American actress Patty Duke seemed to have it all. Having achieved glory at a young age, her rise to fame appeared to be the stuff of Hollywood dreams. But behind the closed curtains, her life was more like a horror story. She had to fight tooth and nail for survival.
1. She Had A Dysfunctional Family
Born in Manhattan and raised in Queens, Patty Duke and her siblings didn't get the luxury of a happy childhood. Their home was an utter nightmare. Their father, John, had a drinking problem, while their mother, Frances, had clinical depression and a tendency to be violent. Then, when Patty was six, Frances kicked John out of the family home. If you could call their four-room apartment overrun with bedbugs a home.
Little Patty needed a way out—and one would arrive before long.
2. She Met Her Talent Managers At Eight
When Patty was eight, she met the people who put her on the path to fame: talent managers John and Ethel Ross. At first, they seemed like the saviors she'd been looking for. The Rosses managed her brother’s career and searched for a girl to join their team of child actors. To their credit, the husband-and-wife team was largely responsible for Patty’s meteoric success as a child actor.
Under their strict guidance, Patty reached heights of fame many people can only dream of. But the Rosses had a chilling dark side...
3. She Aspired To Be A Nun
Duke had strong Catholic roots, and it showed in her favorite play activity. As a young girl, Patty had dreams of growing up to become a nun. The budding child actor and her friends pretended to be nuns by wrapping loose sheets of paper around their foreheads and necks and donning dark scarves. Then, they took turns playing the teacher or mother superior.
Well, Patty certainly needed a lot of prayers because it turns out, her managers were a questionable pair.
4. Her Managers Raised Her
At the beginning of her career, Duke quickly gained steady work in commercials and small parts. That’s when the Rosses saw an opportunity they could capitalize on. They agreed to accept Patty as a full-time client on one condition—she had to live with them. As a single mom struggling to raise three children on a cashier’s income, Frances saw it as an offer she couldn’t refuse.
So, off young Patty went with her new guardians, despite the bad vibes she felt about them from the start. Her spidey senses were right.
5. They Lied About Her
Patty’s managers weren’t against playing dirty to get what they wanted. To improve Patty’s chances of getting roles, they said she was two years younger than she really was. They also listed fake credits to her resume to beef it up and make her look like a more accomplished actress. It seems they lived by the ethos of faking it until you make it.
But the thing is, they didn’t stop there. Their management style included some even more controversial methods.
6. They Changed Her
Young Patty was definitely very malleable. She underwent her very own Eliza Doolittle transformation. She got rid of her New York accent and dressed like Grace Kelly. In keeping with The Rosses’ lies, she also learned to lie about her height, age, weight, and experience. The Rosses dictated what she would do during auditions and made her practice constantly.
But there was still one more thing they needed to erase from Patty’s life...
7. She Changed Her Name
The Rosses felt their client needed a stage name. See, Patty isn’t, well, really Patty. Her real name was Anna Marie Duke. With hopes that Anna would reach the same level of success as another actress named Patty McCormack, they decided her stage name would be Patty Duke. The Rosses revealed the name change in a disturbing way. They told Duke, "Anna Marie is dead. You’re Patty now".
Their stifling control over the young girl extended into every single aspect of her life. Where was a fairy godmother when Patty needed one?
8. She Had Limited Contact With Her Parents
Growing up, Patty didn’t see her parents much. After her father left the family, she barely saw him. When she lived with her managers, they also kept her mother away. Patty’s mom was unaware of the kind of things that were happening to her daughter. Patty only saw her mother when she came to the Rosses’ home to do their laundry. Sadly, the Rosses's isolation had a tragic effect on her.
Duke's experience during those days made her feel like her mother abandoned her. Yet still, that wasn't even the worst thing they did to poor Patty Duke...
