10 things I love about Patty Duke

Laura Macfehin

Patty Duke packed a lot in to her 69 years on this plane of existence. Child star, actress, activist and advocate. She was a singer and a song, a dancer and a dance. She married an Addams and gave birth to a hobbit. She was a record setter and a rule breaker; an icon of camp who played herself in a biopic of her life—and I mean literally—she played herself in the TV adaptation of her autobiography Call Me Anna in 1990.

People who love Patty Duke generally have their own Patty they think of when hear her name—maybe it’s the teen TV and pop-star Patty, the camp classic Neely from Valley of the Dolls or the veteran of 90s TV movie melodramas. I will introduce you to my personal Patty on the way, so here are …

10 things I love about Patty Duke

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  1. She overcame a pretty crappy childhood

Patty Duke was born Anna Marie Duke in Elmhurst, Queens in New York in 1946. Her father was a snappy dresser, a great dancer and also a violent drunk. Her mother kicked him out but suffered from terrible bouts of depression, which she often took out on the kids.

Patty’s older brother Ray was a child actor whose agents took an interest in Patty. John and Ethel Ross moulded her into a more saleable product, curling her hair and changing her name – Patty McCormack was a popular child star whose success they hoped to replicate. Ethel told Patty “Anna Marie is dead—from now on you’re Patty”. This set the tone of their management style.

Later Patty’s mother Frances would give Patty over entirely to the Rosses whom she believed would be better for the little girl and who she was intimidated by. Nobody explained it to little Patty who continued to hope that if she did a good job in the commercials she was cast in she would be able to go home.

As Duke got older the Rosses continued to exploit her financially, emotionally and sexually. Duke broke free of the Rosses in her late teens, cut all ties with them and went on to be a successful actor, loving mother and all round awesome lady.

Yay Patty Duke!

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  1. She was a record breaker

When Duke was just 12 she won the role of Helen Keller, the famous deaf/blind humanitarian opposite Anne Bancroft in the Broadway play The Miracle Worker. The play was a huge success; it ran for two years and was made into a film in which both actresses reprised their roles. Duke won an Oscar for her portrayal of Helen Keller—the youngest person at that time to ever win one in a competitive field. She also set the record for the shortest acceptance speech—she said just “thank-you”.

On the strength of this win Duke got her own TV show in which she played identical cousins (!) Patty and Cathy Lane. The Patty Duke Show made Duke the youngest person to have a programme bearing their name.

Well done, Patty Duke!

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  1. She had a super sweet voice

Part of the Rosses plan for maximizing their Patty Duke investment was to insist that the teen also have a recording career on top of her acting duties. While this was a somewhat onerous duty for the teenager it did let us hear her super sweet singing voice! Pop-singing Patty Duke was modelled after the Lesley Gore/Skeeter Davis type girl-singer (in fact she recorded a version of the Skeeter Davis hit The End of the World) and although she might not have had their chops she had a real tenderness and an ability to ‘act’ her songs that made them quite powerful.

Her biggest hit Don’t Just Stand There has a real Lesley Gore feel. She can also be heard singing in some of her films—most famously in Valley of the Dolls where she sings the Andre and Dory Previn songs written for the film, but also in films like Deadly Harvest where she sings Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind over the opening credits.

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  1. She sparkled!

Valley of the Dolls could easily be a whole blog post on its own. If you haven’t seen it, you should. Duke plays Neely O’Hara—a character somewhat similar to real life Judy Garland—in a role that was to make clear she was all grown up. The film was based on the sensational novel by Jacqueline Susann and traced the lives of three young women (played by Duke, Sharon Tate and Barbara Parkins) their ambitions, addictions and tragic fates.

The film got terrible reviews when it came out but was a huge box-office success. Its over-the-top performances, melodramatic plot, characters that shared much with real life celebrities like Judy Garland, Carole Landis and Dean Martin, spectacular costuming and show tunes made it a fully-fashioned High-Camp classic from the get go, and it instantly won a cult following.

Duke delivers a fantastic performance steering between over-the-top cat fights to down-and-out pathos without ever resorting to hysteria. As a sidebar: Duke credited her stunningly beautiful and ill-fated co-star Sharon Tate—for whom V.O.T.D would be her last film released while she was alive—for really showing her how to use make-up to best advantage and making her feel she really was beautiful.

Sparkle, Neely, sparkle!

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  1. She freaked me out!

