Friday, April 1, 2016

Friday Dance Party: Her Name Was Anna

Many well-deserved tributes poured in this week when this popular star unexpectedly passed away. I have to add mine.
Patty Duke
1946-2016
With painful honesty, Duke revealed
her mental illness, one of the first to
do so publicly.
Much has been written about our gal's difficult childhood, which she revealed in her startling memoir, "My Name Is Anna". Abandoned by an alcoholic father and a mentally ill mother, Patty was raised by her managers, John and Ethel Ross, who abused her both psychologically and physically.  Our heroine also suffered from bi-polar disorder, though it went undiagnosed for decades;  her youth was a torment, with her work being her only escape.
The New York Post headline screamed "They Even Fixed The Kid!" In the late 50s, Patty participated in the $64,000 Challenge, one of the quiz shows which, it was later learned, defrauded the public by giving their most popular contestants the answers in advance. She was 12 when she appeared on the show; 3 years later, she was hauled before the Senate subcommittee investigating the matter.
The Miracle Worker ran so long, star Anne
Bancroft moved on. Recognize her replacement
(above)? That's Suzanne Pleshette with Patty.

At the same time she was appearing on the quiz show, Patty won the role which put her on the map, Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker.  Her raw performance of the deaf blind mute child was a sensation, and when she recreated the performance on screen, she became the youngest performer ever to win a competitive Oscar (years later, that stat was broken by both Tatum O'Neal and Anna Pasquin).
As everyone knows, The Miracle Worker was the story of Helen Keller's childhood, and of her teacher, Annie Sullivan, who was able to reach into the girl's silent world. Nightly, this 10 minute scene of physical and emotional domination formed the centerpiece of the play.  Bancroft won a Tony, Duke was not nominated. Both women won Oscars for the screen adaptation.
Patty's interpretation of the modern teen seemed
real, but she actually had no idea how normal
teens behaved. Her handlers kept her secluded
from everyone and refused to allow her friends.
She earned the first of her 10 Emmy nods for
the show.
The Patty Duke Show was created around our star to capitalize on her Oscar fame.  She was the youngest actress ever to have a self-titled TV series.  The show was a major hit with the teen aged set during its 3 year run. The first two seasons were filmed in New York, which did not, at the time, have strict child labor laws (CA did).  Though she was a minor, she usually worked 12 hour days.  When she turned 18, the series moved to Los Angeles, where, as an adult, she once again worked 12 hour days.  Playing twins was hard work, and Duke appeared in almost every scene as one character or the other or both. (Technically, they were not twins but "identical cousins," and in one episode, Patty played yet a third identical cousin, Betsy.)
Duke remembers her castmates as the family she never had.  "Poppo" William Schallert remained a lifelong father figure to her, and "Mommo" Jean Byron explained the facts of life to Patty.
Patty the youngster and Ed Begley the oldster
on Oscar night. Duke beat such heavy hitters
as Shirley Knight and Angela Lansbury. Ed
won for Sweet Bird of Youth.
When the series ended, our gal finally extricated herself from the toxic influence of the Rosses, though they kept much of the money she had earned while in their care.  On her own for the first time in her life, she made a move to escape the squeaky clean image of the teenie bopper she had portrayed in her sitcom.  She chose a role diametrically opposed to the Patty Duke image.
Jacqueline Susann's sensational bestseller Valley of the Dolls was one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the period. It was purported to be a sizzling expose of Hollywood, though in reality, it's exploitative soap opera.  Patty Duke took the role of Neely O'Hara, a rising starlet who ultimately becomes a washed out lush.  She has said the part was based on Judy Garland, and there are some similarities (Garland herself was cast in the film but was fired after two days of shooting; her role was taken by Susan Hayward). 
In the tradition of Joan Crawford's "No wire
hangers," Bette Davis's "But ya' are, Blanch, ya
are in that chair" and Norma Desmond's 
"I'm ready for my close-up," Patty's Neely O'Hara
 spawned a gay catchphrase: 
"Sparkle, Neely, Sparkle!"
Valley of the Dolls was a critical flop but a financial success. Two years after its initial release, Duke's co-star Sharon Tate was brutally murdered by the Charles Manson family, and the studio returned the film to the theaters, where it made even more money.  The film is so over the top it has achieved camp status, especially among gay men, and in her later years, Patty was often invited to attend screenings of the film for that audience.
Neely O'Hara hits the skids.

