Patty Duke goes to 'Oklahoma!'

Between Broadway Roles, a Lifetime of Ups and Downs
By NEIL GENZLINGER (NYT)

HEADING into an audition, any actress, even one with almost half a century in the business, will latch onto omens. So when she came to New York to try out for ''Oklahoma!'' last year, Patty Duke was understandably optimistic when she saw where the audition was to be: the Duke building on 42nd Street. ''I said, 'Oh, my God, this part is mine,' '' Ms. Duke recalled the other day in an interview in the Midtown offices of the show's publicist. ''I left there on a high.'' But lots of good feelings were swept away the next day, Sept. 11, 2001, and then came those confusing weeks when New York's theater world tried to figure out whether and how to continue. ''It took a long time to hear anything,'' Ms. Duke said. ''Finally, I got a fax from Trevor Nunn -- exquisite compliments in the first paragraph, but the words that jumped off the page were, 'But, alas.' '' Mr. Nunn, the director, had chosen Andrea Martin over Ms. Duke for the part of Aunt Eller, the musical's comically crusty matriarch. Nevertheless, back home in northern Idaho, Ms. Duke kept the script on her nightstand for six months. Finally, she tossed it. A bit prematurely as it turned out: recently the phone rang with the news that Ms. Martin was leaving the cast. ''They asked, 'Would you be insulted if offered the replacement role?' '' Ms. Duke said. ''I said, 'I hope to be insulted like this time and time again.' '' So it was that on Dec. 14, her 56th birthday, Ms. Duke took the stage at the Gershwin Theater, completing a circle more than four decades in the drawing. ''Oklahoma!'' doesn't give a lot of back story for Aunt Eller, but she comes across as tough yet fun-loving, someone who has seen difficult times but not lost her laugh or compassion. Which more or less describes Ms. Duke. Professionally, she has managed the difficult trick of being revered for serious stage work, for a kitschy television show and for an even kitschier film. Personally, she has had to struggle throughout with manic depression. The first career highlight, of course, came preposterously early, when she won wide acclaim as a 12-year-old in 1959 for her portrayal of Helen Keller in ''The Miracle Worker'' with Anne Bancroft on Broadway (and, later, an Oscar for the same role in Arthur Penn's 1962 film). From 1963 to 1966 there was ''The Patty Duke Show'' on ABC, with its identical cousins and annoyingly unforgettable theme song. In 1967 she turned up in ''Valley of the Dolls,'' a film regarded as a classic for all the wrong reasons -- that is, a camp classic. Since then much of her work has been in television movies, none of them rising to the recognition level of the early days. So when she meets fans, which of her milestone moments do they focus on? ''I would say there's more for Helen Keller -- they don't remember the title, 'The Miracle Worker,' they remember Helen Keller,'' she said. The television show, though, isn't far behind. ''There's a goodly amount who come up and sing the entire theme song,'' she said. ''And in recent years there's another category, and that is, 'Thank you for talking about your mental illness.' I would say that's actually more of what I've gotten in the last few years. There are a lot of people out there suffering.'' The reference is to her two books, ''Call Me Anna'' (1987) and ''A Brilliant Madness'' (1992), the first (written with Kenneth Turan) an autobiography that revealed the misery and instability behind her early successes, the second (written with Gloria Hochman, a medical journalist) alternately describing Ms. Duke's battles as a manic-depressive and explaining the condition and its treatment. The first book -- the title refers to her real name, Anna Marie Duke -- shattered any illusions fans might have had that the sunny teenager of the television show was the real Patty Duke. ''I equate those times with what was going on in my life,'' Ms. Duke said, ''which was horrific.'' She wrote of how her childhood was rigidly controlled by John and Ethel Ross, a couple who managed child actors. She was born in New York to John and Frances Duke, and her early home life was unstable: her father left when she was 6, and her mother struggled with depression. By age 12 she was living with the Rosses full time. She likened their approach to basic training in the military. ''The idea,'' she wrote, ''was the same: taking away individuality, breaking the will in order to have control.'' The Rosses, who died in the 1970's, would not even let her watch ''The Patty Duke Show,'' she said, because they didn't want her to get a swelled head. They severely limited her social life and contact with family members, she recounted in both her books, gave her alcohol and unauthorized prescription drugs, and apparently went through most of the money she was earning -- she has estimated that she made half a million to a million dollars in her childhood, but at 18 found that her trust fund contained $84,000. As a result of her experience, she said, ''my antenna is always up when I walk onto any set where there are child actors.'' She said that she had been impressed with the way the children working in ''Oklahoma!'' are being treated, with the show's managers working closely with the parents. ''In my day,'' she said, ''it was, 'Get the mother out of here, and get the kid on its mark or we'll kill its dog.' '' She has navigated the treacherous waters of stage parenthood herself: her sons Sean and Mackenzie Astin, from her marriage to the actor John Astin, are both actors, Sean appearing most recently in ''The Two Towers,'' the new ''Lord of the Rings'' movie. The film ''A Beautiful Mind,'' about a Nobel Prize winner with mental illness, has brought plenty of awareness to manic depression recently, but Ms. Duke's books were well ahead of that curve. Before her illness was diagnosed in 1982, there were suicide attempts, spending sprees and other erratic behavior, all starkly described in the two volumes. The portrait is so grim that Ms. Duke thought the books might end her acting career, but she said she had a commitment to keep. ''In the depressions, the months and months of depression, I remember making kind of half-baked promises to God or the Fates that if I could ever get out of this, I would help other people,'' she said. ''When I philosophize,'' she added, ''which isn't often, I strongly feel that I thought my job here on the planet was to perform and to move people and hopefully educate them somehow, but now I think that was just a tool, a conduit, for this other work.'' Her fourth husband, a firefighter named Michael Pearce, whom she married in 1985, has taken a leave of absence to, as she put it, ''come be my baby sitter'' (along with their teenage son, Kevin) while she is in ''Oklahoma!'' Lithium will also play a vital role, as she bluntly acknowledges. ''What it does,'' she said, ''is take those chemicals that are out of whack and help to balance them, so I can certainly go from one extreme to another in emotion, but I'm not going to go spinning off into never-never land.'' In the days before her opening, Ms. Duke was fretting about the dancing and singing demanded by ''Oklahoma!,'' skills she has not needed much until now. Perhaps, too, there is a lingering nervousness traceable to the fact that her most recent Broadway appearance was not in ''The Miracle Worker,'' which ran for more than 700 performances at the Playhouse Theater, but in ''Isle of Children,'' which ran for fewer than a dozen at the Cort in 1962. Those earlier Broadway days might seem like a different lifetime, but, Ms. Duke said, ''the connection is much stronger than I ever realized.'' Sure, the theater district has changed, but the Broadway instinct endured. ''I've been to New York through these 40 years, so I knew that the Playhouse Theater was gone,'' she said. ''But I did walk down that street and -- this is embarrassing -- yes, I have stood on Times Square and, very quietly, said, 'I'm back.' ''

Oklahoma!
Gershwin Theater, 222 West 51st Street.

Correction: January 5, 2003, Sunday An article on Dec. 22 about the actress Patty Duke, who has written about her struggle with manic depression, misidentified the mental illness suffered by the mathematician John Nash and brought to attention in the film based on his life, ''A Beautiful Mind.'' It was schizophrenia, not manic depression.

 

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company