9. Her Managers Exploited Her
For better and for worse, the Rosses wielded tight control over every part of Patty’s life. If you're thinking the Rosses already went too far, unfortunately, there's more to this sad tale. When Patty was 13, John and Ethel gave her prescription meds and alcohol so they could exert even more power over her. They also charged her excessively high management fees for their "services".
The effects of these actions had a devastating impact on Patty later in her life. But before that, the story still gets worse!
10. Her Managers Were Predatory
As if the involvement of substances in a minor’s life wasn’t bad enough, that was just the start. She remembered there were two instances when she experienced unwanted advances from her managers. She said the couple tried to fondle her while she was in her bed. Luckily, it didn’t go beyond that point—because Patty threw up in reaction to these advances.
That thankfully stopped the Rosses from going any further. However, though her childhood was hard, it wasn't all bad for Patty Duke. She also experienced some pretty high highs.
11. She Landed An Iconic Role
After appearances in TV commercials and print ads, Duke got her first starring role in The Miracle Worker, a Broadway play based on the life of Helen Keller. She was the first person to play the role of Keller. The play, which ran from October 1959 to July 1961, also featured Anne Bancroft in the role of Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan. This is where Duke proved how remarkable she really was.
To win the role of Keller, who was deaf, blind, and mute, Patty spent a year learning to do everyday tasks with a blindfold on—under the strict tutelage of John Ross, of course. Her hard work paid off as she received widespread acclaim for her performance. And this was just the beginning.
12. She Had A Lifelong Friendship With Her Co-Star
During the production run of The Miracle Worker, Duke developed a close bond with her co-star, Anne Bancroft, AKA Mrs. Robinson. The connection endured, and the two shared a lifelong friendship. Instead of treating her young co-star as a threat, Bancroft gave her love and care. Looking back at her life in those days, Duke believed Bancroft realized she needed an adult to act as a proper role model.
Years later, when Patty got the role of Annie Sullivan in a TV movie, Bancroft gave her blessing. It was people like Bancroft who got Duke through the horrible years with the Rosses.
13. She Won Critical Acclaim
Patty received critical acclaim for her performance in The Miracle Worker. She became known enough that her name was placed above the title of the play on the billboard. Considered a huge mark of respect, the gesture is believed to be the first time a young actress of her age received such an honor. Duke was 13 at the time. She also received the Theater World Award in the category of Most Promising Newcomer.
All the attention Patty got was a sign of how she was about to take the acting world by storm.
14. She Was The Youngest Oscar Winner
In 1962, Duke reprised the role of Keller in the movie version of The Miracle Worker. This time, she got to meet the real Helen Keller before filming ended. The movie was a success, and her performance earned her an Oscar. At 16, Patty became the youngest recipient of an Academy Award at the time when she won Best Supporting Actress. She accepted it with just two words: thank you.
Considering how much critical praise she got for her portrayal of Keller in the film, it’s hard to believe she almost didn’t get the job.
15. She Almost Didn’t Get It
Patty’s stellar performance as Keller on the stage didn’t mean she automatically got the same part for the film. Since the beginning of the play’s stage run, she grew, and her facial features matured. There was concern that she was now too old to play a 7-year-old child. Good thing the people in charge decided otherwise with one person saying, “Move the camera! Make her look smaller!” And the rest is history.
Though Patty Duke basked in her new glory, she soon became involved in a scandal from one of her past gigs.
16. She Was Part Of A Quiz Show Scandal
In the 50s, quiz shows were all the rage. Duke made an appearance as a contestant on the popular game show The $64,000 Question and won $32,000. But there was one teeny weeny problem. It was all a lie. It turned out that Patty didn’t really win because she had help! Under instructions from her managers, she initially lied about her involvement but eventually admitted that the assistant producer gave her hints on the potential questions, which turned out to be the real ones.
But thankfully, after her Oscar, a little scandal couldn't slow Patty Duke down.