Patty's new, adult career was launched.  She won a Golden Globe for the feature film, Me, Natalie, and picked up the second of her 10 Emmy nominations for her performance in the TV film, My Sweet Charlie.  When she won the award in 1970, her acceptance speech turned into one of the most notorious ever delivered at the Emmy Awards.  Her stilted speech and disjointed thoughts were immediately pegged as the result of drug abuse, when in fact they were the result of a manic episode.
Duke's rambling,incoherent
acceptance speech at the 1970
Emmys gave her the reputation
of a druggie, but in fact she was
in the midst of an undiagnosed
manic attack.
( I remember watching this moment on TV, and I assumed, like everyone else, that Patty Duke was completely drugged out).  Backstage, she stunned and amused the press when she announced she was retiring from show business and enrolling at UCLA to become a psychiatrist. 

My Sweet Charlie concerned an unwed pregnant runaway and her uneasy, racially charged friendship with a black attorney falsely accused of murder. Duke was later told the project was the first actual TV movie (I'm not sure that can be verified) but it was surely a landmark. The film even received a theatrical release after its broadcast on TV.  Patty sealed her credentials as an authentic actress in this piece, winning her Emmy against competition which included Shirley Jones and Dame Edith Evans. Her co-star Al Freeman, Jr lost his Emmy to Peter Ustinov.

