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Patty Duke survived and thrived despite mental illness, troubled childhood

🕐 5 min read

Actress Patty Duke, who died March 29 at age 69, and will be remembered for her many Hollywood achievements, from her Oscar-winning turn at age 16 in “The Miracle Worker” to “The Patty Duke Show” on ABC. But Duke also carries another badge: The original dysfunctional child-star survivor, as she overcame a truly horrific childhood and became one of the first public figures to speak out about her mental illness.

While stories about controlling child-star guardians are nothing new, Duke had a particularly traumatic experience that was hidden for years. Her first name isn’t even really Patty. As she wrote in her 1987 memoir, “Call Me Anna” (co-authored with Kenneth Turan), Duke’s real first name is Anna Marie. But when she was 7 years old, her already unstable parents in Queens (father an alcoholic, mother with emotional problems) shipped her off to live in Manhattan with a husband-wife team who managed child actors. Ethel and John Ross changed her name to Patty, telling her “Anna Marie is dead. You’re Patty now.”

“They erased her New York accent; dressed her like a miniature Grace Kelly; taught her to lie about her height, weight, age and experience. Her audition interviews were programmed and rehearsed,” wrote Faiga Levine in a Washington Post review of the book. “They fed her booze and prescription drugs; at least once they made drunken sexual overtures to her; and they ripped off the bulk of her earnings. Her life revolved around auditions, rehearsals, performances and the hypercritical, browbeating Rosses, who dissected, analyzed and disparaged everything about her.”

Her home life was a startling contrast to how she appeared to the world: an adorable, talented child star. Duke won bit roles in soap operas and commercials, and when she was 12, landed the role of Helen Keller in Broadway play “The Miracle Worker,” starring opposite Anne Bancroft as teacher/nurse Annie Sullivan. The play was so successful that it was adapted into the movie of the same name in 1962, and won Duke an Academy Award for best supporting actress. The New York Times commended the “absolutely tremendous and unforgettable display of physically powerful acting” between Duke and Bancroft.

With her career already at a peak, she segued into her own self-titled sitcom, “The Patty Duke Show” from 1963 to 1966, where she played identical cousins. In 1967, she made headlines by taking a more adult turn in “Valley of the Dolls,” a movie that immediately became a cult classic. At the same time, she lived with her abusive guardians, and Duke wrote that they gave her drugs and pills as a teen. She also struggled with bipolar disorder, though it wasn’t diagnosed until 1982.

“I knew at a very young age that something was not right, or even more intensely, there was something wrong with me. Again I thought it was just that I was not a good person, that I didn’t try hard enough,” Duke told Barbara Walters in 1992. “It didn’t become apparent – again, as with many people, the illness itself doesn’t – the symptoms, the very overt symptoms didn’t start until my late teens.”

When she was finally freed of the husband-and-wife managers, she tried to move on, though they had stolen most of her earnings. In 1965, Duke married her first husband, Harold Falk, an assistant director on “The Patty Duke Show,” but they were divorced a few years later. “Marriage may have been an escape, but it wasn’t a cure-all,” wrote Jill Gerston in a 1987 Philadelphia Inquirer article. “When her series ended in 1966, she sank into a depression so acute that she couldn’t go to the supermarket without suffering an anxiety attack.”

Duke started starving herself and tried to commit suicide twice: “She disrupted a film set, drank and ate to excess, danced till dawn and chartered planes at whim,” Gerston wrote. Her spiral continued when, at age 23, she had a fling with 17-year-old Desi Arnaz Jr. When Arnaz’s mother Lucille Ball became furious about the relationship, ABC reported, Duke fled to Vegas and married a man named Michael Tell; the marriage lasted 13 days. A year later, Duke gave birth to her son, Sean Astin (now known as star of “Lord of the Rings” movies), and said his father was her partner John Astin, whom she married in 1972. Sean’s father was eventually revealed to be Michael Tell.

She continued to act in various TV movies, but her undiagnosed disorder made it clear something was wrong. Duke won an Emmy Award for the TV movie “My Sweet Charlie” in 1970, though she gave, as the Los Angeles Times put it, “a long, incoherent acceptance speech” when she accepted the award. Duke later said that at the time of the awards, she hadn’t slept in three weeks. Her sons, Sean and Mackenzie, spoke about their mom’s “freakouts” while they were growing up. (In 1986, she married her fourth husband, Michael Pearce.)

Eventually, after she was diagnosed with manic depression/bipolar disorder, Duke told all in her 1987 memoir. It was shocking at a time when mental illness had such a stigma. She also revealed her mother was diagnosed with clinical depression. Duke not only came forward, she starred in a TV movie based on her autobiography.

With the help of lithium and psychotherapy treatments, Duke stopped her downward fall and stayed on a healthy path, as she became an outspoken mental health advocate. She wrote another book in 1992, “A Brilliant Madness,” and urged others to seek help.

“I had this passion to not keep it a secret,” Duke told Larry King. “And I realized that I had access to folks like you who would let me tell other people that they don’t have to suffer. It’s their choice. Some people want to stay that way.”

In her later years, Duke returned to TV, acting in episodes of “Glee” and Disney Channel’s “Liv and Maddie,” where she returned to her roots playing twins. Through it all, she frequently spoke about the importance of stripping the stigma from mental health. In a statement from her family on Tuesday, son Sean said he wanted that part of his mother’s legacy to be remembered:

“This morning, our beloved wife, mother, grandmother, matriarch and the exquisite artist, humanitarian, and champion for mental health, Anna PATTY DUKE Pearce, closed her eyes, quieted her pain and ascended to a beautiful place,” he said on Facebook, and linked to a fundraising site for the Patty Duke Mental Health Project. “We celebrate the infinite love and compassion she shared through her work and throughout her life.”

Video: A look back at Patty Duke’s acting career and advocacy work. (By Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

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