The One-of-a-Kind Life of Patty Duke

Patty Duke has had a colorful and tumultuous acting career that has spanned over seven decades. She has won over 13 major awards and was the youngest person to receive an Oscar. She was a talented actress from the ripe age of 7 and shockingly she writes in her memoir,

Patty Duke / Patty Duke / Patty Duke, Sean Astin / Patty Duke.
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“Though I’ve been a professional actress since I was 7 or 8, acting was never a dream of mine.” Her earliest memories consist of constantly performing, and she continued to act well into her old age while also shedding light on the importance of mental health.

A Very Traumatic Childhood

Patty Duke did not have the most comforting of upbringings. When she was 12 years old, she lived in a rancid four-story walk-up in New York. Her family apartment was infested with bedbugs and her five-person family was crammed into four rooms.

A dated portrait of Patty Duke smiling as she turns her head towards the camera.
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Not to mention that none of the rooms had doors. She lived in a bad neighborhood in Elmhurst, Queens, and she had to share a room with her brother, Raymond, and sister, Carol. Her upbringing was nothing short of traumatic, and this affected her well into her adult life.

Abandoned By Her Father

She not only grew up poor and in a putrid house, but her parents were extremely unreliable. Her father was a serious alcoholic. He started out as a happy drunk, so the family ignored his addiction and enjoyed his festive company.

Patty Duke is smiling in a still from the television series 'The Patty Duke Show.'
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There was a lot of dancing and singing and good old times. But unfortunately, somewhere along the line, he started to drink up his salary and became aggressive and irritable. When Duke was about 6 years old, her mother kicked her father out of the house. She never saw him again.

His Addiction Affected Everyone

Duke shared that her father’s addiction affected her entire family. Everyone felt the repercussions of his alcoholism. Duke became aware very early on that she had an addictive personality because of her father, so she had to keep on her toes.

A movie still of Patty Duke reaching from her bed for some pills.
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Interestingly enough, Duke remembered her father rather fondly. She did not hold any hate for her patriarch despite the fact that he abandoned his family and left them with her mother, who was not well off. She remembers the good times with her father and cherishes those memories.

Her Mentally Unstable Mother

Being abandoned by her alcoholic father was clearly not enough childhood trauma. Soon after her father left, Patty Duke felt abandoned by her mother as well. Her mother suffered from extreme depression. Her episodes often turned violent. She was not a reliable parent and Duke was left to her own devices.

A dated portrait of a young Patty Duke.
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With no father and a mentally ill mother, she had to fend for herself at the young age of 6. Then, her acting career began, and her loneliness really set in. She did not know how much acting would affect her life and her mental health.

Her New Theatrical Managers

Patty Duke was introduced to acting through New York theatrical managers John and Ethel Ross. She started off with small parts in commercials, and the Rosses began to take over her career and her life. The Rosses agreed to take Duke on as a full-time client under one condition—she had to live with them.

Sixteen-year-old Patty Duke smiles happily at the camera.
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Duke acknowledged how hard this must have been for her mother. She was a single mother raising three children and working as a cashier. Her salary was nowhere near enough to raise three kids, so the offer must also have been a relief.

An Unsettling Feeling

Nobody really knew what would happen when Patty Duke moved in with the Rosses. They did not know how her career would take off and how her mental health would plummet. Duke remembered a “sinking feeling” when she first met the couple.

A photo of Patty Duke smelling flowers.
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She felt it was a sign from the universe to turn the other way, but she didn’t listen: She was only a kid. She hid her negative thoughts and fears in the back of her mind and decided to focus on her relationship with her mother. She felt utterly abandoned.

A Manufactured Hollywood Machine

Life with John and Ethel Ross was no walk in the park. Patty Duke was not immediately thrust into the glitz and glam of Hollywood but rather had to work tirelessly to build an acting resume. She appeared in television ads, daytime soaps, and live dramas.