As a horror fan, this is the Patty Duke I am most grateful for. I’ve written before about my love for made-for-TV horror and Duke made some considerable contributions. She made many appearances in 1970s TV anthology series’ (one of my favourite art forms of the 20th century) like Night Gallery and Circle of Fear (in an episode in which she starred with her husband John Astin), and Sixth Sense.

My favourite performance of hers in this genre is in Journey to the Unknown, in an episode where she is sent on holiday by her employers to get over a break up (who are these employers and where can we find them?) and encounters some creepy goings on at the British seaside. She was frequent player in disaster movies like Fire! and The Swarm, but better than these were the films where she headlined—like She Waits, a Rebecca-like gothic story in which Duke plays a newly wed possessed by the vengeful ghost of her husband’s first wife and You’ll Like My Mother where Duke is a pregnant woman trapped in a spooky house with a woman who may or may not by her mother-in-law.

This last one actually had a cinema release but it seems more comfortable on the small screen somehow. In these films Duke has a presence that is at once capable and genuine and also heightens the implicit campness of the genre. This is largely because she just does a really good job, along with the fact that she was very beautiful but with a type of beauty that seemed familiar or achievable.  She lent the roles a believability that made the films all the scarier for me.

Thanks for scaring the crap out of me Patty Duke!

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  1. She is a dance

Although sort of not really anything to do with Duke herself, it is also pretty cool that she lent her name to a dance!

At some point in the 1970s the ‘Patty Duke’ became a popular dance move in the proto hip-hop scene. So much so that funk outfit Cloud One produced an instrumental track named Patty Duke in 1979, which Spoonie Gee sampled for his Spoonin’ Rap. The dance, which some have traced back to the brief clip of Duke dancing in the opening titles of the Patty Duke Show continued to be a popular dance throughout the 80s and has continued to be referenced by rap artists when invoking nostalgia for old skool elements of Hip-Hop culture.

Do the Patty Duke!

  1. She was the mother to a hobbit

At just on five foot it should perhaps be no surprise that she would be mother to someone who would grow up to play Sam Gamgee in Lord of the Rings. Sean Astin was conceived at a turbulent time in Duke’s life. She had just broken up with Desi Arnaz Jr. when she found herself pregnant and quickly (as in five hours later) married music promoter Michael Tell to ‘give her child a name’. The Tell marriage was annulled soon afterwards and Duke would marry John Astin (of Gomez Addams fame), with whom she had another son Mackenzie.

Duke always maintained that her marriage with Michael Tell was never consummated and that Astin was Sean’s biological father, until tests proved that Tell was the bio-dad. Sean Astin has said publicly how lucky he considers himself to have had three fathers—John Astin, Michael Tell and Duke’s later husband Michael Pierce. And apart from all the other good consequences of Sean Astin’s existence—if Duke hadn’t had had him we wouldn’t have had his Sam Gamgee!

Nice pro-creating Patty Duke!

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  1. She was a fabulous ally

As well as having a huge fandom in many gay communities due to her aforementioned role in camp classic Valley of the Dolls, Duke cemented her position as fabulous ally by playing lesbians on-screen, and campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States.

Most notable was her role in 1982 Canadian dramedy ‘By Design’ where she played an out fashion designer, who with her girlfriend and business partner looks for a man to donate sperm after agencies dash their hopes of motherhood via adoption. She also became a licensed celebrant in later years specifically so she could meet the requests of gay couples who wanted her to officiate at their weddings.

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Patty Duke with Sara Botsford in By Design 

  1. She was a straight up champion of the mentally ill.

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Duke had struggled for many years to understand her depression, violent outbursts and compulsive behaviour when she was finally diagnosed as bi-polar in 1982. Before that her sometimes erratic and unusual behaviour (such as her strange acceptance speech for her 1970 Emmy win) had led many to believe she shared the same addictions as her Valley of the Dolls character Neely O’Hara, when in fact oftentimes this behaviour was symptomatic of her neurology and chemistry.

After her diagnosis and despite being a very private person Duke was very open and candid about her condition, advocated loudly for greater understanding towards the mentally ill and often spoke of her challenges and of her system for dealing with them, which included lithium. In doing so she played no small part in changing attitudes towards conditions like bi-polar affective disorder and depression.  

Thank you, Patty Duke!

Social Security Administration Reunites The Cast Of "The Patty Duke Show"

  1. She played herself in the biopic based on her autobiography.

I mean, that’s just rad.

Do you have a favourite Patty Duke moment?  Let me know in the comments!

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