - were so rewarding and memorable to me! It warms my heart that you speak my language. I sometimes feel like few around me do! ;-)

Basil said...

Okay Patty fans, I need some help. I remember seeing her in a show on TV in the late 70's, or probably early 80's. It was an anthology type thing (stand alone) and she played a character who wished for the most exciting day of her life. She got her wish, but it wasn't exactly what she was hoping for. Sort of a Monkey's Paw type moral. She seemed to be in danger alot, and at one point was bitten by a black widow spider in a mobile home trailer thing. It has always stuck with me for years, and after her death, did some digging.

At first I thought it was Fantasy Island, but she never did that show. But she did do alot of other anthology type shows. The closest show I think it might be was something called Insight, which she did a few episodes for over the years. The one I am thinking of might be something called the Hit Man.

I would love to see this episode again. Does it ring any bells with anyone?