The death of Baby Boomer icon Patty Duke last week at age 69 has left many of us with a sense of personal loss. The last time we spoke, in 2013, she had just completed a guesting on “Glee” in which she and Meredith Baxter played a lesbian couple. She loved the experience for several reasons – as a supporter of the gay community, as one who enjoyed acting alongside a fellow former sitcom fave, and as a chance to remind show business powers of her considerable chops.
She and her husband of 30 years, Mike Pearce, lived in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where she found happiness and a degree of peace — and frustration in getting Hollywood to hire her. The Oscar-winning actress deserved more attention than she received in recent years.
“I’d like to make a few more sheckels, so that when I do retire I can do so with a little bit of comfort and style,” she said. And she did expect to retire someday. “I can’t be Betty White, but I’m so thrilled for her. She is such an inspiration to me.”
Duke, of course, was herself an inspiration to many. Besides acting and personal appearances, she continued to do a fair amount of speaking engagements related to mental health issues. Her story of coming back from the depths of bipolar illness serves as a beacon of hope to others coping with such problems.
“I hope it does,” she said. “What I want to be to them is a glimmer of who they can be if they choose to get balanced.”
Some three decades after her diagnosis, Duke told us, “Every day is not perfect for me. I get sad sometimes, but there’s a reason for it. It’s not that other kind of depression that lurks, waiting to bring you down. I feel ecstasy, but not the kind like when I bought several Mercedes in one day when I didn’t have any money.” She laughed. “But I paid the consequences for it. I paid and moved on.”
In the 1960’s Duke was the beloved, Oscar-winning (“The Miracle Worker”) child actress who became the jaunty teen star of her own hugely popular TV show — who then grew up and melted down before the public’s eyes. After her image-altering role in the 1967 cult fave “Valley of the Dolls,” her bizarre behavior, wild partying and high-profile romances sold forests’ worth of tabloids. When she won an Emmy for her work in “My Sweet Charlie” in 1970, her behavior onstage convinced many she was on drugs and/or alcohol, and mockery ensued. “We have taken Patty Duke’s acceptance speech down to the code room to be deciphered,” one major paper told the world. “We will report what she said as soon as we figure it out.”
Eventually, she gained control of the bipolar illness at the root of her troubles, and with therapy found some healing for the agonized childhood she wrote about in her best-selling “Call Me Anna” memoir. She was also able to resume her distinguished career, including serving as Screen Actors Guild president.
A few years ago, commenting on the press hounding of Demi Lovato, as the former Disney Channel sweetheart coped with a breakdown, Duke urged media restraint. “”Be quiet and let the girl figure it out,” she said. “These are people, these young girls. Some of them can build a shield against the negative media, but most of them can’t — and it hurts.”
In a world full of hurters, Patty Duke — aka Anna Pearce — was truly a helper, a legacy that — along with her catalog of stellar performances — will not be soon forgotten.