Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Oscar-Winning Actress Patty Duke

Aug 25, 2017
Originally published on August 28, 2017 9:24 am
Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Today we kick off our special series celebrating FRESH AIR's 30th anniversary with excerpts of favorite interviews from our first two years as a national daily show. We start with actress Patty Duke, who Terry interviewed in 1988. The Oscar-winning actress grew up in the public eye as a child star and, at the age of 12, won over Broadway audiences as Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker." Three years later, she played Keller in the screen adaptation and became the youngest actor at the time to win an Academy Award.

Then, in 1963, she got her own TV sitcom, "The Patty Duke Show," and became one of TV's most celebrated teens. After "The Patty Duke Show," Duke co-starred in the film "Valley Of The Dolls," playing a woman addicted to sex, drugs and alcohol. Here's a scene from "The Patty Duke Show." Patty's at the doctor's office to check out her tonsils. When she meets her surgeon, played by the dreamy Troy Donahue, she immediately develops a big crush.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PATTY DUKE SHOW")

TROY DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) I get the feeling you're not too thrilled about having your tonsils removed.

PATTY DUKE: (As Patty Lane, scoffing) Whatever gave you that idea?

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) And Dr. Fitterman (ph) told me about you.

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) Well, he didn't tell me about you.

(LAUGHTER)

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) Well, why don't you sit down? We'll take a look. Aside from your throat, have you had any other symptoms?

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) Hot and cold and a little dizzy.

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) Well, when did that start?

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) A couple of minutes ago.

(LAUGHTER)

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) You can sit back and relax. All right, open up, and say ah.

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) Ah.

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) Well, I'm not crazy about what I see.

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) I am.

(LAUGHTER)

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) Well, I might as well give you the bad news, Patty. You're going to have to have your tonsils out.

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) Oh, that's terrible.

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) The question is when.

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) How about tonight? I'm not doing a thing.

(LAUGHTER)

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) No. Friday is the first time I can take care of it.

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) It's a date.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Patty Duke, welcome to FRESH AIR.

DUKE: Thank you. It is lovely to be here.

GROSS: Now, should I call you Patty Duke? (Laughter) I feel silly asking you this.

DUKE: You can call me anything you want.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. You know, in your book, you write about all this stuff that I certainly never knew about. I'm sure most of your fans never suspected, you know, bouts with manic depression and attempted suicide, stuff like that. I want to talk with you a little bit about some of the, you know, key things (laughter)...

DUKE: Sure.

GROSS: ...That happened in your life. Your parents basically turned you over to these theater...

DUKE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Mangers when you were age 7.

DUKE: ...I prefer to put it another way.

GROSS: Yeah?

DUKE: And this is in no way meant to be judgmental about the way you phrased the question.

GROSS: Yeah.

DUKE: But I prefer to talk about the fact that my mother was really coerced...

GROSS: To do it.

DUKE: ...To give me up. My mother also suffered from a mental illness, clinical and chronic depression. She was very insecure, had no money, limited education. And here were these people who seemed to be saying, we have the yellow brick road in our pocket. And if you really love this little girl - if you really love her, then you'll be unselfish. And you'll give her to us, and we will give her all the things you cannot.

Well, I can almost imagine myself falling for that. It appeals to guilt - motherly guilt that we're never good enough for our children. It certainly appeals to someone who feels inadequate. And so that's what she responded to. My dad, by this time, was out of the picture. They had separated, and my father was an alcoholic. So I went to live with them. And it seemed OK to my mom at the time, though very painful.

GROSS: What are some of the things that this couple did, who took over your career...

DUKE: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...To refashion you into the person...

DUKE: All right.

GROSS: ...They think - they thought you should be?

DUKE: Yeah. These folks, though they come out in a very negative light for the most part in my book, were not complete villains...

GROSS: Yeah.

DUKE: ...In my eyes. And even in retrospect, I see that they had a talent. What they did was, number one, start schooling me in manners, taught me to speak in an English accent so that it - their theory being that it would counteract the New York E's. (Imitating accent) I was a very New York kid who talked like this, (vocalizing). So there was - there were many, many highly disciplined hours of that kind of exercise.