17. She Released Two Top 40 Hits
As expected of a teen star, the Rosses wanted Patty to show her versatility as an entertainer. Apart from having legit acting chops, she could carry a tune or two. During the 60s, Patty’s singing career flourished alongside her acting career. In 1965, she released two songs that reached the Top 40 charts, “Don't Just Stand There” and “Say Something Funny". She also appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show to promote her songs.
But the Rosses still weren't satisfied. So Patty Duke, a consummate thespian, branched to other parts of the entertainment industry.
18. She Got Two Starring Roles
After her star-making turn in The Miracle Worker, Patty set eyes on the small screen. In 1963, she got her own TV show specially created for her. The name of the show was…. The Patty Duke Show. At 16, she was the youngest person to have a TV show with her name on it. She had double billing as identical cousins with different personalities. She played both Patricia “Patty” Lane, an energetic American teenager who got into trouble, and her strait-laced Scottish cousin, Catherine “Cathy” Lane.
Duke’s performance garnered her an Emmy nomination, but it wasn’t enough to save the show. It aired for three years before its cancellation. However, it wasn't all a loss—the show helped Duke learn something extremely important about herself.
19. Her Personality Inspired Her TV Show
To come up with ideas for Patty’s self-titled show, the show’s creator, Sidney Sheldon, and his family spent a week with Duke in hopes of stirring the creative juices. He noticed something peculiar about her: She showed two sides to her personality. Sheldon used his observations as the jumping point for the show. What he didn’t realize was that he uncovered a deep, festering problem that manifested later in Patty’s life.
However, the preparations for the show didn’t just include a week-long retreat with the Sheldons. The show challenged Patty to take on a common issue many American actors face.
20. She Had To Learn A Whole Accent
Ah yes, the age-old bane of all actors—mastering a foreign accent. Remember, American Patty had to portray a Scottish teenager, so that meant she needed to learn how to speak with a natural Scottish brogue. And she did! But THEN, the producers worried that the American audience would have an issue with her newly acquired Scottish accent. So, they decided to change her character’s accent to a generic European one like no one would notice.
To them, all that mattered was that it wasn’t American. But accent drama was just one of the issues that doomed the show.
21. Her Show Used Innovative Special Effects
Patty’s TV show was a pioneer of sorts in TV production. Her dual roles made the use of special effects necessary at a time when they were uncommon. In scenes where both characters appeared, the production team used the split-screen effect to achieve the desired result. Although the show was breaking ground in production techniques, things were pretty heated behind the scenes. It was during this time that Patty started taking control of her life.
22. She Left The Rosses For Love
In the mid-60s, Patty broke free from the shackles of the Rosses. However, her next relationship wasn't much better. On the set of The Patty Duke Show, Patty met Harry Falk Jr., an assistant director. She was 17, and he was 31. Not surprisingly, the Rosses weren’t happy and tried to break up the happy couple by moving production from New York to LA. But Ms. Duke wasn’t having any of it. She moved into her own apartment and banned her managers from the set. But of course, the Rosses weren’t letting her go that easily.
23. Her Split From The Rosses Was Ugly
After spending years building Patty’s career, John and Ethel Ross were unwilling to let go of their golden goose. Things got REALLY nasty. With a newfound sense of freedom, Patty released years of pent-up anger and told her managers, um, where to go. The fallout was brutal. John Ross wrote several confessional letters detailing the awful things they did to their young charge and tried to take his own life afterward. Eventually, there was a break, and Patty went off to live her life on her own terms.
Just before she turned 19, Patty and Harry Falk married. But this marriage was just a new nightmare.
24. She Was Spiraling
The fallout from Patty Duke’s terrible childhood was swift and terrible—and her first marriage fell victim to it. Like many child actors, Patty lacked the skills to deal with adulthood, which led to her experiencing manic mood swings. Not only that, but she also developed a drinking and Valium problem, which caused a whopping eight overdoses! She also had an unhealthy relationship with food, which resulted in her weight dropping to 76 pounds.
