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November 5, 2002

Patty Duke shares memories, special moments and ‘The Miracle Worker’

From: Idaho Statesman, ID
Nov. 5, 2002

Dana Oland
The Idaho Statesman

It´s Patty Duke on the big screen, Patty Duke who received awards and accolades, and Patty Duke who endured the ups and downs and tabloid treatment of Hollywood stardom.

But it was Anna Marie Duke who really lived it all. That´s Patty´s real name.

A formidable talent, Anna had a tumultuous life. An incredibly talented child, her managers hijacked her life, took her away from her family and kept her busy working. Like many child actors, she had difficulty finding her niche as an adult.

It´s been tough — three marriages, a diagnosis of manic depression, and bad made-for-TV movies and game shows mixed in with award-winning roles.

None of that should overshadow what she considers one of her greatest achievements — her performance as blind and deaf Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.”

The film tells the story of Helen´s relationship with Annie Sullivan, her teacher, played by Anne Bancroft. Both Duke and Bancroft starred in the Broadway play and both won Academy Awards for the movie.

Now, it´s the film´s 40th anniversary, and Anna will celebrate in her adopted home state of Idaho with a reception and screening at the Egyptian Theatre on Friday to benefit the education programs of the Idaho Humanities Council.

Today, Anna Duke Pearce, 55, is more at peace than she has ever been in her life, she says. She lives in northern Idaho, she´s happily married and in control of her mental health. A mother and a grandmother, she continues to be a working actress.

Last week, Anna spoke over the telephone about her love of Idaho, her career, her battle with mental illness and plans for the future.

DANA: You said in your book that when you made “The Miracle Worker,” you didn´t understand the significance the film would play in your life.

ANNA: True. That´s not to say that there wasn´t an aura about being a part of it. That I understood. But as the years have gone on … I never get tired of talking about “The Miracle Worker.” For these 43 years, the women themselves, me, Helen, teacher, and Anne Bancroft — we´ve worn out the word “inspired.”

There are times in your life when you get down — as down as you can get — and nothing is going to change that. And for me there was always that echo of teacher and Helen. Though I can´t imagine what it´s like to reach the heights that they did in world education and enlightening people on the topic of humanity. I´ve used them both superficially and internally as almost crutches, if you will, to lean on when I thought life was crap.

You can ask me about it 24 hours a day. I am so proud to be included among that group of women.

DANA: Do you have more of an affinity for the play or the film? (She performed the play on Broadway from 1959 to 1961 and co-starred in the 1962 film.)

ANNA: I find myself just reminiscing, thinking, almost always about the play. Certainly when I watch the film, now it´s so long ago, that little girl isn´t really me.

DANA: Does that feel weird?

ANNA: There´s a bit of a connection and yet I feel a similar impact to others who watch the film. I sob like a baby.

DANA: What are some of your memories? When you did the play, did you know who Anne Bancroft was?

ANNA: I was 13. I didn´t know who anybody was. I was certainly told. She was and is very down to earth and puts other performers at ease.

But when I met her it was one step short of a curtsy. The audition was for us to fight with each other. I was a street kid in New York. She slapped me, I slapped her back. She grabbed me, I grabbed her back. We were like two cats going at it on a stage.

After that the director, Arthur Penn, said “That´s enough.” We were breathing hard and had a whole new look at each other. They called me back twice more — for that same kind of audition. Poor Annie.

DANA: When they decided to make the movie was it a given that you would reprise your role?

ANNA: There was no question about who was going to play Annie Sullivan but there was a question about me. I was devastated. This play, this role, this teacher, belonged to me. I felt betrayed that they would even be talking about replacing me. When push came to shove ... about two weeks before they started to shoot, apparently they looked at each other and said, “Who are we kidding — go get the kid.”

DANA: How did you end up in Idaho?

ANNA: I married into it. My husband, Mike Pearce, was born and raised in Wallace, Idaho. It used to be famous for the only stop signal on I-90. We´ve been married 17 years and lived in Idaho for 12 and a half years, and I´ve never looked back.

