My most recent interview with Norman Lear is online now on The Saturday Evening Post’s website. You can read it by clicking the link here: Jeanne Wolf with Norman Lear. I had such a fantastic time with one of the greatest comedic minds of all time! A favorite quote of his that he gave me from over an hour together was this: “I always felt that what makes me laugh is going to make you laugh. And what makes me care or cry is going to make you care or cry. I don’t have anything else in the world to go on. I express feelings.”
My lasting memory of many conversations with Patty Duke is what a lively, loving, deep and funny woman she was. I asked her, “Did people treat you like a nut?” She answered without a pause, “Yes, because I behaved like a nut.” Years of erratic behavior took the public’s eyes away from her extraordinary talent.
She was a famous child star at 12-years-old for virtually becoming Helen Keller on Broadway in “The Miracle Worker” and she was only 16 when she won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for the movie version.
Few knew the story behind the young girl who innocently just said “Thank you!” while clutching her Academy Award.
Duke would later reveal that she was living with married managers who had convinced her mother that she was star material and that they would mold her to realize her potential. They “programmed” her, kept her from family, allowed her no friends, gave her alcohol and drugs, sexually abused her and, let’s just say it, guided her to unprecedented renown while she was still just a kid.
I asked her to describe her memories – of the night her she heard her name announced and she walked to the stage. Her words made me cry:
“I always hate telling this because – I never want to take away that joy that something can bring to people. But for me that was a very melancholy experience. My mother was not allowed to go, I was there with the people who were my mentors. I was their Chihuahua in a purse. I certainly wasn’t expected to win. I was a kid. Times were different. I was in a homemade dress that the lady of the couple had made. It was ugly. My hair looked like I was fifty. It was exciting to look at the movie stars. Gregory Peck, Angela Lansbury was sitting right behind me. That was exciting.
When they called my name, there was a visceral response. I remember my back feeling all hot, and my arms got all red on the way up there. And I said, all I said was ‘thank you’ because the father figure in my life then, said, ‘Well, if you win say thank you. Then you won’t be stuck with an acceptance speech,’ which was wise. I mean, they didn’t expect me to win.
When I said, ‘Thank you’ it was almost an out of body and out of mind experience. But then the lead hit. There wasn’t anybody that mattered, really mattered to me, to share it with.
So through the years, Oscar has been a symbol of enormous success to me. I can also tell you that I’ve walked through my house in years past when it was as if that thing was alive and it was screaming ‘failure, failure, failure, failure!”
Duke was hardly seen as a failure. She went on to become a huge hit on TV in the ‘60’s with “The Patty Duke Show.” Patty was the youngest actor with a prime time show… that had her name in the title.
But unpredictable and tragic years followed… three marriages, and occasional public downs and depressions.
Patty Duke’s life took a big turn when she was diagnosed and treated for manic-depression (bipolar syndrome). Her third marriage to Michael Pearse lasted thirty years and she lived what could be described a normal life.
Patty wrote in her book, “Call Me Anna” of her journey back to someone she can forgive and who can forgive all those she blamed and pointed to as the reason for her failures.
She used the fame that had cost her dearly to become one of the first public figures to honestly discuss mental illness and to speak out to encourage people who were suffering to seek help. “I hope this subject gets so boring that no one will hesitate to go to a doctor for relief.”
She was funny and philosophical about her self-discovery and her desire to help others. “Occasionally I think we all treat each other like nuts. And at the risk of being disgustingly analytical about it, I think it’s when we are feeling most insecure that we point the finger at the other guy.”
Her speeches, her writing, her charming, charismatic, articulate, and loving way of telling her own “horror” story came from a place of wanting to share her new found but still-working-on-it acceptance.
“I didn’t need to relive this again. I know the story. I know how it comes out. It’s really simple. I like people, I don’t know why. I was blessed with this thing. I like people. If I know something that can help somebody not hurt so bad then quite self-servingly, I want to let them know, ’cause I’ll feel better. It’s that simple. The point of doing this is that the next time we point at somebody and say ‘crazy’ maybe we’ll think, ‘Oh, maybe we should see if they need some help.’”
I think Patty felt loved and appreciated. But she confessed that she still had her failings – her ups and downs. She’s been away from the public eye in recent years while putting on a cheery face in her Tweets. It hit my heart when I heard that she had died.
Her talent and her wise and generous sharing of it is her legacy.