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What Patty Duke, the forever-young Oscar winner, means to a generation of TV viewers

Patty Duke (pictured here in 1964), who won

Patty Duke (pictured here in 1964), who won an Academy Award for her role as Helen Keller in the 1962 film "The Miracle Worker," spent 50 years in front of TV cameras. Photo Credit: AP / Rex Features

Patty Duke -- who died Tuesday at age 69 -- was 19 when “The Patty Duke Show” ended in April 1966. However, to an entire generation -- the Baby Boom one, or more accurately the television one -- she would remain not-quite-18 forever: Not quite an adult, but not quite a child either.

As Patty Lane, she was an innocent, a naif, a post-bobbysoxer who was president of her junior year class at Brooklyn Heights High and whose most pressing concerns were boys, classes, homework, and whether her identical cousin, Cathy -- also played by Duke -- was wearing the same outfit.

The star was beloved, the show, too and the credit jingle one of the enduring memes in all of TV history: “They laugh alike, they walk alike, At times they even talk alike -- You can lose your mind, When cousins are two of a kind!”

For that TV generation, Patty Lane/Cathy Lane/Patty Duke were as one. The reality was starkly different, and Duke’s attempts to divorce herself from that enduring image were to become part of her life story -- and even the story of the ’60s.

Created by Sidney Sheldon, “The Patty Duke Show” was to be his first big TV hit, later followed by another iconic ‘60s series, “I Dream of Jeannie,” then “Hart to Hart” in the ‘70s. He’d go on to another career -- as best-selling novelist -- but not before perfecting a postwar image, or more accurately, mythology about American youth. He’d won an Oscar for the screenplay of 1947’s screwball comedy, “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” -- which also starred a famous child actor on the verge of adulthood, Shirley Temple. After writing the scripts of a couple of classics (“Easter Parade,” “Annie Get Your Gun”) he’d spend the ’50s and early ’60s working on movies with names like “Rich, Young and Pretty,” “Dream Wife,” and “The Birds and the Bees.” He admitted he needed the money when he undertook “The Patty Duke Show.”

In his star, he saw what everyone else were about to see -- an enormous talent in a small frame (she was exactly 5 feet tall) who didn’t just play a role but absorbed it. Duke had won a best supporting Oscar at 16 for “The Miracle Worker,” as Helen Keller, and had famously prepared for the role by lying on grass to actually feel it grow. (Blind and deaf from birth, Keller had spoken and written of other highly developed senses, including this one).

But he especially saw in her what many Americans still wanted to see in kids -- something innocent, something fresh, above all, something reassuring.

The world beyond the studio, and beyond Sheldon’s TV dreamscape, was changing. “The Patty Duke Show” launched on Sept. 16, 1963. The war in Vietnam was underway. John F. Kennedy would be dead in just under two months.

Duke was carefully protected from all of this, all that. She was a child star, the biggest on TV, and she had to be protected. Per reports at the time, when she did interviews with the press, she had to refer to mimeographed sheets with printed answers on them. She was not allowed to drift off-script.

But Duke was also chaffing. She later admitted -- off-script -- that she hated the show and hated the role. She wanted to be an adult, but instead was cosseted into a role -- two of them -- that she felt no kinship with. Besides, the world was changing and she wanted to change with it.

She did. When “The Patty Duke Show” wrapped in 1966, she jumped into her first major post-show role in 1967’s “Valley of the Dolls,” the adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s huge best-seller about the emotional and drug-fueled disintegration of three young women.

Susann’s world inverted Sidney Sheldon’s world. The public was mortified, then scandalized -- especially by the woman who played one Neely O’Hara, an actress who got through the days on Benzedrine and the nights on booze, and who slept around -- a lot -- and ultimately had a complete nervous breakdown. Some thought Duke’s role was supposed to be Judy Garland, or maybe Betty Hutton -- another hugely talented singer and dancer, and who coincidentally also starred in Sheldon’s “Annie Get Your Gun.”

Hutton was also deeply troubled and -- another coincidence -- like Duke came from a broken home. Like Duke, her father had abandoned her when she was a child, and her parents were alcoholics.

Perhaps there was some Patty Duke -- who later wrote and spoke often of her battles with bipolar disorder -- in O’Hara as well.

She was interviewed by the veteran movie critic, Rex Reed, for a feature that appeared in The New York Times, in 1969, when Duke -- then 21 -- was promoting her follow-up movie, “Me, Natalie.”

Duke held nothing back:

“I’ve been knocked down before, I always get up again, and all I want now is some peace and dignity in my life. I’m just not going to be hurt anymore by what people write about me. Like my divorce. If they want to insinuate it was anything but incompatibility, then let them. I was looking for a father. I’ve been looking for a father all my life and now it’s time I stood on my own two feet.”

She had in fact already been married and divorced, to a Hollywood director, Harry Falk, many years her senior. Afterward, “I went to a shrink. If you have something wrong in your head, you gotta get help. Analysis is better than pills. I learned where my problems were coming from. As a kid I had days when I didn’t do anything but cry for nine hours straight. ... analysis taught me how to laugh. When I was a kid, I wasn’t impressed by anybody. The only person I ever met who impressed me was John F. Kennedy. Now I have more compassion for people. I don’t have such a high opinion of ME anymore.

“But you got to protect yourself or you’ll become a Frankenstein. That’s why I did ‘Valley of the Dolls ... I had to change the image the public had of me as a little kid in pigtails.”

She said, “At 21 pushing 22 I’m the same size I always was. My name is still Anna Marie Duke. I’m still trying to find the same answer to the same questions as everyone else in the world.

“I don’t regret being Patty Duke, the actress. I’m only ashamed that so many people have been forced to share my problems with me.”

Reed closed his piece as Duke got into a waiting limo. In one hand, he observed, she was holding a doll.

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