Oct. 12 2011 12:00 AM

As a teen, Patty Duke won an Oscar, had a TV series and starred on Broadway; away from the spotlight, she was battling the onset of bi-polar disorder


By the time Patty Duke was 20, she had already won an Academy Award, starred in her own TV series, launched a recording career and spent two years on Broadway.

That was the side of her that the public saw. Away from the cameras and the limelight, she was fighting bi-polar disorder.

On her website (www.officialpattyduke.com), Duke, 64, defines the illness as “a mood disorder characterized by drastic mood swings, from major depressive episodes to either manic or hypomanic episodes. A manic episode is characterized by high energy, inflated self-esteem, grandiosity, a reduced need for sleep and racing thoughts. A hypomanic episode is similar but lacks the intensity or severity of a manic episode.”

Duke discusses her experiences today at the Peckham Community Partnership Foundation Speaker Series in Lansing.

“I began to notice something was not right when I was about 19,” Duke said, calling from her home in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. “It got worse and worse, but I fought any suggestion that I see a professional.”

She shunned anyone who tried to steer her toward therapy: “That was the end of that person in my life,” she said.

The denial continued for more than a decade. Rumors spread that, like the unstable Neely O’Hara character she played in the Tinsel Town melodrama “Valley of the Dolls,” Duke was
strung out.

“Such a sign of the times,” she said, with a sigh. “That was the first assumption made about anyone behaving erratically or irrationally in those days. I’ve never touched an illicit drug in my life.”

Duke sums up her pre-diagnosis period in the 1992 book, “A Brilliant Madness: Living With Manic Depressive Illness,” which she co-wrote with Gloria Hochman.

“I rode a wild roller coaster, from agitated, out-of-control highs to disabling, often suicidal lows,” Duke writes.

At 35, she said, “I finally came to my senses, went to a psychiatrist and began treatment.”

One of the many difficulties in treating bi-polar disorder is that there is no single drug that works perfectly for everyone; it can take a lot of trial and error to determine what combination of medications works effectively for a patient. Unfortunately, once the mix is right, patients sometimes begin to believe they can function without the medication and they stop taking it.

“Sadly, that’s very prevalent behavior, and it drive me nuts,” Duke said. “I know what the hell side is. Ever since I was diagnosed and began my medication I have been religious about taking it. And every time I hear someone say, ‘Oh, I feel good so I’ll stop,’ I want to scream.”

The disorder, she insists, is “there all the time. The medication helps us stay balanced. I’d love to have some other way to deal with it, but we have medication — and it works. Also, people will say, ‘I like the highs’ (that bi-polar disorder creates), and I can understand that. However, I also understand that I have other people around me, and the fallout is devastating to those people.”

’I was going to be a Stepford baby’

The disorder wasn’t the only challenge Duke faced. The child of an alcoholic father and a depressed mother, she had been born Anna Marie Duke in Queens, N.Y. At the age of 7, Duke began living with John and Ethel Ross, a pair of pseudo-Svengalis who groomed her to be a performer, sometimes using abusive methods and manipulation.

“There was a whole list of things I’d never do right, from the way I walked and the way I talked to the way I brushed my teeth or combed my hair,” Duke writes in her 1988 autobiography, “Call Me Anna.”

The Rosses shaved two years off her age and dressed her to look more child-like than she actually was. They also tried to obliterate her background.

While getting her hair done one day, Duke overheard a conversation about her name. “Anna Marie was too long and not ‘perky’ enough,” she writes in “Call Me Anna.” “ ... But without any preamble Ethel said, in between curls, ‘Okay, we’ve finally decided, we’re gonna change your name. Anna Marie is dead. You’re Patty now.’ Just like that. Little did they know that over twenty years would be spent on a psychiatrist’s couch because of that phrase alone.”

Reminded of the incident, Duke sighed. “Holy crap — that had an effect. I was going to be a Stepford baby!”

The Rosses would accept nothing less than model behavior. “(Their) idea was to create another Grace Kelly,” Duke writes. “Little white gloves, little white socks … the perfect princess was the role for me, the image I had to live up to.”

‘Oh, that’s a sweet girl’

Her schedule was often grueling. Duke had a two-year run on Broadway as Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker,” then starred in the film version, for which she received a best supporting actress Oscar in 1962 at the age of 16.