A photo of Patty Duke in a scene from The Miracle Worker.
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By the time she was 12, she had appeared in more than 50 shows. All of this led to a role of a lifetime, playing Hellen Keller in the Broadway musical The Miracle Worker. This was the role the Rosses had trained her for and it completely altered her career.

Fame Comes at a Price

Patty Duke’s fame and success came with a heavy price. In 1999, she told People Magazine that Ethel forced her to change her name. When Patty was 8, she was told that her name was no longer Anna Marie, her birth name, but Patty.

A dated portrait of Patty Duke during an event.
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Ethel said, “Anna Marie is dead. You’re Patty now.” Hearing this at such a young age after being forced to leave her home and live with strangers, Patty felt she really had died. When you take away someone’s name, you take away a part of their identity.

Leaving Her Mother Behind

She not only lost the name that was given to her by her parents, Anna Marie, but she lost her mother as well. The Rosses cut off all contact with Duke’s mother, which was never part of the agreement. Additionally, they forced her to get rid of her New York accent.

A picture of Patty Duke at home with her dog.
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She trained with a repertoire of carefully rehearsed speeches in order to change her accent. She wasn’t allowed to see anyone except for the Rosses. They controlled every aspect of her life; she was no longer an individual or a kid.

The Rosses Destroyed Her Life

The period of Patty Duke’s life that she spent with John and Ethel Ross was filled with oppression. She had no friends or personal connections beyond the Rosses. She wasn’t allowed to have an opinion about anything.

A photo of Patty Duke leaving a building with John Ross.
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They told her how to dress, how to bathe, and even when she could close the door to her room! They were trying to turn her into the perfectly engineered little child, and it was slowly killing her. They took everything from her, and she was just a kid who wanted to be reunited with her family.

She Was Brainwashed

Patty Duke was so young that she couldn’t understand what was happening to her. Essentially, she was brainwashed into obedience, and it led her to legal trouble. She did whatever the Rosses told her to do because they had trained her to act according to their instruction.

John Ross holds Patty Duke's hand while standing outside the court.
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In 1959, Patty Duke was placed in front of a grand jury that was investigating a TV quiz show that she had been on one year prior. She had to answer questions in court about the show because it was under serious investigation.

Perjuring Herself in Front of a Grand Jury

A year before the hearing, Patty was on the show and that is why she was asked to testify. When on the show, the Rosses told her to memorize the answers to all the game show questions so she could be prepared.

A portrait of an older Patty Duke.
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When she was asked to speak before the grand jury, the Rosses told her to lie about her experience on the show. At the end of her testimony, a congressman looked at her sternly and asked if she was telling the truth. Patty Duke felt so guilty and confused, as she was just a kid, and admitted that the whole thing was a lie.

Her Life with the Rosses Was Horrible

In public, she was forced to put on a façade and act like everything was completely fine, but her life at home was far from OK. Patty Duke shared that her private life with Rosses was unimaginably traumatic.

A photo of Patty smiling at the camera during an interview at home.
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On two occasions, the couple tried to fondle Patty in bed. Luckily, her bodily reaction was to vomit everywhere, and this stopped them from doing anything and also put an end to the sexual abuse. Her brain might have been forced to act obediently, but her body had to put a stop to certain things.

Patty Escaped the Rosses

After many turbulent years living with the Rosses, Duke finally got out. When she was just 17, she fell in love with Harry Falk Jr. He was 31 years old and the assistant director on The Patty Duke Show.

A studio portrait of Patty Duke.
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The Rosses did not approve of her relationship and tried to move the show from Los Angeles to New York. This only upset Patty more, and she barred them from the set. She then decided to move out of their house and into her own apartment. She continued seeing Harry Falk Jr., and when she turned 19, the couple tied the knot.

Terribly Lost in Adulthood

Patty Duke was completely lost when it came to adulthood because she had never been properly prepared for it. She had intense, increasingly manic mood swings. She was a real A-lister at that point, but she was also completely spiraling, and being with Falk only made things worse. she developed an eating disorder and she dropped to a scary 76 pounds.

