Next Magazine

Sparkle! Patty Sparkle!

By David Noh


Can it really be true that Patty Duke, the Tony and Oscar award-winning child wonder of The Miracle Worker and her own TV show (with the best theme song ever)--- not to mention the immortal Valley of the Dolls---is returning to Broadway? As Aunt Eller in Oklahoma? As the star herself would say, in her inimitably warm and folksy way, “Yes, indeed!” When we got her on the horn, she was chatty from the get-go: “I’ve been in and out of the theater, but I think it’s gonna take a paying audience to convince me that I’m really in Oklahoma. This is a 45-year old dream of mine to be in a Broadway musical. I used to say when I was playing Helen Keller, ‘When I grow up, I’m gonna be in a musical before I die.’ And here I am and I ain’t dying.” So hold your Susan Hayward quotes about “crawling back to Broadway” and see what this showbiz survivor has to say about the musical theater, Hollywood broads, and of course, Neely O’Hara. All right Patty, start explaining!

Congrats on your new Broadway gig! What is your approach to this classic role of the American musical theater?

Eller is a very strong woman of the frontier, with lots of layers in her. Since I’ve never seen a production of this, I don’t have any preconceived notion how to play her. I want her sense of humor to be very evident and her dedication to this girl (Laurie) to whom she’s been surrogate mother. And the show is also about the valuable idea that we all strive for, to be a country of people pulling together. It’s no accident that this show is on during these recuperative post-9/11 times.

The original production opened during WWII and here we are again, with war in our minds.

Hello! And I have to say, I’m looking out this window at different theatres and most of the shows that are playing were playing when I was here in 1959. I saw the marquee for Flower Drum Song and thought, “I used to have a crush on a boy who was in it 40-something years ago!”

And of course, you have sung and danced before, but you may be sick of talking about Valley of the Dolls.

No, I’m not! I went through a period when I thought I was better than [the film], and that I should never have done it in the first place. I was so full of myself. But, through the years, the audience has brought me, ‘round to enjoy it. But, I didn’t actually sing in that. I wanted to and probably should have, because the girl who did my voice was too good. I felt that Neely should have those ecstatic music moments, but then sometimes, even in the same song, she should sort of miss. That would have been interesting, but the director of that movie [Mark Robson] wasn’t interested. Recently I did a special evening [about the movie] sponsored by AMC, with Whoopi Goldberg, Lee Grant and Barbara Parkins. I had such a good time that I’ve been trying to get that going as an event to do now and then. Let ‘em know I’m interested!

You will always be a major gay icon because of Valley.

Oh my god, good! It is such a hoot. Sometimes when I work on a TV movie, there’ll be a few people who start talking about it and I’ll say, “OK, Thursday night, we’ll have a Valley night.” We rent the video and all during it, I’m telling if Susan Hayward really did so and so, etc. It’s like a pajama party for nine-year olds!

What was La Hayward like, especially in that toilet scene?

As you know, she replaced Judy Garland. I didn’t do anything on film with Judy, but I sort of hung around with her for about ten days. It was very sad: I got to enjoy her humor but detested the people who made things available to her that she shouldn’t have had. Anyway, Susan took over and we did the bathroom scene, and at one point I pushed her and she fell. I was horrified, but Mr. Robson came over and accused me - as God as my witness - of pushing her too hard on purpose. It never did get resolved. Susan and I finished working together. She went home and had her brain tumor and died, and I never did get to say to her, “Honest to God, I would never do such a thing.” It was just this competitive thing that Mark and I had, and if I’d been old and wise enough to that that at the time it was some kind of sibling rivalry, it would have been a lot easier.

The film works largely because of you. There’s Parkins and Sharon Tate being very glossy, and Hayward doing “old Hollywood.” And you --- just burning a hole in the screen with this amazing “method” performance.

I love you! I was 20 years old then. I thought that we were gonna tell as much as person could know could know about pill-addiction, booze and blah-blah, and when we were shooting it it just got to be caricatures. Unfortunately, the director and I really didn’t get along and I had not experienced that before or since. I had experiences with what many years later I came to know as manic depression. Usually, during a manic episode, a doctor would take it as directed until somebody pissed me off, and then I was gonna take ‘em all at once! Like they’d be sorry when I was dead. My knowledge was not so much the pill-taking but the need. That craving, which has nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. It’s a far deeper craving and until one can diagnose it within themselves I don’t think you get settled.

Thanks so much! You’re so different from Faye Dunaway: you can’t even mention Mommie Dearest anywhere near her.

Oh, no! Maybe some day she’ll experience what I have, an audience, which brought me to truly enjoy it.