Needless to say, her marriage suffered, and Patty and Harry uncoupled in 1967. But even though her personal life went through the wringer, Patty’s professional life was a different story.
25. She Wasn't Everyone's Doll
Tired of her good-girl image, Duke decided it was time to go bad—in movies, at least. In the 1967 movie version of Valley of the Dolls, she shocked the world in the role of the troubled singer, Neely O’Hara. The movie came out with mixed reactions. Although it was a box office hit, critics gave it bad reviews. The risky move almost ended Patty’s career because filmgoers and critics just couldn’t see her playing this kind of role.
But it's not all bad: The movie went on to become a cult classic, and Patty moved on to much better things...
26. She Had More Awards To Win
In 1969, Patty was ready to win another big award. In Me, Natalie, she played the main character, Natalie Miller, an average-looking young woman who seeks a happy life on her own terms in Greenwich Village. The comedy-drama received mixed reviews, but that still didn’t stop Patty from winning the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.
Life at home was horrific, but Duke couldn't keep winning in her career! Her next role saw her return to television with another award-winning performance.
27. She Won On Tv
In 1970, Patty made her return to television in the made-for-tv movie, My Sweet Charlie. She played an unwed, pregnant teenager seeking refuge in a house where she meets an African American lawyer. For her performance, she won an Emmy for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. But the real drama happened when Duke gave her acceptance speech.
She was completely incoherent, which made people think that she was on the sauce. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. No one knew how bad Patty Duke was spiraling.
28. She Had A Relationship With A Minor
Patty sure didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with adults and minors getting together. Three years after her divorce from Falk, she started dating Desi Arnaz Jr., the son of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. But this time, she was the adult, because Arnaz was just 17! Ball wasn’t pleased about the relationship, especially after Duke’s messy Emmy acceptance speech, and adamantly objected to it.
Well, Jr. didn’t care, and the two lovebirds carried on their affair for a while. Alas, all good things come to an end—but the drama in Patty’s life sure didn’t.
29. Her Second Marriage Lasted 13 Days
1970 was an...interesting year in Duke’s love life. Soon after she ended things with Arnaz, she jumped into another marriage with Michael Tell, a rock promoter who sublet her apartment, in June of the same year. Yet the reason was even more scandalous. She found herself unexpectedly pregnant and wanted “to give her child a name".
Surprise, surprise! The marriage only lasted 13 days. As complicated as things were in Duke’s personal life, they got more awkward. Michael wasn’t the only man Patty dated around that time.
30. She Had An Affair With An Addams
This hot mama’s love life was more happening than Tinder. Her third mysterious lover was an Addams—as in Gomez Addams. In the same year she got together with Arnaz and Tell, Patty also had an affair with John Astin, who played the patriarch on The Addams Family. He also happened to be a married man. Yikes! No wonder Patty and John kept their relationship under wraps.
After John finalized his divorce, they married in 1972, and John adopted Patty’s son, who became a famous actor.
31. She Has A Famous Son
Amid all that love drama, there was one good thing that came out of it. In 1971, she gave birth to a son, actor Sean Astin AKA Mikey Walsh AKA Rudy AKA Samwise Gamgee. That’s right! Patty was the mother of a famous hobbit! Yes, pregnancies are usually happy occasions, but remember, Patty was in relationships with three men at the time, which coincided with Sean’s conception.
The situation led to much speculation about who the father was...
32. Her Son’s Paternity Was A Mystery
For decades, the paternity of Patty’s first son was a mystery. It looked a lot like an episode of Maury. It didn’t help that Patty gave inconsistent answers. In public, she insisted John Astin was the father, while in private, she told Sean that Arnaz was really his father. After years of uncertainty, Sean finally put the issue to rest when he took a DNA test to confirm his paternity.
His father was Michael Tell. Sadly, Patty’s children had to cope with more than just daddy issues.