A photo of Harry Falk and Patty Duke during an event.
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To top it all off, she started drinking heavily and taking Valium. Duke admitted that she thinks she overdosed on Valium about eight times, which is utterly terrifying and a miracle she survived. Her mental health was falling apart.

A Marriage that Couldn’t Last

It is safe to assume that with Patty’s dwindling mental health, the marriage didn’t last very long. She and Falk got divorced in 1967. Patty wasn’t old enough or ready enough to marry anyone, and this took a toll on her.

A picture of Harry Falk and Patty Duke arriving at an event.
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A little while after the divorce, at age 23, Patty felt she was ready to discover who she was outside of the Rosses and her marriage. She was ready to learn who the real Patty Duke was. That’s when she stopped trying to be the perfect little 15-year-old and began finding herself.

The Divorce Only Made Things Worse

After Patty Duke divorced Harry Falk Jr., her mental health got even worse. In 1999, when she was 23 years old, Duke had an affair with 17-year-old Desi Arnaz Jr. He was the son of Lucille Ball.

Fans follow Patty Duke as she tries to enter a car.
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His mother demanded he stop seeing Duke because she was so clearly a sinking ship, but he refused, and they continued to see each other for many months. That same year, Duke was manic and impulsively got married to Michael Tell. He was a rock promoter who had sublet her apartment. Their marriage lasted 13 days.

A Complicated and Short-Lived Marriage

Right before Patty married Michael Tell, she found out she was pregnant. Turns out, she had a secret affair going on with The Addams Family star John Astin. She assumed the baby was his, but it was later discovered that the baby actually belonged to Tell.

A photo of Patty Duke attending an event at the time.
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She married Tell anyway without telling him she was pregnant or mentioning the affair. Naturally, when he found out, about 13 days later, the couple called it all off and Patty was left to her own devices. She had to sort things out with Astin.

No Longer A Secret Affair

They had agreed to keep their affair a secret until after their child was born and Astin got divorced. She gave birth to her son, Sean, and married John Astin in 1972. Now, she was not only a mother to one child but a stepmom to Astin’s sons from his previous marriage.

A picture of a pregnant Patty Duke and John Astin during an event.
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He had three sons named David, Allen, and Tom. Their care fell directly on Patty Duke’s shoulders. She wasn’t even prepared to be a mother to her own son, and now she was mother to three more. This only worsened her mental health.

Finally Found an Answer for Her Problems

Patty’s manic mood swings began when she was 19. She shared that it started with a deep depression. She was unable to get out of bed, except to use the bathroom, for months at a time. She also cried inconsolably for days.

A promotional portrait of Patty Duke for a film.
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From 19 onward, the mania only progressed. She denied everything, always claiming that there was nothing wrong and everything was fine. When she had children though, she was forced to face her mental health because it negatively affected their lives and was borderline abuse.

Finally Asking for Help

In 1982, when Patty Duke was 35, she sought out a psychiatrist. It was time for her to find answers to her mania, and she did. A psychiatrist diagnosed her with manic depression, or bipolar disorder, and prescribed her lithium to help control her mood swings.

Patty Duke addresses the press during an event.
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Patty Duke shares that this saved her life, and it gave her life. She was able to take control of her emotions and her life. Before she got help, she was unable to make any long-term decisions or take care of anything because she was always up or down.

Too Late to Save Her Marriage

Unfortunately, the diagnosis came too late to save her marriage. By the time she realized that bipolar disorder was the source of her mood swings, her marriage to John Astin was in a shambles. He became more of a father figure than a husband. He also became a Buddhist and tried to convert the family.

A photo of John Astin and Patty Duke attending an event.
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They got divorced in 1985. Patty Duke shares that Astin was a great husband and always offered her love and support, helping her on her mental health journey. They get along great and share a deep love for each other.

Youngest to Win an Oscar

In 1963, Patty Duke was cast as Helen Keller in the original Broadway show The Miracle Worker. She was 16 years old at the time. She was grateful she hadn’t grown much taller because she would not have been able to play Helen Keller.

