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. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Hoppy Easter!

We're almost ready to say goodbye to March and enjoy the oncoming spring weather (and it cannot come soon enough!) One of the touchstones of the season is Easter and we're marking the occasion with a handful of publicity portraits that range from the cute to the corny to the campy. Thanks to little Shirley Temple for serving as our cover girl this time out!

Little Jon Provost seems to have temporarily shifted his attention from his pal Lassie (1957-1964), though I'm sure his canine companion will still rescue him when this killer bunny turns on the poor boy!
1930s actress Jean Parker (of Little Women, 1933, and others) gets into the spirit of 
 things with both a bunny suit and some eggs to decorate.
Dancing film star Vera-Ellen (of On the Town, 1949, and White Christmas, 1954) explores other artistic endeavors such as painting.
A young Susan Hayward gets cozy with a furry Easter bunny in this seasonal publicity shot.
Miss Ann Miller stumbles on one serious Easter egg during this 1946 hunt!
Starlet-turned-character actress Jeff Donnell (the onetime wife of Aldo Ray and of In a Lonely Place, 1950) sports an angora crop top in her Easter-time publicity photo!
Tim Conway (then of McHale's Navy, 1962-1966) has his hands full not only with a sizable Easter egg, but also with a curvy starlet named Chickie Lane!
Marianna Hill (of Medium Cool, 1969, and High Plains Drifter, 1973) gets her inner bunny on.
Eggs (and legs!) for days, courtesy of Phyllis Elizabeth Davis, then popping up in Last of the Secret Agents? (1966) with Marty Allen & Steve Rossi, but soon to appear in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and later Vega$ (1978-1981.)
It's rather rare to see a star like Elizabeth Taylor in a shot this goofy. She clearly had not quite reached A-level status at the time of this photo shoot.
I love the colors in this publicity portrait of pretty Pat Crowley (then of Please Don't Eat the Daisies, 1965-1967.)
Gorgeous and sweet Sharon Tate has her hands on an unusual Easter bunny in this portrait.
Though Robert Morse wasn't seen in the animated special The First Easter Rabbit (1976), he sorta has the teeth for the role of Stuffy, a plush bunny who comes to life and delivers eggs to everyone(!)
This promotional photo of Sally Struthers was released during the run of the (now practically forgotten) All in the Family spin-off sitcom Gloria (1982-1983.)
Here we find Sandy Duncan during the time she was starring on the convoluted sitcom Valerie. Named for star Valerie Harper, it was changed to Valerie's Family when Harper was suddenly fired (!), with Duncan brought in as the (now-dead) Harper's sister-in-law. Next it was called The Hogans before settling on The Hogan Family. Somehow, despite all the brouhaha, the show ran from 1986-1990.
Because having male and female Easter bunnies in formal dress at Walt Disney World isn't quite kitschy enough, we have to deck out Joan Lunden in a drapey 1980s concoction and throw in Alan Thicke as her cohost for a televised Easter parade! (The Walt Disney World Happy Easter Parade, 1988.)
Finally, we leave you with the boys (Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges) of Diff'rent Strokes (1978-1986) as they pitch in on painting up some oversized Easter eggs. We hope your holiday is a hoppy one and will be back soon with more show business fun!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Guest Who: Cleopatterings

If you've read through some of our more recent TV guest star posts, you know that as of late I've been revisiting Fantasy Island (1977- 1984) and picking out certain appearances that tickle my fancy. One particular favorite includes Miss Joan Collins (a patron saint of The Underworld) as she essays the role of a visitor to Mr. Rourke's island who has the desire to be the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra for a couple of days.
This episode aired in 1980, on the heels of Collins' scorchy big-screen hits The Stud (1978) and The Bitch (1979), but before she skyrocketed to renewed fame as the conniving Alexis Morell Carrington on Dynasty (1981-1989.) In fact, it was this episode of Island that led to her name being bandied about as a potential Alexis candidate after Sophia Loren couldn't be secured for the role and several others either weren't right for it or declined to proceed.

The idea of portraying Cleopatra had long appealed to Collins, though she could never quite make it happen. In 1955, one of her earliest big-budget features, Land of the Pharaohs, gave her a taste of what it could be like as she played the duplicitous and sexy Princess Nellifer. Scheming and palace intrigue, all while decked out in bangles and body makeup, marked the role, though the film was not a box office success.

Later, when her studio 20th Century Fox was planning a new version of Cleopatra, she was tested for the role and was in line to play the Queen of the Nile. However, before it was all said and done, the decision to shift the movie from a mid-budget costume picture to a mega-budget spectacle cost her the role when the studio instead (famously) paid $1 million to Elizabeth Taylor for her services. The result was a convoluted, far-reaching, surreal money pit that almost bankrupted the studio no matter what qualities Taylor was able to bring to the part. During Taylor's severe illness, Collins was placed in the dugout as a potential pinch-hitter should her health fail to come sufficiently back around.

Thus, when this script came Collins' way, she was eager to take the opportunity to slither into Cleo's gilded headgear and gossamer gowns. Unfortunately, her character was duped a bit by Mr. Rourke (Ricardo Montalban) in that she was sent back to Egypt where she was captured as a slave and taken to the palace's harem! (Take note of the slave girl just to the right of the doorway to the harem's "hot tub.")

