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Unique Lives

Patty Duke - May 14, 2003

Patty Duke was probably the spunkiest speaker we have had yet. She arrived on stage with her arm in a monstrous sling, and walked all over the satege during her talk. I later found out that she and her husband had driven all the way from Idaho to come speak to us! (And were driving on to LA for another speech after this one.) There is a certain invigorating energy to this dynamo. She had torn her rotator cuff muscle during some early work she was doing for the musical Oklahoma. She finished her five month run with her torn muscle. Surgery came recently which was just after her run ended.

Ms. Duke told us the point of her talk was going to be that, "Mental illness is not a death sentence." Although, based on her introduction, I think she already proved that. Patty Duke wrote a book entitled, "A Brilliant Madness," in which she detailed her lifelong struggle with manic depression. Her talk covered some of the high (and low) points of the story.

Her parents divorced and dad left at six.
The first of life's little miserable tricks.
A family then showed up, some theatrical whiz,
And dragged her brother off and into show biz.
The Rosses returned for a female sta'
And took poor Patty away from her Ma.

There she was, just she and her bro,
Then he decided he was tired of the show.
There all alone, things started to whirl,
On the ocean of life, for this twelve year-old girl.

"The Miracle Worker" then came her way,
And soon Patty Duke was the star of the day.
Her career took off and things started to rise,
Along with the troubles that go with that prize.
It's not a fun story, and I shouldn't tell,
Mostly because Patty tells it so well.

Sometimes those poems just jump out of me. Anyway, Ms. Dukes life went through a series of adventures involving failed relationships, suicide attempts, and her full blown battles with manic depression. To me the most interesting thing was that she is Sean Astin's mom. (I really liked him in Toy Soldiers. It was a great "redemption of the bad child movie.") So some great things came out of the dark times.

The other fun part of her story was that she got prepped for a miltary role she had by a drill seargent named Mike Pearce. Sometime after that coaching she was in a hotel room reading "Dancing in the Light" by another Unique Lives speaker Shirley McClaine. She suddenly sat bolt upright and realized, "I love Mike Pearce!" At that point there was a knock on her door and she padded down the stairs wondering who it could be. (*sniff*) As all good fariy tales go, there was Mike at the door. They have been happily married for 17 years now. (See interesting note two after the question and answer session for more juicy tidbits.)

INTERESTING NOTES: In this section for the last speaker, Sarah Weddington, I noted that she was the first speaker to take the microphone and walk around the stage. Patty Duke was the second. This time we were in Boettcher Concert Hall, a round theater, and Patty even walked back and joked with the people in the "cheap seats" behind her. Patty Duke has recorded 6 albums. She also went over and thanked both of the sign language interpreters. Someone though she was the first one to do this, although I recall someone else doing that too. Ms. Duke sure was a spunky lot of fun.


Patty Duke sat down for the question and answer session. She thought the chairs were vary nice. There was a funny moment when she sat down and noted the when you are 5-ish feet tall and sit in those chairs it is hard to keep your feet from playfully swinging. Okay, you had to be there, but at 6'5" that looked like it would be a lot of fun to me.

What were your largest triumphs and struggles as a child star?

The troubles, she noted, were all the family losses she covered during her talk. The triumph, or best part, she thought was her relationship and work with Ann Bancroft, whom she co-starred with in "The Miracle Worker." Before a stage show there is a sacred half-hour. People are alone in their dressing rooms. Ann shared her half-hour with the young Patty every show. They have remained friends since.

Any advice to a child actor or their parents?

Parents should examine their conscience and see if they are doing it for the child or for themselves. if the child is successful they should be able to step back and enjoy it. They should also remind the child that it is a child. "Kids are the worst when they act 17 when they are 11."

On whom had she based her character in "Valley of the Dolls?"

Throughout the preparation the producers had emphasized that "Nelly O'Hara is not Judy Garland." Ms. Duke based her character on ... Judy Garland.

How was she treated by the "Good Old Boys" [Ed. Bad and men, but at least the old was probably right.] when she was president of the Screen Actors Guild?

Most of the men were helpful. The magic breakthrough cam when she learned the words, "Hidden Agenda." From then on she always tried to ferret out people's hidden agenda. Although she said she was hated in the board room. People tended to take a very long time to same basically the same things. Around 2:00 a.m. she would often say, "Excuse me, the Emperor is naked. Good Night!"

Do you like film, TV, or stage the most.

Stage. It is just like this talk tonight, encased in a story. Most actors prefer the stage. it is more personal. Although she would love to do a film again, if she remembers how. (She'd also love for reality TV to take a break.) {Thunderous applause.}

What is her favorite motherhood memory?

At this point Ms. Duke leapt up, realizing she had not told one of her favorite stories. [The background to this is that her kids had gone through her mood swings and were aware of her regular drug therapy.] Late one night she was watching TV and heard a thump in Sean's room. She went into his room and saw him fast asleep, but noticed an intruder scrambling out the window. She screams frantically and runs around looking for the remote security box to call for help. She finds it, but there are no batteries. There she is in the living room screaming frantically, Sean is still alseep, when her other kid at the time comes in and asks, "What's wrong, Ma?" "There was a burglar in the house!" To which her son replied, "Oh, Thank goodness! I thought you had forgotten to take your Lithium."
[I do not feel I do justice to some of these stories. I wish I could include video, but I include them for completeness' sake.]

How do the holidays affect your depression?

She thinks that TV has somewhat helped in that it spreads the word that people with depression during the holidays are not alone. As for herself, she tried to "Keep a lid on expectations." Everything does not have to be perfect.

And advice for families of people who acknowledge their problem but who will not seek treatment?

People like that often say that they, "don't want to lose their creativity." (by taking drugs) This is not true. The drugs can actually give you a safe place in which to express your creativity. She has also seen people say, "I am not a ______." And yet you can seem family members around them slumped over from the exhausting of dealing with that person's illness. "We can only do so much for someone who denies treatment," Patty said. "Please do not give up your own lives for someone who does not understand their need for treatment."

Do you have any tools for dealing with the bad days?

"Crying and screaming." Although lately she has gotten the screaming more under control. She thinks her kids might be disappointed when they cannot get her going.

What role has given her the most personal satisfaction?

Although it was 45 years ago, Hellen Keller.

Has being open about her illness helped her with her own healing?

Yes, but she also mentioned that the absolutes she learned from her mom about right and wrong, and integrity have served her very well.

Where does she go from here?

She worries that she will not get to play the role still in her. She figures she might still get a chance to play somebody's grandma.

Who is her favorite Niece and Nephew? Signed - CK.

This question took a moment to sink in, but then she looked around and said, "I thought you were at a ballgame?" She finally found her nephew Charles and his new wife Lisa in the audience. She said she had lots of favorites, but they were allocated geographically. Her favorites in the Denver area were Charles and Lisa. (See the next notes section.)

INTERESTING NOTES TWO: This is a follow up to the speaker time. I was lucky enough to wind up with a ticket to the VIP reception. On the way to it I passed Charles and Lisa (see last question above) and said congratulations to them. While there I found myself standing near them and struck up a conversation. That is where I learned that Ms. Duke had driven here from Idaho. She also does not usually like to know there are family members in the audience. Later during the reception I got to meet her husband Mike Pearce as well. It turns out he was was the mysterious CK and was backstage and inserted the last question of the evening as a family prank. She has such a wonderful family! They were a delight to chat with. I was even lucky enough to get a Patty Duke autograph on my ticket. While I was waiting a lady asked Patty to say hi to the lady's sister in Florida who was on her cell phone. Patty took up the phone and had a lovely short chat with the lady. All in all it was a magical experience.