33. She Was A Horrible Mother
Although Duke loved her children, she had a difficult time being a mother. The harsh training she received as a child actor prepared her for many roles, except this one. Her mental health continued to deteriorate, and her children had to deal with her breakdowns. No child should go through what they did. They were witnesses to several attempts she made on her own life.
There were also times when she stayed in her bedroom for hours while medicated, leaving the kids unattended. But while Duke continued to battle her personal demons, they didn’t dampen her public reputation.
34. She's Got The Moves
During the 70s, Duke apparently received a surprising honor. In the early years of the hip-hop scene, the community allegedly named a popular dance move after her, The Patty Duke. No one really knows where the connection came from, but people have linked it to the opening of The Patty Duke Show, in which Patty did a little jig. But whatever its origins, its popularity lasted for a long time, and hip-hop artists still give it a shout-out. Guess this means Patty had street cred!
35. She Kept On Winning
While things were bad at home during this time in Duke’s life, her career continued to thrive. She won a second Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series her role in the TV miniseries Captains and the Kings. Patty’s career also came full circle when she won her third Emmy for her portrayal of Anne Sullivan in the TV adaptation of the stage revival of The Miracle Worker, starring opposite Melissa Gilbert as Keller.
The worse her home life got, the better her career did, it seems.
36. She Won An Award Up North
Patty’s work primarily consisted of American productions, but she did act in at least one foreign film. In 1981, she starred in the Canadian movie By Design, in which she played a woman in a gay relationship who goes on a convoluted journey to have a child. Her performance won her a Genie Award nomination for Best Foreign Actress.
Maybe a Genie Award is the key to happiness, because around this time, her personal life finally started to get better.
37. She Had Bipolar Disorder
There was a good reason for Patty’s erratic past behavior and Sidney Sheldon’s observations. In 1982, a psychiatrist diagnosed her problem as manic depression, now known as bipolar disorder. After receiving a proper diagnosis, Duke got her inner peace back with lithium treatments. She also had to work on rebuilding her relationships with her children. Sadly, her marriage to Astin didn’t work out, as they separated in the same year.
But though the union fell apart, for Patty Duke, her diagnosis meant she could really start living.
38. She Became An Advocate
Duke’s mental health struggles led her to become an activist for the cause. At a time when mental illness was still taboo, she was one of the first celebrities to discuss her personal experiences with it. Using her fame, Patty petitioned US Congress to advocate for awareness, funding, and research into mental illness. She also became involved with the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Alliance on Mental Illness to help destigmatize the issue. Her efforts didn’t just stop there.
39. She Wrote Memoirs
In 1988, Duke released an autobiography titled Call Me Anna. It was a risky move, because it revealed details of her mental health struggles and difficult childhood. People feared it would damage her reputation. Being the survivor she was, Patty pushed through her concerns. The book became a bestseller and was adapted into a TV movie, which starred Duke as herself.
She released a second autobiography called A Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness. But coming to terms with her past required more than writing books.
40. She Forgave Her Tormentors
As the saying goes, the ability to forgive is divine, and that’s what made Duke a goddess in many ways. Given how terribly her managers treated her, no one would have blamed Patty if she never forgave them. But here’s the surprising part—she did. Believe it or not, Patty dedicated her first autobiography to the Rosses. As part of her healing process, she also reached out to them to patch things up.
Unfortunately, she was only able to meet face-to-face with Ethel Ross. Out of all this drama, the good news was her autobiography didn’t affect her the way many worried it would.
41. She Was The Pres
Despite all her personal problems, Duke still maintained respect from her peers. In 1985, members of the Screen Actors Guild elected her to be the second female President, and she remained there for three years. During her time as president of the guild, she faced challenges, such as internal divisions and controversy. But Ms. Duke rose above them and managed to maintain unity within the guild.
Amongst her other achievements were successful contract negotiations and strikes and a deal that incentivized hiring women, minorities, seniors, and entertainers with disabilities. Even better, during her tenure, her personal life reached a new high.
