It was the birthday yesterday of one of the most durable actresses of theater, television, and films, Patty Duke,who was born Anne Marie Duke in 1946. Her managers changed her name at the beginning of her acting career when she was appearing in her first films, like The Goddess, Country Music Holiday, and 4D Man, and on soap operas like A Brighter Day and Kitty Foyle. Her career skyrocketed at the age of 12 when Ms. Duke played the role of the young Helen Keller in William Gibson's The Miracle Worker on Broadway. The story of Helen Keller's triumphant struggle, with the guidance of her devoted teacher, to break through the barriers of darkness, silence, and anger that had imprisoned her since infancy is one of the astonishing early moments in the journey of an altogether fascinating and inspiring life. At a crucial point in the play, Helen's teacher, Annie Sullivan, has Helen hold an egg, which is just about to hatch its chick, and tells her pupil, "The chick has to come out of its egg, Helen, you come out, too."
In many ways, that is just what happened. After two years on Broadway, Patty and Anne Bancroft, who portrayed Annie Sullivan in the stage play, reprised their roles, under Arthur Penn's direction, for a film version of the story. Ms. Bancroft won an Oscar for Best Actress that year, and Patty Duke won for Best Supporting Actress, becoming the youngest person, at sixteen, ever to do so. And this success quickly lead to a very popular television series, The Patty Duke Show. But then came the roller coaster ride of both her personal and professional lives. It wasn't until the early 1980s that she was finally diagnosed as having Manic Depression Illness and treated for the mood swings that had plagued her for decades, even though she somehow managed to keep working, mostly in television, during that time. Among her many awards, she won an Emmy for a remake of The Miracle Worker, in which she played Annie Sullivan to Melissa Gilbert's Helen Keller.
Ms. Duke has also gone on to write two books, one about her illness titled A Brilliant Madness, and a memoir about her own troubled (and until then hidden) childhood, Call Me Anna, in which she reclaimed the identity that had been lost to her with that early change of names. In Call Me Anna, on the recovery of her original child self, Ms. Duke writes: "On some days, most days, that feels like a miracle."
Copyright 2004 © John Cech
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