Collins is handed over to burly, brusque Ruth Roman and instructed to doff her strange clothing and put on something slinkier. Again, take note of the slave girl at the far right of this picture. This (famous) young lady was near the very start of a brief on-camera acting career. She is given a fair amount of lines to read with Collins, but seems unable to cheat to the camera, allowing viewers to see her face beyond the encompassing wig!

Finally, we at least get a profile shot as she presents Collins with the filmy wrap she is expected to put on. Even this, though, doesn't give us much of an idea as to who she might be.

In a quick flash, while she's warning Collins not to be impudent with the royal guards and the imposing Roman, we get a semi-close-up of her face, yet it's in the foreground, blurry when compared to Collins' more focused face!
At last there is the opportunity to see full-on who has been expressing concern to Collins. Recognize her now?
This is Patti Davis, the daughter of Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis. In 1979, Davis had broken into TV with bit roles on several Aaron Spelling produced series such as The Love Boat and Vega$, as well as CHiPs. Sporadic work continued over the next few years, but no considerable acting career took hold. Her final acting appearance came as "Reporter" in 1989's Tango & Cash.

I can hardly recall a time when I've witnessed a fledgling performer seem to almost deliberately turn away from the camera and willingly become upstaged! Perhaps she found the costume or the part embarrassing for some reason. Note here the way fellow guest star Michael Ansara is approaching the area in which she's standing...

He walks directly in front of her (her arm can be seen just barely behind him here) and she does nothing to counter it whatsoever. Incidentally, I had my contact who is quite close to La Collins ask her if she knew she'd worked on Fantasy Island with President Reagan's daughter Patti, but she had no recollection of such a thing at all. (Now, thanks to the magic of The Underworld, she can see evidence of it should she wish to!)

Aforementioned guests Ansara and Roman had enjoyed busy careers in movies and on TV. Ansara, one-time husband of Barbara Eden, had an imposing stature and a strong voice, which he used for animated programs towards the end of his career. (He died in 2013 at age ninety-one of Alzheimer's Disease complications.) Roman had the better movie career of the two with Champion (1949) and Strangers on a Train (1951) among her many credits. After this, she worked on Knots Landing for a while and had a recurring part on Murder, She Wrote. She died in 1999 at age seventy-six from natural causes.
Anyway, Collins' character is enlisted to impersonate Cleopatra - to distract the visiting Marc Anthony because Ansara believes that the real one would align with Anthony against him. With Collins stepping in, Anthony can busy himself with what he thinks is a queen, but is actually just a harem slavegirl.

Just before the big masquerade, Montalban slips into Collins' chambers, disguised as a guard to offer her some words of advice. Montalban always relished these opportunities to briefly shed his iconic off-white suit just as Collins relished dolling herself up in the Cleopatra finery (reportedly made up of everything from Claudette Colbert's leftovers from the 1934 movie to some of Cher's lounge act costuming!) Collins would do it yet again (see below) for a costume party in the telefilm The Making of a Male Model (1983) with Jon-Erik Hexum.
But who do we have in the pivotal role of Marc Anthony? Surely not Richard Burton, who'd played it in the 1963 epic (and who'd costarred with Collins in 1957's Sea Wife.) It's a little hard to tell from the full head of curly lock just who this is, isn't it?

What a shock to find former TV Tarzan (1966-1968) and game show host Ron Ely in the part!
He's barely adequate as the heroic soldier and lover and is furthermore done no favors by the costume party "armor" he's given, not to mention the white and gold drum majorette boots that they have saddled him with!!
Anyway, we prefer our Ron Ely half (three-quarters?) naked over any other method of presentation:
As was too often the case on Fantasy Island, once the fantasy was over and the featured guest was headed home, they revealed that someone else within the story was also there enacting a fantasy. Thus, folks who "fell in love" (read: slept together) during their visit could live on happily ever after and travel home together (though they hadn't arrived on the island together!)

So it is that Collins is confronted with Ely - hair now back to normal - as a fellow island guest whose fantasy had been to be Marc Anthony for a couple of days...

This episode gave us many flattering shots of Collins (with her own hair, seen here, versus the wigs that she would soon be adopting close to full time during the grueling hours on Dynasty.)

This was the first time that Collins and Montalban had ever acted together, but they did have something in common. They each guest-starred on episodes of Star Trek that later proved to be among the most well-remembered of the cult series. In hers, "City on the Edge of Forever," she played a 1930s social worker who Captain Kirk falls in love with during a trip through time, but who he is asked to allow die in order to not alter the earth's history. What she lacked in authentic 1930s attributes she made up for with stunning, delicate beauty.
Last year, a highly-welcome Collins attended a Star Trek convention as a guest for the first time! (You can see ever-chatty Shatner and her in an interview together prior to that here.)
Montalban's was "The Space Seed," about a group of master race specimens held in suspended animation, who are led by the strapping gentleman. Soon, he tries to take hold of the Enterprise, but is eventually left to his own devices on a remote planet. Years later, the character would be memorably brought back for the big-screen success Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), just two years after this episode of Island aired.

In 1986, Collins and Montalban were briefly reunited onscreen once more when Dynasty gave birth to its spin-off The Colbys (1985-1987) and Montalban was cast as the second series' chief heavy. Collins did not appear on The Colbys, but Montalban did pop up on Dynasty and in 1986 the two shared a few scenes (as well as mischievous exploits.) That concludes this installment of our TV guest star musings, but you know we'll eventually be back with more!