A photo of Patty Duke holding her Oscar.
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There was a clause in her contract that stated she could be removed if she grew more than two inches. Good thing she didn’t because she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and she was the youngest person ever to win. This changed her career forever.

Television’s Two Favorite Cousins

After her major success on Broadway, Duke debuted her own show called The Patty Duke Show. She played both main characters, Patricia “Patty” Lane an American teenager, and her identical cousin from Scotland named Catharine “Cathy” Lane.

A still from the TV series The Patty Duke Show.
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Duke did not like Patty and thought she was embarrassing and outrageous. She much preferred to play Cathy, who was classy and sensible. The show had a catchy theme song and featured many popular guest stars such as Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Frankie Avalon, Sal Mineo, and the British pop duo Chad and Jeremy.

Valley of the Dolls

In 1967, Patty starred in a cult classic film called Valley of the Dolls. She acted alongside iconic female actresses Sharon Tate and Barbara Parkins. The film was about a group of girls who turn to drugs to numb the pain of life.

Patty Duke holds an empty glass in Valley of the Dolls.
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Patty’s character was a neurotic and pill-addicted girl named Neely O’Hara. Sound familiar? Many believed Patty was cast for the role due to the real-life parallel. At the time, there were many rumors linking her to drug abuse, alcoholism, and erratic behavior.

A Shocking Emmy Awards Appearance

All of these rumors about drug abuse and alcoholism were reinforced during Patty Duke’s appearance at the Emmy Awards show in 1970. She took the stage to accept her Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance in My Sweet Charlie, and her speech was a complete disaster.

A backstage picture of Patty Duke at the Emmys.
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She rambled and was incoherent the entire time she was on stage. The truth is, she was not on drugs but rather on the verge of a mental breakdown. Most people tend to have breakdowns in private, but Patty had hers on live television.

Her Journey to Mental Health Advocacy

Patty Duke was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1982, and many years later, she found her passion in mental health awareness and advocacy. She made her struggle with bipolar disorder very public during the 80s. She was the first celebrity to speak openly about mental health and how greatly she struggled with it.

A portrait of Patty Duke during an event.
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Not many people talked about mental health during that time. This courage and power transcended through to her later years with her advocacy work. She made others who struggled with mental illness feel less alone.

Her Close Relationship with Her Son

She is so grateful to have a close relationship with her son, The Lord of the Rings star Sean Astin, and his brother, Mackenzie Astin. They had a rough childhood together and Patty Duke put them through a lot. Her illness had yet to be diagnosed and she had no control over it.

A picture of Sean Astin holding Patty Duke.
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Everything was great one minute, and the next, she was berating and screaming at her children. Her family called her Anna Banana, and after Sean had his own children, they called her Nana Anna Banana.

She Found Love Again

The same year Patty divorced John, she was cast in a movie called A Time to Triumph. She plays an army helicopter pilot in the film. While on set, she met Sgt. Michael Pearce, who was hired to toughen up the actress. They fell in love and got married in 1986.

A still of Patty Duke in the character of an army pilot.
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She was a loving stepmother to his daughters, Raelene and Charlene. In 1988, they adopted a child named Kevin. The actress says of Pearce, “I lucked out and found goodness personified.” She was in love, mentally stable, and finally ready to be a mother.

The Perfect Person for the Role

The director of A Time to Triumph, Noel Black, shares that Patty Duke was perfect for the role. She threw herself into the part with her entire being. This was the work ethic and the drive they needed, and it was the reason they chose her for the part.

A still of Patty Duke in a scene from the film.
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They couldn’t have chosen any old Hollywood glamour girl, they needed someone who could act and take the role to the next level. Despite the turbulence in her life, Duke did just that and was commended for her performance.

A Physically Taxing Performance

Patty Duke did not have it easy on the set of A Time to Triumph, though. She had to train and get into really good shape. She ran drills for multiple hours a day in order to be physically ready to play the part.

