Patty Duke burst onto the Broadway stage in 1959, at age twelve. She was cast as Helen Keller, opposite her teacher—and “miracle worker”—Annie Sullivan, portrayed by Anne Bancroft in William Gibson’s play of the same name.
Though Bancroft was stellar in The Miracle Worker, winning a Tony award for best actress, it was the child prodigy Patty Duke who mesmerized audiences playing the blind and deaf Keller. The New York Times singled out Duke’s “wonderfully truthful and touching” performance; Time magazine called it “stunning”; and Walter Winchell described it as “an emotional earthquake.” She won the “Theater World Award” for most promising young star.
Duke’s portrayal became so identified with the play that the producers gave her top billing, a decision her friend and mentor Bancroft graciously supported. The play had positive social consequences as well, leading to an increased sensitivity toward the disabled, and a new wave of professionals trained to help them.
The Miracle Worker ran for over 700 stage performances before it was adapted as a film, earning both Bancroft and Duke Oscars for reprising their stage roles. At the time, Duke was the youngest person ever (sixteen) to win an Academy Award.
Duke’s early success was parlayed into the much lighter Patty Duke Show, in which she played two cousins in high school—one American, the other Scottish—who are identical in appearance but have completely different personalities, giving the show its many comedic plots. The show made Duke a teenage sensation.
But even as she fulfilled the dream of every young American actress, Patty Duke was carrying painful secrets.
She had been born Anna Marie Duke—her baptismal name, which she always cherished—into an Irish Catholic family. Her earliest years were stable, even serene. She attended Catholic schools, which inspired her enough that she considered becoming a nun. But she also loved the dramatic arts, and by the time of her first communion, she had already been signed by talent scouts, and appeared in commercials and on television, alongside acting legends such as David Niven, Richard Burton and Sir Lawrence Olivier.
It was at that point that her family life began to unravel. Her father, John, was an alcoholic who left the family and disappeared; her mother, Frances, tried to raise Patty and her two siblings by herself. But Frances suffered from severe bouts of depression, and eventually allowed the two agents who guided her daughter’s career—a husband-and-wife team, now deceased, named the Rosses—to become Patty’s legal guardians and, in effect, her new parents.
The Rosses were extremely manipulative people, however, who dominated every aspect of Patty’s life. They also, like her father, drank heavily. Unlike her father, they abused her, emotionally and physically. “You name it, it happened,” she later said. It was they who forced her to change her name, telling her, chillingly: “Anna Marie is dead.”
This went on for almost a decade, from the time she was ten until she was eighteen—covering The Miracle Worker and Patty Duke Show years. Given how brutally she was being treated at home, it’s amazing how well Patty functioned outside it, when called upon to act. But what was happening behind the scenes eventually took its toll, even after Patty was liberated from the Rosses.
In 1970, accepting an Emmy for her performance in My Sweet Charlie, she gave a brief, strange, incoherent acceptance speech, causing many to believe she was on drugs. “The truth of the matter,” she later explained, “is that my condition had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. I was having a serious emotional breakdown.” But, “Unlike most people who fall apart in the privacy of their bedrooms, I fell apart on network television.”
Her behavior became increasingly erratic and bizarre. She met two strangers in a parking lot and agreed to put them in charge of her finances, leading to predictable results for her financial well-being. She married a complete stranger, to whom she had just sublet her apartment, only to divorce him two weeks later, and eventually have the marriage annulled. She became pregnant out of wedlock, and wasn’t certain who the real father was. But despite being pressured to have an abortion, she had an unexpected moment of grace and chose life. As People magazine reported, despite all her troubles and irresponsible acts, Patty Duke’s childhood faith still had a real pull on her: “For a good Catholic girl, abortion was out of the question.” She gave birth to a son who would become a successful actor himself (Sean Astin of the Lord of the Rings trilogy).
In the early 1970s, Patty tried to stabilize her life by marrying fellow actor John Astin. Her career flourished once again, especially in impressive miniseries and movies-of-the week. She earned many more Emmy nominations, winning two—one for a television remake of The Miracle Worker, this time with her in the role of Annie Sullivan.
Patty Duke’s outstanding success as an actress, however, wasn’t matched by her performance as a wife and mother. By her own admission, she had uncontrollable fits of rage, which she often took out on her husband and children, followed by intense feelings of guilt and thoughts of suicide. She was diagnosed with manic depression (now known as bipolar disorder), from which she had evidently suffered for years.
Although she was warned they would hurt her career, Duke wrote two books about her life and mental illness, Call Me Anna and A Brilliant Madness. Far from damaging her stature, however, they received widespread acclaim for breaking the taboo about mental illness. Duke became a powerful advocate for those suffering mental health issues, and became so admired in Hollywood for her body of work that she was elected President of the Screen Actors Guild.
Throughout it all, she took complete responsibility for her actions and tried to make amends to everyone she had harmed, and she forgave those who had harmed her—including the Rosses, to whom she tried to reach out before their deaths.
Last year, she gave a remarkable interview to St. Anthony’s Messenger, highlighting the importance of her faith, long-time husband, and reconciled family, saying that despite everything that had befallen her—abuse, several broken marriages, and a severe emotional illness—“I’ve been richly blessed. When I pray, I never ask for material things. I offer only prayers of gratitude.”
Earlier this year, Patty Duke died suddenly and unexpectedly, at the age of 69, after receiving the Last Rites from a priest of her native Catholic faith, surrounded by her relatives and friends.
After her death, her family released a statement that read: “This morning, our beloved wife, mother, grandmother, matriarch and the exquisite artist, humanitarian and champion of mental health, Anna Patty Duke Pearce, closed her eyes, quieted her pain, and ascended to a beautiful place. We celebrate the infinite love and compassion she shared throughout her work and throughout her life.”
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.
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