42. She Found Lasting Love
Patty Duke finally got the happy ending she was looking for. After Lord knows how many tumultuous relationships, Patty found love. In 1986, she married Michael Pearce, a drill sergeant who acted as a consultant for her movie A Time To Triumph. The happy couple settled in Idaho, and adopted a son, Kevin, in 1988. This time, Duke remained married until the end of her life.
Having spent years searching for personal happiness, she finally achieved the stability she craved.
43. She Could Still Do It
By the time the 90s rolled by, Patty Duke had achieved more than most people do in a lifetime. She already acquired a lot of hardware for her acting, but she wasn’t done yet. In 1999, she received ANOTHER Emmy nomination for her performance in three episodes of Touched by an Angel. If anyone is wondering, Duke received a total of 10 Emmy nominations with three wins during her career.
After winning so many awards, it seemed like Patty didn’t need anything else—but there was more to come.
44. She Officially Became A Star
Well, there was one thing Patty didn’t have until 2004. In that year, her status as a Hollywood icon was literally and figuratively cemented with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her achievements in film. The happy occasion was celebrated in a ceremony in front of the legendary Roosevelt Hotel. Her sons, Sean and Mackenzie, were in attendance. And that wasn’t the final accolade Duke received.
45. She Received Two Doctorates
Usually, getting a doctorate is hard enough as it is, but two is just mind-blowing. Patty received not one, but two honorary doctorates in human letters, from the University of North Florida in 2007 and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in 2010. The schools both wished to recognize her contribution towards mental health awareness. The first one was a wonderful birthday present of sorts, because she received it on her 61st birthday. As the 2000s ended with a bang for Duke, the next decade started with a return to the beginnings of her career.
46. She Tried Directing
Once again, Patty returned to the play that started it all. This time, though, she called the shots. In 2011, Duke directed a production of The Miracle Worker at Interplayers Theatre in Spokane, Washington, after an invitation from the artistic director. Perhaps out of nostalgic reasons, the acting legend immediately jumped at the opportunity to become involved in the play that gave her a career breakthrough.
47. She Got The Message Out
Sometimes, you need a celebrity to deliver an important message. That’s what the US government did when it enlisted Patty’s assistance for a serious matter—the Social Security website. In 2011, Patty starred in a series of public service announcements to promote it. In a couple of the ads, she reprised her role as the main characters from The Patty Duke Show. Another ad showed her applying on the website while wearing pjs! Guess Patty had the whole WFH thing figured out a decade before it became a thing.
Sadly though, her time was nearing its end.
48. She Wasn't Alone At The End
Patty Duke suddenly departed from this world at the age of 69. On March 29, 2016, she took her final breath after suffering a terrible bout of sepsis due to a ruptured intestine. Thankfully, her family was with her during the last moments of life. Her ashes were placed in Forest Cemetery in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Tributes dedicated to the screen legend came in from around the world as people remembered her activism, courage, and humanity. They also honored her memory in a wonderful way.
49. Her Son Honored Her Memory
Sean Astin asked the public to honor his mother in a special way by making donations to a cause close to her heart. He started a fund for the Patty Duke Mental Health Project. By the time a memorial service for Duke began, the fund already raised $40,000. The proceeds went towards several initiatives, such as lobbying campaigns, support for small and big programs, and efforts to spread public awareness of mental health issues, which plagued Duke’s life for many years. The fundraiser was a touching way of continuing Patty Duke’s legacy of activism.
50. She Had A Disturbing Connection
While filming Valley of the Dolls, Patty struck up a friendship with her co-star, fellow famous actress Sharon Tate. They were so close that Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski, rented Duke’s home for a time. That's where they stayed right before they moved...to 10050 Cielo Drive. Yet this twisted story gets even darker.
On the night when Tate and her friends became victims of the Manson Family, Patty and Sharon had plans to have dinner together. But as fate would have it, Patty came down with strep throat and had to cancel at the last minute. It sure was a blessing in disguise.