The critical success of My Sweet Charlie ushered in a golden age of Made-for-TV films.  They peppered the broadcast landscape for the next several decades. Some were prestigious successes, others were schlocky claptrap.  Patty starred in more than her share of both.
Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby. Yep, that was an actual TV movie in the 70s, with Patty Duke taking the role of Rosemary. This sequel preceded author Ira Levin's own sequel novel and included only one actor from the original film, Ruth Gordon. Other cast members included Tina Louise and Donna Mills, so you can see what kind of film it was.  Ironically, Patty Duke had been in contention to play Rosemary in the original film, losing the role to Mia Farrow.
Soon after The Miracle Worker, our pint sized star
worked with Laurence Olivier in a TV adaptation
of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory.
Duke's personal life was chaotic during most of her life, largely due to her undiagnosed mental disease, as well as alcohol issues. In 1965, she married a crew member on the set of her sitcom, in part to escape from the influence of her managers. The marriage lasted a difficult four years, marred by Patty's extreme mood swings and outlandish behavior.  At age 23, she embarked on a very public affair with 17-year old Desi Arnaz, Jr.; when Lucy stepped in, the scandal provided the tabloids a field day.
Sean, who's your daddy? In her memoir, Patty
revealed that her first son was the result of her
scandalous affair with teen ager Desi Arnaz Jr.
She married 2nd husband Michael Tell to give the
child a father. 3rd husband John Astin adopted
Sean and gave him his last name.
At the same time, she became involved with rock promoter Michael Tell, whom she married when she became pregnant.  The union was dissolved less than 2 weeks later;  throughout her life, Patty believed her first child, Sean Astin, was the son of Arnaz.  (When he hit adulthood, Sean took a paternity test which proved Patty's husband, Michael Tell, was his father.  Isn't this fun?)  
Patty's marriage to comic actor John Astin (16 years her senior) produced another actor son, Mackenzie Astin, and lasted about a dozen years.  During this period, she was known as Patty Duke Astin.  The collapse of this marriage is more proof of my theory that Hollywood marriages never work out if the wife takes the husband's name. I wrote about this here, years before Kaley Cuoco and Courtney Cox reinforced my point. 
Our heroine took advantage of the heyday of the mini-series (late 70s into the 80s) by appearing in one of the most lavishly produced, Captains and the Kings.  
Captains and the Kings was adapted from Taylor Caldwell's best selling potboiler and provided our gal with a juicy role.  The story was a highly fictionalized account of the Kennedy family, and Patty played the role based on matriarch Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Patty was lucky in 1977, the year she won her
second Emmy, for Captains and the Kings. It
was the year of Roots, which steamrolled its
competition (Roots supplied a whopping 10
acting nominations that year). But Duke's
category, Lead Actress in a Limited Series,
had no nominations from Roots.
Duke's third Emmy brought her full circle, as it were, with her Broadway triumph. In 1979, Melissa Gilbert had gained stardom with Little House on the Prairie, and her production company seized on the idea of a TV remake of The Miracle Worker.  They offered Patty Duke the title role for which Anne Bancroft had won her Oscar.
Patty's third Emmy came in the same property which earned her Oscar: The Miracle Worker, which received a TV remake in 1979.  That's Melissa Gilbert as Helen.
The Patty Duke Show notwithstanding, our gal did not have much luck starring in TV series.  She headlined three different projects during the 1980s, during the unfortunate period when she was Patty Duke Astin. 
I remember It Takes Two, the first of 3 back-to-back TV series failures. This one concerned a career couple (she was a lawyer, he was a doctor) raising teenagers.  Recognize anyone? That's Richard Crenna upper right.  The kids were played by Anthony Edwards, pre-ER, and Helen Hunt, pre-Mad About You.  Billie Bird played a mouthy mother-in-law.  The show lasted one season, but its kitchen set was recycled by the show's creators when they went on to create a little thing called The Golden Girls.
In Hail to the Chief, Patty portrayed the 1st
female president (it was the first TV series to
feature a female POTUS). That's Audra Lindley
in the upper left, pre-Mrs. Roper. That Girl vet
Ted Bessell played the First Husband.
Hail to the Chief lasted only 7 episodes, while Karen's Song, in which Duke played a divorcee dating a much younger man (Terri Hatcher played her daughter in that one) squeaked out 13 episodes before cancellation.  During this period, Patty was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild; she served into a second term before retiring from the position due to exhaustion.
The decline of her screen career brought Patty back to the stage.  In the 2002 Broadway revival of Oklahoma!, she assumed the role of Aunt Eller when Andrea Martin moved on.
When Patty moved, with her fourth and final husband, to his home in Idaho, her career slowed down.  She busied herself with stage appearances, both locally and in regional theaters.  She occasionally popped up in guest shots on TV (most recently on Glee and on something from the Disney Channel called Liv and Maddie, in which she played twins again).  
As Madame Morrible in Wicked, a role Duke played for six
months in San Francisco.
When I heard of her death, I watched her in-depth interview given to the Archive of American Television, where she spoke (for three hours!) about her career, her illness, and her family. She clearly had found some peace in her life, and was very proud of her activism on behalf of the mentally ill, one of whom she counted herself. She died unexpectedly this week, from a ruptured intestine, at the age of 69.

This week's Dance Party comes from a forgotten film from 1965 called Billie, in which Patty, at the height of her teen stardom, plays a tomboy who also wants a boyfriend.
Patty was uncomfortable singing, but that did not
stop her sitcom's producers from forcing her to do
it. Here she is with Jeremy (of Chad & Jeremy).
The movie was just another shrewd way to capitalize on Duke's popularity;  there was a tie-in with one of her record singles as well. Yes, just like all young stars of her generation, Patty spent some time in the recording studio, an experience she does not remember fondly.  She actually hit the Top 40 twice during this period; only a few years later, her ability was deemed too limited to sing her numbers in Valley of the Dolls, so she was dubbed.  She doesn't sing in this clip, but she dances a bit, though she and her partner (Warren Berlinger, playing her love interest...he looks more like her Uncle Murray than her boyfriend), slip off screen while the real dancers take over.  And speaking of the real dancers, keep your eyes peeled for the brunette in the red-and-white striped shirt.  It's Donna McKechnie, in her first film appearance.

1 comment:

steve b said...

"Billie" was based on a successful Broadway comedy titled "Time Out for Ginger". The source play was filmed for television.