Patty Duke

The late actress Patty Duke won an Academy Award in 1963 at age 16 for her portrayal of Helen Keller in ‘The Miracle Worker’—becoming the youngest Oscar recipient at the time. She later starred in an array of TV movies and became a mental health activist.


In 1963, at age 16, American actress Patty Duke won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker—becoming the youngest Oscar recipient at the time. She had previously performed the role on Broadway from 1959-1961. She later starred in '60s cult classics like Valley of the Dolls and Me, Natalie. As her success on the big screen continued, however, Duke began to privately unravel due to drug and alcohol abuse and bipolar disorder. She later became known for her rein as the "Queen of TV Movies," starring in a veritable legion of small screen films from the '70s to the new millennium. Duke died on March 29, 2016 at the age of 69.

Traumatic Early Life

Patty Duke was born Anna Marie Duke on December 14, 1946 in Elmhurst, New York. Duke and her siblings grew up in a difficult household, raised by an alcoholic father and mother who suffered from what was then called manic depression, later renamed bipolar disorder. The young Anna was introduced to acting by her brother's managers, John and Ethel Ross, who changed her name to Patty and eventually became her guardians. Duke would later state that she was given drugs and sexually molested by both of the Rosses. 

Oscar-Winning Role in 'The Miracle Worker'

Duke began acting in commercials, soon moving on to a few movie roles and bit parts. Her first big role came in 1959, when she was cast as Helen Keller in the Broadway version of The Miracle Worker, with Anne Bancroft portraying teacher Anne Sullivan. In 1962, the play was turned into a feature film, in which Duke and Bancroft also starred. For her performance in the film, the 16-year-old Duke won a promising newcomer Golden Globe and an Academy Award for best supporting actress—making her the youngest person to win an Oscar at that time. (Tatum O'Neal would later become the youngest recipient in Oscar history in 1973, when she received the coveted award for her performance in Paper Moon.)

Sadly, following her Oscar win, Duke began to privately unravel; the abuse she endured and her family history of bipolar disorder began to plague her. She began drinking heavily and abusing drugs, and attempted suicide several times. But all the while, her work continued.

'The Patty Duke Show,' Pop Stardom and TV Movies

In 1962, Duke starred in her own ABC sitcom called The Patty Duke Show, in which she played two characters who are cousins. The show lasted three seasons and earned her an Emmy nomination. In 1965, she also became a pop music contender with her top 10 hit "Don't Just Stand There" and headlined the acclaimed film Billie, which was to be the first movie ever sold to a television network. Thus began her reign as the "Queen of TV Movies." She continued her big-screen career however, starring in the cult classic Valley of The Dolls in 1967 and indie film Me, Natalie in 1969. Though the latter did poorly with audiences, her performance earned the actress her second Golden Globe.

In 1976, Duke won her second Emmy for the highly successful mini-series Captains and the Kings. (She had previously earned an Emmy for her role in the 1970 movie My Sweet Charlie, in which she played a pregnant Southern teen who comes to love an African-American Northern lawyer.) Other popular TV movies followed, including the 1979 small screen version of The Miracle Worker in which she portrayed Anne Sullivan, a role that won her a third Emmy. 

In the mid-1980s, Duke became president of the Screen Actors Guild. Other TV films among her scores of projects included Flight for Life (1987), Everybody's Baby: The Rescue of Jessica McClure (1989), Family of Strangers (1993), When He Didn't Come Home (1998) and Love Lessons (2000).

Personal Life & Death

Duke was married to assistant director Harry Falk from 1965 to 1969. Sometime later, she discovered she was pregnant. The father's identity was unknown, but she suspected it was Desi Arnaz Jr., as she and Arnaz had embarked on a tumultuous affair. The child was later proved to be the baby of rock promoter Michael Tell, to whom she was married for less than two weeks in 1970. Son Sean was born in February 1971.

In 1972, Duke married actor John Astin, who played Gomez in The Addams Family. Astin adopted her son Sean, and fathered her second son, Mackenzie, who was born in 1973. The couple divorced in 1985. In 1986, Duke married Michael Pearce, a drill sergeant whom she met while preparing for a television role. The couple, who adopted son Kevin in 1989, would later be described by son Sean as developing a rich, balanced relationship over the years.

Having previously attempted suicide, Duke was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1982. Her 1987 autobiography, Call Me Anna, was made into a TV movie in 1990 in which she played herself and served as co-producer. Her second book, A Brilliant Madness: Living With Manic Depression Illness, was published in 1992, with Duke serving as a staunch advocate for understanding mental health issues and providing support.

Patty Duke died on March 29, 2016 in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, at the age of 69. According to a statement from her representative, the actress died from a sepsis infection from a ruptured intestine. Her family also released a statement: “This morning, our beloved wife, mother, matriarch and the exquisite artist, humanitarian, and champion for mental health, Anna Patty Duke Pearce, closed her eyes, quieted her pain and ascended to a beautiful place.”

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