Patty Duke
by Melissa Rose Bernardo

You've come crawling back to Broadway! Patty Duke's only been back on the boards in Oklahoma! for a few weeks, but she's heard that Valley of the Dolls quip three times. "I'm waiting for more," she says, giggling appreciatively at the reference to her cult cinema classic. "The first time it just laid me out. I had totally forgotten! It was hysterical." Technically, the still-youthful Duke didn't come crawling: She says the Great White Way has been beckoning ever since she starred in The Miracle Worker more than 40 years ago; things like her hit self-titled TV show, marriage, and family kept her far from the footlights. Until the call came to replace Andrea Martin as the straight-talkin' farm boss Aunt Eller in the hit Oklahoma! Now that we've finally got her back on Broadway, there's just one more thing this gal needs: A few hours off to see the new Lord of the Rings movie featuring son Sean Astin.

While you're here starring in a Broadway show who's minding the ranch?
We know a couple who recently had the nest empty and they offered to stay and feed the animals outdoors and hug the dogs inside. So far, knock on wood, it's working just great.

What kinds of animals do you have?
We have horses and llamas and donkeys and miniature donkeys and a miniature horse and sheep and goats. And dogs. And cats.

That's quite a menagerie.
It certainly is. Come October I go in the house—remember, this is North Idaho—and I don't come out until May! My husband's the one out there with icicles all over him feeding the animals.

So you've traded Idaho for Oklahoma!—and you did it on your birthday, no less!
Isn't that a hoot? They gave me a lovely birthday-opening party with this gargantuan cake that spelled out my name in big block letters.

It's such a big cast, it had better be a big cake!
Exactly—it's gotta feed them all. I remember saying as I was cutting the cake the list of people who got a Broadway play for their birthday is pretty short! [laughing]

How do you top that on the next birthday?
Oh I don't know. I think we can just rest on our laurels for a while.

And aren't the holidays crazy enough without adding a Broadway musical to the mix?
A couple of days ago I said, "Don't my husband and I have a calendar; we could have noticed it was Christmas! Hello!" But there's that rush we all get at Christmas, whether we want to or not; sometimes we just get swept along. It's nice, though, because when we open in a show there's often that letdown. There's no time for a letdown at Christmas!

Plus you had to pack up and move here from the middle of the country.
We did. But we're in a very nice apartment very close to theater.

How do you like the neighborhood? I live a few blocks from Oklahoma! myself.
I really like it, except—I have this unfortunate exception. Had I been paying attention, I probably would have gotten a few blocks farther away from the fire department.

Oh no…
Now, I adore firefighters. My husband is a firefighter. But I'm straight up in the bed at 3 o'clock in the morning. The only thing that gives me solace about being awake at that hour is that they are too.

They're so terrific at that fire station, Engine 54.
It's very special—a word that's bandied about a lot now; it is a very unique person who is drawn to that job, who can do that job and do it well. When my husband was studying for his test, I kept looking at the books going, "Eeeww! You're not going to do that, are you?" I had a concussion a few months ago. I was in my barn and I don't know exactly what happened; all I know is I was up against the steel door and not awake. And all these guys from the fire department know me, know my husband, the fire chief officiated at our daughter's wedding. Well, apparently one of the side effects of a concussion is that you get very combative. So this nice lady who they all know is suddenly saying, [yelling] "Get these things off my neck! I'm not wearing that thing!" Three of them had to hold me down so they could get the device on me that I needed. I was so embarrassed!

Now they're probably retelling the story with a few embellishments…
…and it's getting bigger and bigger. I probably had one of them pinned to the floor!

You probably punched one… Thank goodness you're okay and able to laugh about it now.
I got very lucky. It was a difficult six-week recuperation. The headaches were the biggest problem. The seventh week was when the call came about Oklahoma! So if I wanted to, I could say I wasn't in my right mind! But I'm having too much fun.

What took you so long to get back to Broadway?
It was 40 years of procrastination. I made some life choices that didn't lend themselves to coming to New York. At one point I had five kids I was raising.

That doesn't really fit into the eight-show-a-week schedule.
You know, I'm seeing now you can pull it off if you have to. But the money in television was so good that you are seduced by that, and you think it's going to go on forever and obviously it does not. I still have an okay career in television, but when you're over 50 and female, the roles get fewer and farther between. I couldn't believe that the procrastination was finally going to stop. Even while I was in rehearsals I kept thinking, "Okay, this isn't real. I'm going to keep rehearsing and then they're going to tell me that someone else is going on." [laughing]

I was surprised to read that you had auditioned for the role before this revival first opened on Broadway.
Of course you never know why the decision was made to go another way. Sometimes I think the people making the decisions don't know why; there's just a gut reason. Also, they were so close to opening there wouldn't have been enough time to teach me. I'm not a singer and dancer, so I had to be spoon-fed everything. This way, I got my own rehearsal schedule, my own assistant director, my own associate choreographer. It was like the Montessori method of musical acting.

How many weeks of rehearsal did you have?
I had four. When you sit backstage you hear all these war stories of people who went on with 24 hours notice and all that. No. I'm too old to do all that.