I love it. Of course, I also get to travel to the big cities. I work so I´m not just lonely on the hill with my animals.

DANA: When was the last time you were on Broadway?

ANNA: Forty years ago. It was a play called “Isle of Children.” It was a brilliantly written role but the play didn´t support it. It lasted eight performances.

(Anna is currently in negotiations to take over the role of Aunt Eller in the Broadway revival of “Oklahoma!”)

DANA: Are you nervous about “Oklahoma!”?

ANNA: I´m excited and very nervous. There´s a part of me that has an eerie calm. But it means six months away from home and that´s very hard for me.

DANA: So, are you in a new wave of working in theater?

ANNA: Yes, it started when I was invited to do “The Glass Menagerie” in Spokane two years ago. It awakened something in me. I think it´s my age. When you reach 55 there aren´t a lot of roles in TV and film. Now, it seems there are more roles for women in theater … I was lucky. I got to do some good work. I use the experience of living here being isolated from all of the falderal pizzazz that´s mostly media generated — no offense. All of the values shift into a negative. I´m not as young. I´m not as thin, talented and so-and-so has more money.

Here you forget all that craziness is going on. I get to deal with life on a more realistic basis.

So, much of being here gives me time to recall and figure out what — if anything — I´ve learned. A few years ago, I would not have wanted to believe that “The Miracle Worker” was the height of the career. But it was, and I´m OK with that. The fact that I can still work is great but what´s more important is how I´ve lived my life after my diagnosis. (Anna was diagnosed with manic depression in 1982.)

DANA: When the diagnosis came, did you look back and say, “Of course.”

ANNA: I knew there was something very wrong with me. When I would be depressed, I would stay in bed for three months. I knew it wasn´t right, but I didn´t know there was a way out.

DANA: How did you find out?

ANNA: John Astin and I were divorcing and I decided to be a grown up and see a therapist. I apparently went into a very manic state. When you´re manic you don´t know you´re doing something wrong. So, you buy five cars in an afternoon, what´s the big deal.

Dana: Did you do that?

ANNA: No, I rented a Lear jet for a week. And I had no money. Those bills eventually got paid. The good news is I was seeing a doctor at the time. In one of our sessions, he told me very simply. What I thought was, ´Thank God.´ This is something, I´m not creating it. He did a good job of dealing with the demon and getting me into a hospital.

DANA: How long was is before you felt better?

ANNA: After about three weeks of lithium. I didn´t feel drugged. I just felt the absence of that motor racing. The absence of ´Maybe I´ll go kill myself. Well, maybe I´ll just go to bed first.´

There was a lot going on during those so-called suicide attempts. Mostly I wanted “it,” whatever “it” was, to stop and that seemed that was the only way. But I have a life-long obsessive fear of death. I think that saved me, that and my children.

DANA: Do any of your children struggle with mental illness?

ANNA: We don´t know. The problem is that we are performers, and we don´t just perform for the camera. So it´s hard for a clinician to determine if this is him being an actor, or this is him being wacko. Each of the genetic children functions really well. When they do something that could be considered self-destructive they check themselves much sooner than I would have.

DANA: Are there any roles that just make you cringe today?

ANNA: Yes. There are two. I did a TV movie called “Curse of the Black Widow.” (1977) It´s actually a favorite of my children. I play a woman who kills men and then turns into a spider that´s the size of a house. I remember the relief at the end of the four-week shoot when they burn the spider.

The other one has had an interesting evolution. For many years I was mortified I had anything to do with “Valley of the Dolls.” You know something, now I don´t love it, but now I like it and have fun with it.

So, I have evolved. I went from putting a black veil over my face so people wouldn´t notice I was in the movie to saying, “Let´s have a “Valley” night.

To offer story ideas or comments, contact Dana Oland or 377-6442

© 2002 The Idaho Statesman