Patty Duke: 'If I hadn't gotten treatment, God knows what would have happened'
Patty Duke, who gives the keynote address at Childhaven’s annual Celebration Luncheon March 11, talks to Nicole Brodeur about her years in Hollywood, coping with mental illness and learning from Laurence Olivier.
Seattle Times columnist
If you’re of a certain age, you can’t hear the name “Patty Duke” without thinking of the eponymous TV show on which she starred for just a few years — but which has followed her all her life.
So, too, though, have the stories. The drinking and drugs. The crazy love affairs. And the time when she broke celebrity-confessional ground by going public with her bipolar disorder.
The diagnosis and the treatment have saved not just her, Duke said the other day, but her relationship with the fans who have followed from “The Miracle Worker” (for which she won a 1962 Academy Award at age 16), through “Valley of the Dolls,” and beyond.
“I went to a bridal expo yesterday with my future daughter-in-law, and of course, there was the recognition,” Duke said from her Idaho spread. “But I thought to myself, ‘My God, if I hadn’t gotten treatment. God knows what would have happened.’ ”
Duke will bring that gratitude — and struggle — to Seattle March 11, when she delivers the keynote at the annual Childhaven Celebration Luncheon. (www.childhaven.org)
She will speak of her mental illness, but also of being the daughter of dysfunction. She had an alcoholic father and a clinically depressed mother who handed her over to a domineering couple who put her in show business and plied her with alcohol and drugs to keep her in it.
So the idea of a place like Childhaven, where neglected children are cared for and their parents educated, “perked me up,” Duke said.
“I thought, ‘Wow. There really is some place for kids to go.’ And not just the kids,” Duke said. They work with the abusive parents as well. And sometimes they find there is a medical issue, but there are also people who have to relearn, and learn to control their anger or rage which comes from somewhere.”
Once she became a mother to two sons, Duke repeated the cycle her parents started. Her sons, Sean and Mackenzie “went through hell,” she said.
“I was sweet Patty Duke on one side of the door and a raving, angry ... I don’t know what I was angry about.”
She recalled the time one of her children “mouthed off or didn’t hold his spoon right,” and how she chased him around the house with a wooden spoon.
In 1982, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Five years later, she went public with “Call Me Anna,” an autobiography that showed what a talented actress she really was, cheerfully carrying on despite her troubled parents and the overbearing control of John and Ethel Ross, who managed her career.
Duke broke free of them by marrying at 18, then embarking on an irrational, rageful journey through movies, television and three marriages before she finally figured out what was wrong.
“It’s like being a scientist and finding something new in the universe,” she said of her diagnosis. “I had to go out and tell people that they weren’t the only ones.”
It was a different time then; no one was confessing anything on People’s cover or Oprah’s couch. But there was the former child star, talking about drugs and drinking, anorexia and manic affairs and forthrightly admitting to mental illness.
“I don’t think I was brave,” Duke said. “I think the fact that I had been diagnosed and I accepted the diagnosis and I was religious about taking the meds allowed me to be outside of myself for the first time in my life.”
She gives a lot of credit to her fourth husband, Michael Pearce, a former Army drill sergeant she met in 1985 while filming a TV movie at Fort Benning, Ga.
“I ask my husband, ‘What do people do who don’t have you in their lives?’ His generosity of spirit ... I think the universe allowed me to notice that way back then when we met, and I try not to take advantage of it.
“The other men that I married were all dear and lovely guys, but the illness didn’t allow them to reach me.”
Duke is now a grandmother to three and her son, Sean Astin, has followed her into acting, most notably in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
She has kept a toe in the business, popping up on shows like “Glee,” in which she played one half of a lesbian couple with former TV staple Meredith Baxter.
Showrunner Ryan Murphy had plans to bring them back, Duke said, “But when that young man [Cory Monteith] overdosed, everything in their world turned upside down. It was almost as if they didn’t want to revisit that season.”
Duke doesn’t get offers as much as she gets offers to audition.
“That’s another tough nugget for me to swallow,” she said. “There’s a part of me that says ‘Hey! Wait a minute! Sixty years here.’
“Young people don’t know who Patty Duke is,” she said. “They don’t know the body of my work and I have not made the effort to make them know who I am. I just sit in my Idaho house and wait for the magic to happen.”
There are plans for a book — not so much a memoir, “but a book about how this little girl stole from the best,” she said.
“When I was 8 years old, I was working with Lord Olivier (in the 1961 TV movie “The Power and the Glory”) and Richard Burton (in a 1958 TV version of “Wuthering Heights”) . I want the book to be anecdotes, but mostly to memorialize those people, because people are forgetting.”
The conversation turned to another actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died just weeks ago from a drug overdose.
“I never worked with him, but I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders when they announced he was gone,” Duke said, then sighed.
“Early diagnosis and intervention,” she said. “I hope my celebrity will open the door to taking about it.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Every Sunday, I bring you a conversation with a local who is doing something great, or a great who is doing something local: media personalities, big thinkers, visiting artists, colorful characters and doers of all kinds.
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