A picture of Patty Duke at the time.
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She was a brilliant actress who acted her entire life and never shied away from a challenge. She arrived at her 39th birthday party dripping in sweat having just finished a workout for the movie. Patty believed that the roles don’t get any easier whether onscreen or off.

All That Glitters Ain’t Gold

She was in a happy marriage and things started to look good for the mentally ill starlet, but that wasn’t always the case. Her mother had moved in with her and her family. Shortly after, in 1992, she passed away.

A photo of Pearce and Duke during an event.
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Patty was devastated by the loss of her mother. She had spent so much time away from her growing up. Then, in 1998, Raelene drowned in a car accident. The couple was shattered by the loss of their daughter. All this pain brought the family closer together and Duke and Pearce remained together.

The Relief of a Diagnosis

When Patty Duke was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 35, she felt relief. She felt like she was resurrected and experiencing a rebirth of sorts. She shares that one of her greatest blessings was that her doctor had given her the correct diagnosis. With a correct diagnosis comes correct treatment.

A dated portrait of Patty Duke.
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When she received the proper help, she made amends with all the people she harmed while struggling. She went to all the people she had hurt or offended during her dark times, and she asked for forgiveness.

Her Memoirs Serve as an Apology

Patty Duke decided to write two memoirs about her life even though she was warned they would harm her career. the first was called “Call Me Anna” and was published in 1987. The second was called “A Brilliant Madness” and was published in 1992.

A portrait of Patty Duke during an interview.
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The first spoke of her childhood and disclosed what she had been through while growing up at home and with the Rosses. The second spoke of her struggle with mental illness, her diagnosis, and her road to recovery. She decided to speak her truth no matter the consequences.

Her Memoirs Were a Success

Those two memoirs were far from damaging to her career. In fact, they received widespread acclaim. She broke the taboo that surrounded mental illness and gave a voice to the voiceless.

A dated portrait of Patty Duke with her granddaughters at the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
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The controversial actress became a powerful advocate for those who were suffering from mental illness. She took responsibility for herself and her actions in those memoirs. She couldn’t take back what she had done, but she opened up about what she went through in hopes it would be a consolation to those she injured emotionally.

Patty Duke Dies at Age 69

She spent the rest of her career in mental health advocacy and reconciling with her family. At the age of 69, she died suddenly and unexpectedly from sepsis. Her son, Sean Astin, shared that she was greatly at peace in her final moments.

A picture of Patty Duke around that time.
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She finally succumbed to sepsis from a ruptured intestine. She was greatly loved by her family and will be deeply missed. Her mental health advocacy changed the lives of many, and the work she has done is a legacy that will outlast her career.

Her Son Stays Positive

Sean Astin likes to look at the positive, something he learned from his mother. In her last days, Patty Duke was surrounded by her family and so much love. Sean raced to his mother’s side in the middle of the night.

Sean Astin speaks on stage.
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He describes it as a very powerful experience and that in her last moments, his mother was at peace. Her son was very close to her and looks up to her and her work. He pursued acting just like his mother and has appeared in films like The Lord of the Rings, The Goonies, Rudy, and 50 First Dates.

She is Remembered for Her Advocacy

Sean Astin and the rest of Patty’s family praise her for her work as an actress. They commend her roles and appreciate her time on the big screen, but the family is most proud of her newfound identity and mission in life.

A portrait of Patty Duke.
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Her son shares, “The more she opened up, the more she shared of her pain… Now she had a new identity… and that was to share what she had gone through with other people.” Her story and her work as a mental health awareness advocate is the most impactful thing she could have done with her platform.

To Honor Her Legacy

Sean Astin wanted to commemorate his mother after her death. Having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she was a strong advocate for mental health awareness. To honor that, he started a Crowd Rise fundraising page to help launch The Patty Duke Mental Health Project.

A dated image of Patty Duke during a charity event.
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It aims to support those who suffer from mental health and their families. He told Entertainment Tonight in an interview, “The way that I think of my mother, the thing that gives me such joy and reverence for her is that, above all else, she was a warrior.”