Plus, working on how I looked - Ethel, the wife of the twosome, often would tell me that I was very plain. Part of that, I think, was her attempt, though ill-guided, to keep me humble, to maintain control. And though I got much more affirmation from John Ross, the male part of the couple, her approval somehow held - carried a lot more weight for me.

GROSS: Well, they helped you get an incredible part, the Broadway production of...

DUKE: Absolutely. They did a lot of wonderful things. I started working quite early with wonderful people in live television. Then, yes, "The Miracle Worker" was a year and a half of preparation before I was ever granted an audition.

GROSS: What kind of preparation?

DUKE: The preparation began, of course, with learning about Helen Keller but only up until Annie Sullivan arrives in her life. Again, the theory being, don't give me more information than I need and maintain control. Then, on a daily basis, I was put through exercises pretending to be blind, stumbled around the house with my eyes closed; other exercises about being deaf.

Games were played. Yeah, I was a kid, so they used the game approach. And I was not to hear anything, let's say, for an hour and a half. If sometime during that hour and a half the phone rang or Ethel said to me, there is a call for you and I responded, I had blown the game.

The difference in this kind of training is that not always were the methods kind. They were - there were often very denigrating remarks made rather than corrections. Again, it's something that I recall because it was important to me when I was raising kids to not do that to them - you know, to correct rather than, you know, call them (laughter) wicked little whatever-they-ares (ph).

GROSS: I remember the first time I saw "The Miracle Worker," the movie, when I was a child. I liked the movie a lot, and it scared me a lot.

DUKE: Really?

GROSS: Yeah. It scared me because the whole idea that somebody could go through life both...

DUKE: (Gasping) Yes.

GROSS: ...Blind and deaf terrified me. And when you're a kid, you never - you always figure, well, God, this could happen to me tomorrow. You know?

DUKE: (Laughter) Sure.

GROSS: So it was a very frightening thing. And I figured, oh, gosh, it must have been frightening for you, too, especially when you were playing it on Broadway when you were younger. Do you have to...

DUKE: Actually...

GROSS: ...Think about that so much, about what it would be like to be blind and deaf?

DUKE: Frankly - I can't believe this - but I've never really thought of it in those terms before. I had many, many, many fears - and obsessive fears - as a young person. And maybe I was incorporating them into that role. And I do know for a fact that the role was very therapeutic for me...

GROSS: Oh, how?

DUKE: ...In many ways.

The home life with the Rosses became quite distorted as I got to be 12 and 13 and 14, which were "The Miracle Worker" years. And to be able to go to a place every day and fight the authority figure - full out hit, bite, kick and be applauded for it on top of that was incredible therapy - and what we now know is acting out therapy.

Of course, I didn't know it then. But I do know that probably my illness would have shown itself much sooner if I didn't have those outlets - and of course the nurturing that I got from Anne Bancroft, not only onstage but off. She really, I think, is responsible for helping me through puberty. If I had never met Anne Bancroft, I probably still wouldn't know about birds and bees...

GROSS: (Laughter).

DUKE: ...And all that kind of stuff. She was incredibly generous to me.

GROSS: I think everyone who's seen the film remembers the scene of the breakthrough, where Anne Bancroft as Helen Keller's teacher Annie Sullivan, is working with you as Helen Keller and trying to teach the association between objects and words. And there's the scene at the water pump where she's pumping water, and she's spelling it out to you. And...

DUKE: And she's angry, if you recall.

GROSS: And she's angry. Right.

DUKE: She's angry at me because I've just done something very naughty in front of the rest of the family.

GROSS: But as the water is pouring on your hand, things pause for a second. And you suddenly - it's your only lines in the movie really.

(LAUGHTER)

ANNE BANCROFT: That's right.

GROSS: You start to sound out water. I'd like to play that excerpt of the film.

DUKE: Oh, how interesting. I've never done this before.

GROSS: Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MIRACLE WORKER")

BANCROFT: (As Anne Sullivan) W-A-T-E-R, water. It has a name. W-A-T...

DUKE: (As Helen Keller) Water, water, water, water.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER BEING HAND-PUMPED)

GROSS: That's a scene from "The Miracle Worker" in which Patty Duke as Helen Keller speaks for the first time. What kind of advice were you given about how to make those sounds, the first controlled sounds you utter?

