Question: When I was growing up, I loved The Patty Duke Show, and even thought her characters were played by two different actresses when I was a little kid. But I've read Patty was miserable during the years she did the show. Is that true? Love your column.
Answer: Unfortunately it is, Jillian, as Duke detailed in her 1987 best-seller, Call Me Anna: The Autobiography of Patty Duke. The actress, was already a stage sensation and the first person under 18 to receive a competitive Oscar (she won for The Miracle Worker at 16) when she launched the ABC comedy in September 1963. Duke was a bundle of talent who was lauded for her dramatic and comedic performances, but nobody at the time realized what was going on behind the scenes.
Born to a lower-middle-class family in a rough New York City neighborhood, Anna Marie Duke was recommended by her actor older brother, Ray, to personal managers John and Ethel Ross, who needed a young girl for a movie Ray was working on. Partly because of her father's drinking problem, Duke's parents split up, and as she worked her way up through the acting world, the Rosses were able to talk her mother into letting her live with them, saying it'd be better for her. Another major change: a new name.
"One day they called me into their apartment and said, 'Anna Marie is dead, you're Patty now,' just like that," Duke told TV Guide in 1985. "Little did they know that my psychiatrist would add a wing to his house with that phrase alone." And that was only the beginning. "You name it, it happened, stuff my mother doesn't know about," she said. The Rosses pressured her to be perfect, telling her she'd be nothing without them, and worked to alienate her from her parents. According to Duke, they also introduced her to alcohol and drugs and sexually abused her. "To have gotten through that without being an addict, an alcoholic or permanently mentally damaged, it's wild," she said. "To be willing to walk out the door and encounter another human being, it's a miracle."
The saddest stories were about what her parents went through at the time, her mother occasionally coming to her managers' home to do their laundry, all the while having to hear and read accounts of the hell from which the couple saved her daughter. There was the time John Ross said in an interview that he and his wife had taken Duke in, with "her dirty white shoes." Her mother had "worked so hard to see that they were clean," Duke said. "That tossed-off phrase did it; that was the stake through her heart." Sadder still was the tale told by a stranger. "A woman came up to me at the Improv in New York once and said she knew my father when he washed dishes at a luncheonette. She said he'd periodically fall off the wagon, but there was a time when several months went by and he didn't take a drop. She asked him what he was doing with his money, and he finally told her, 'I got a kid in this play on Broadway. Three or four times a week, I go there and stand in the back.' He never came backstage. I never knew he was there."
When the series was on the air, no one knew what troubles Duke was having, but even back then some suspected her life and her unfailingly sunny personality were too good to be true. "Patty cried once when Mother and Father separated," her brother said in 1963, "and then she went back to laughing and playing as always and nobody would have known she could cry if they hadn't seen her." One unnamed observer said the girl was "overdeveloped as an actress and underdeveloped as a person," while another warned of what would happen when the passion evident in the actress ran into the overly sweet personality of the "real" girl: "The two may ultimately collide and when they do, there's going to be an awful lot of sugar strewn over somebody's floor."
After many difficult years, Duke eventually discovered she was manic-depressive and successfully dealt with it via therapy and treatment. She even overcame a long period of not wanting to face the memories of her early professional life (especially the series she starred in for three years) and eventually came full circle emotionally, shooting a reunion TV-movie for CBS that aired in 1996. "All these years I have pooh-poohed it and not wanted to talk about it," she said of the series at the time. "But I have begun to realize what terrific benefits I have gotten from the show. So I have forgiven whatever it was that I thought made my life miserable."