Patty Duke: A Troubled But Noble Life Behind the Smiles

Herbie J Pilato
Photo byThe Classic TV Preservation Society

According to the Los Angeles Times, "long before celebrities shared their private struggles on talk-show couches and social media feeds, actress Patty Duke broke a Hollywood taboo by speaking publicly about her mental health struggles."

In 1982, Duke, who died in 2016 at age 69, was diagnosed with manic depression, which is now referred to as bipolar disorder.

Duke was best known as the child star of the big-screen film adaptation of The Miracle Worker. At just 16 years old, she earned a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for the movie role, which she had originated on Broadway. Then there was her enormous popularity as the star of TV's The Patty Duke Show.

But her life behind the scenes was not always happiness and sunshine. Duke revealed a grim reality in her 1987 memoir, Call Me Anna, which was written with the Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan. In the book, Duke delivered the graphic details of a troubled life, littered with drug and alcohol abuse and childhood abuse by way of her heartless management team.

In talking candidly about her mental illness, Duke removed the stigma long attached to the issue. In the years since Duke’s disclosure, actresses such as Catherine Zeta-Jones, Carrie Fisher, Rene Russo, and Kim Novak have spoken publicly about their own bipolar diagnoses, while countless other public figures have talked about their depression.

“I don’t think it will change things for me,” the starlet told the Los Angeles Times after she won the Miracle Oscar. “I’m still just one of the kids.”

As Entertainment Tonight and the Los Angeles Times later documented, Duke's son Sean Austin (with actor John Astin), the actress was surrounded by her family when she died. But she was in a tremendous amount of pain before she died.

“She had been suffering terribly,” Astin said, speaking of the intense struggle that Duke had fought against sepsis following a ruptured intestine.

Of his mother's dedicated advocacy for those struggling with mental illness, Astin said, "The more she opened up, the more she shared of her pain. It is very instructive for people.”

“Above all, the way that I think of my mother, the thing that gives me such joy and reverence for her, is that above all else, she was a warrior,” Astin concluded.

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including RETRO ACTIVE TELEVISION, THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA

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