In 1963, “The Patty Duke Show” hit the airwaves, with Duke playing the dual roles of Brooklyn teen Patty and her sophisticated, world-traveling “identical cousin” Cathy. The concept was cheerfully spelled out in the memorable theme song: “Where Cathy adores a minuet, the Ballet Russe and Crepes Suzette, our Patty loves to rock ‘n’ roll, a hot dog makes her lose control — what a wild duet!”

While the sitcom was a major hit and ran for three seasons, portraying two characters meant that Duke’s shooting schedule was twice as heavy. She worked 12-hour days, and notes in “A Brilliant Madness,” she “had no social life, no friends — none, zero. I would go to bed at about 10 on a Friday night and I would not get up again until 6:30 Monday morning.”

Naturally, Duke’s popularity led her to what so many other TV sensations of the day were doing: a side career as a singer. “Don’t Just Stand There,” a Lesley Gore-style ballad, hit the Top 10 in 1965.

Duke was not allowed to watch her performances, nor was she permitted to read her reviews. Instead, the Rosses constantly reminded her that they were responsible for whatever success she had (“If it wasn’t for us, you’d be a hooker or you’d work in the five-and-dime”). The Rosses’ constant criticism led Duke to think her talent wasn’t anything special. Decades later, however, she sees things differently.

“I enjoy now searching out some of the old things and looking at them now and realizing my perception of them was based on what the Rosses said and did. When I look at them now, I say, ‘Oh that’s a sweet girl,’” Duke said, with a chuckle.

Sweetness was in short supply in Duke’s private life, which was a far cry from the jolly misadventures of TV’s Patty and Cathy. The Rosses, both heavy-duty drinkers, began sharing booze with Duke when she was 13, “because we were the Three Musketeers,” she said, “and I got to be included in cocktail hour.

“I think those people started out with the best of intentions, but it all went downhill. What started with alcohol became molestation and brain games. An incident would happen, and then there were days of them explaining to me how ‘that didn’t happen.’”

She doesn’t entirely blame the Rosses or her wearying workload for the onset of her bi-polar-fueled behavior, though.

“They kept me busy, but I subscribe to the scientific theory that there’s a genetic imbalance in my brain chemicals,” she said. “I believe it would have come out sooner or later anyway, but certainly the abusive behavior of the Rosses and the schedule I was keeping and the inability to be a kid got together … .”

She paused. Would she call it a “perfect storm” of colliding conditions?

“Yes,” she said. “That’s a good way to put it.”

‘I have an addictive personality’

While keeping an acting career going while dealing with bi-polar disorder might sound like an impossible challenge, Duke disagrees.

“Actually, that was my salvation. That was the place I could go and excel and be considered equal to my fellow actors. It was when I went home that I got in trouble.”

In the 1970s, after finally leaving the Rosses behind, Duke once again became a TV mainstay. 

“I got really lucky in the years when TV movies were all the rage,” she said, with a laugh. “I got so lucky in the range of what I got to play. I wish they’d come back into vogue — and I wish they’d call this grandmother from Idaho!”

Most of Duke’s vehicles addressed social problems or controversial issues. “We made fun back then about what was the ‘sickness of the month,’ but actually (many of the films) were informative to people and entertaining at the same time.”

Since the publication of “Call Me Anna” and “A Brilliant Madness” 20 years ago, Duke has spent much of her time discussing her struggle with bi-polar disorder. She still acts — she got a chance to display her singing voice when she played Madame Morrible, the headmistress of Shiz Academy, in the San Francisco production of “Wicked” in 2009 — but in the past few years she’s found a new interest to keep her busy.

“I have an addictive personality,” she said. “But now I’m addicted to grandchildren.”

She has five granddaughters and, as the interview wound down, she was preparing to play what sounds like one of her favorite roles.

“It’s our day to babysit the granddaughters who live near us,” she said. “We’ll pick them up from school and by the time they go home my husband and I will look like we’ve been through four wars. Their energy is unbelievable — but it’s fun to see the world through their eyes.”

Patty Duke

Peckham Community Partnership Foundation Speaker Series

10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. today

3510 Capital City Blvd., Lansing

(517) 316-4000