And it's such a big show. I think Oklahoma! is like the mother of all musicals.
It sure feels that way! It is more than I imagined it would be. Certainly I have been one of the people who have thrown on a record or CD and listened to Oklahoma!, and there is something visceral that happens not only to the performers, but, I think, to the audience. By the time they hear "Ohhhhh-klahoma" they are ready and they want—I'm going to stop saying "they"—we want that so-called sentimentality to be approved of. And it's okay to wear our hearts on our sleeves. And it's okay to talk about the United States being our land. I haven't had to fake a thing so far.

The timing for this revival seems right, doesn't it?
The coincidence is both horrendous and necessary. The pain that New Yorkers have gone through and are going through—I'm somebody from the other side of the country, in North Idaho--we really feel it too. But our job has been to support. I cannot believe in the year since September happened how wonderfully courageous people have been, how they just plow on with life. And I may be looking for a sentimental meaning, but it seems to me that people are more willing to reach out to strangers.

I think that's definitely the case.
I've certainly felt that. It's been a real blessing. And so is the show. I must say I've learned so many things about myself from the show—mostly about my limitations [laughs]—but also that real kind of community can exist. The people who work in the show, they're all complete individuals, yet it is a solid, solid group of humanity.

Now, I'm surprised to hear you say you've never really done the singing and dancing thing.
When I was a kid, it was customary: If there was a teenager on television, that teenager made records. So I was party to making records. I don't claim to be party to singing on those records. [laughing] Last June in L.A. at the Reprise! concerts, I did a very limited run of Follies, which was absolutely terrifying.

Sondheim shows are usually pretty terrifying.
He is serious, that guy! I had a ball. I had my own private little tragedies where I made a mistake and the whole world was going to fall apart because of it.

Who'd you play?
I played Phyllis. Phyllis the Bitter. It helped me have confidence to be able to say that I could do this. "Could I Leave You" is her main song, and that I captured. It took me a while, but I got it. The other one about Sally and Jessie—the one that has all those lines and riddles in it? I swear to God, I would stop dead in my tracks on stage, look at the audience, and say, "I don't know what the hell I'm saying. Do any of you know what I'm supposed to say?" [laughing] I would point at these adorable boy dancers and say, "Take it, boys!" and sit there and clap for the rest of the number. If you missed a syllable in that song you were dead in the water.

You'd have to start all over, from the beginning!
I was mortified.

Not that Rodgers and Hammerstein doesn't have its own challenges, but it's not quite as tricky as Sondheim.
It's a little more melodic; it's not as foreign a sound. But any one of us can develop bad habits. I'm struggling now with my first song just to get the first line out on time. [laughing] Sometimes the kids on stage are making a lot of noise—they're supposed to be—and I just can't hear the certain thing I was listening for. One night someone helped me; they counted. They got to eight, and I froze solid. Did not move, did not sing, did not do anything. Last night we tried it that way again--I heard it, I went right on it, and it was just perfect. Who would know that people are using cattle prods just to get me out there? I realized once a few words into it that I had not started the lyrics properly. It's "the farmer and the cowman should be friends." Well, he said "8" and I said [rushing] "farmer and the cowman should be friends!" You could hear the orchestra rushing to catch up with me. [laughing] I had this vision of people giving each other the elbow and saying, "Well, it's a good thing we really love her because holy cow, that was a mess!"

You know what? Ninety-nine percent of the people there didn't even notice.

Oh sure. A lot of things that actors obsess about, little flubs like that, go right by the audience.
I guess because it's all, whatever it is, is a surprise to the people. Oh, that'll help me a lot. At least they won't care when I'm three hours late for the first song!

Well, three hours might be pushing it…
That's true!

Speaking of three hours, have you had any free time to see your son Sean's movie, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which is the hottest movie out right now?
Not a minute!

And you'll need quite a few minutes.
Do you ever! It runs almost as long as Oklahoma! I have heard—a number of the folks in our show have gone to see it and they're just raving about it.

It's already made so many millions of dollars.
I wish they'd give some of it to Sean! [laughing]

Do you believe that your son is in not only the biggest theatrical release of the season, but also the biggest DVD, The Fellowship of the Ring?
I do believe it. I believe, and have believed since each of my sons decided to go into the family business, that with their kind of energy and dedication and gift—it doesn't surprise me at all that he's in that gigantic movie. We call it "that little thing that Sean did."

Were you leery when he and Mackenzie decided to be actors?
Leery is exactly the word. I related to my experience as a child in the business: The show portion of it is very healthy; it was, unfortunately, the people who were managing my career who were making decisions based on dollar signs rather than health signs. I had my own baggage about that. But their dad, John Astin, who was also very conservative in this area, said, "You know, the difference is that we will always be their parents."

Have they seen Oklahoma! yet?
[With mock indignation] No!

And why not?
Because one of them is out promoting his little independent movie!

That's true. The Two Towers needs all the help it can get.
Mackenzie is staying in L.A. a little longer for pilot season; I'm pretty sure that's over in a couple of weeks. And I hear that he might come stay with mom for a while and do some work here.

That would be nice.
It would be wonderful. There are a number of us now, families who are in the business together, each successful in their own right; it's a wonderful thing to have in common with your children. When I'm out of work I call them and I moan and groan; "I haven't had a job in six months!" Then one of them will say, "Six months, mom? Eight months here!" Misery does love company. And we get to celebrate together too.

Well, there's a lot to celebrate lately.
There is indeed. I have to learn to take a step back to observe it all. When you're in the middle of it, I don't think you see how very much is going on in such a positive way.