DUKE: I don't think I've ever told this out loud in public before. I think I wrote about it in the book. Arthur Penn wanted a particular sound, obviously, the one we just heard. And as a little girl, a little voice and it just kept coming out maaa (ph). And that wasn't it. And he gave me what I think is an absolutely brilliant direction and an impossible one for a little teenage girl who has a crush on the director to take. He came to me and he said, have you ever been constipated? I thought I would die. I mean, here he is. God is talking to me about constipation. I said huh (ph)? He said, well, you think about that. And then when it comes to that time, besides all the other things that you're feeling and doing, I want you to incorporate that. And, of course, that's what you hear.

And it is a wonderful symbol for Helen's intellectual constipation for those six years. There's a line that comes a little bit after this that belongs to Anne Sullivan. It's when the parents come out of the house. And they're wondering what's going on and what is all this yelling about. And she says, she knows. I tell you, to this day, when I watch that movie or hear that or even hear those words, it has such impact on me.

GROSS: You what's really amazing? You went from "The Miracle Worker," doing it for years on stage and then on screen, to starring in this sitcom about this...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...About two well-adjusted teenagers (laughter).

DUKE: Not a logical progression (laughter)?

GROSS: Really.

DUKE: Again, believe it or not, the cleverness of the Rosses. And I mean this in a most positive way.

GROSS: The people who managed you.

DUKE: Yes, the mentors. They predicted that - remember, back then, we didn't have quite as many shows for teens as we do now. And they predicted that there was going to be a transition problem. Many young actors didn't make it through the teens and into adult acting. So the plan was as long as we've got this offer for this television series, we'll put her in that. That'll get her through those, quote, "awkward" years.

Now, it made sense to them. But I must tell you, I was not there for the telephone call, but I'm aware that Arthur Penn, when he heard this was the deal that had been made, called up and just wanted to whip them soundly for this hideous mistake.

GROSS: Who came up with this idea of identical cousins? For our listeners who don't remember the show, Patty Duke played this, like, really popular American teenager and also played this American teenager's Scottish cousin who is much more prim, proper and conservative...

DUKE: My goodness. You've been paying attention.

GROSS: ... And didn't know about rock and roll (laughter).

DUKE: Didn't seem to know much about anything that had to do with the, quote, "real world."

GROSS: Now, they were identical cousins. They looked exactly the same...

DUKE: Identical cousins, do you not love that?

GROSS: ...Patty Duke played both of them.

DUKE: I have no idea why. Sidney Sheldon is the man who created the show.

GROSS: Mr. bloodline?

DUKE: Yes.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DUKE: Why cousins? I don't know. I think it had something to do with, you know, why wouldn't they have been in the household the same - you know, all these years behaving the same way? Also, I think they wanted some version of - God knows what that accent was that I did.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DUKE: But I must say, most people, when they talk to me about it - you know, folks on the street talk about the twins - they forgot the cousin part.

GROSS: Well, I think I went through my early years thinking, can there be identical cousins?

DUKE: Oh, god. (Laughter).

GROSS: Is this possible?

DUKE: I love it. Oh, we were filled with misinformation on that show. But I must say, I just saw - again, I was never allowed to watch that show, so I saw it only recently. And I was kind of happily surprised. All these years I've been kind of embarrassed by the whole thought, and I really would kind of, you know, turn my head and eyes away when people would mention it.

For its genre, it was quite a lovely little show. And they were nice people. And they weren't saying nasty, hideous things to each other all the time. And then I noticed that I was also doing some very nice acting work. It was, you know, based on very thin premise. But nonetheless, there was some very real work going on there. So I was glad I finally saw it. I don't have to go cringing and skulking through hallways anymore when I hear the music (laughter).

GROSS: I wish we had more time to talk, but we're out of time. It's really been a pleasure to have you here.

DUKE: You're a delight. And this is wonderful program. And I'm so glad it's so successful, and it'll stay on.

GROSS: Oh, (laughter) thank you.

DAVIES: Terry spoke to Patty Duke in 1988. Duke died last year. She was 69. Coming up, actor, director and writer Carl Reiner. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK WESS AND JOHNNY COLES' "WHISTLE STOP (TAKE ONE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.