The actress didn’t find happiness until her fourth marriage.
Patty Duke was once the poster child for troubled former child stars. Known as much for her turbulent love life as she was for her award-winning acting, Duke was set on a destructive course.
The late actress, known as “Anna” to family and friends, had a celebrated career filled with awards and accomplishments. But behind the scenes she struggled with mood swings, drug and alcohol abuse, and impulsive behavior before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the early 1980s. Duke became a tireless mental health advocate and, after three failed marriages, found love and stability with her fourth husband. Their union lasted 30 years until her death in 2016.
Anna Marie Duke was born in 1946 in Elmhurst, New York, to troubled parents. Her father, John, was an alcoholic who abandoned the family when Duke was 6, and her mother, Frances, suffered from depression. Duke followed her brother Raymond into acting at age 7 when his managers, John and Ethel Ross, took notice of her.
“The Rosses immediately set to work neutralizing Anna’s prominent Queens accent,” noted the New York Times in Duke’s obituary. “They also changed her name to the pert, less ethnic-sounding Patty. ‘Anna Marie is dead; you’re Patty now,’ she was told, as she recalled in a memoir, Call Me Anna.”
Duke’s managers supervised her every movement, she would later say, according to the Times. They told her what to wear, what to do, and what to eat. They introduced her to alcohol and plied her with “uppers and downers.” They restricted and monitored her mother’s access to her. Duke wrote that the couple also sexually molested her on occasion, as reported by the Times. Later, Duke discovered the Rosses had embezzled $1 million of her earnings.
The Rosses ultimately pushed Duke to unprecedented success for an actress her age on stage, film, and television. Duke started out on a soap opera and in television commercials, then made her Broadway debut in 1959 playing Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker,” for which she won the Theatre World Award for “Most Promising Newcomer” at age 12. She and her co-star, Anne Bancroft, who played Annie Sullivan, reprised their roles in the 1962 film version, both winning Oscars. Duke’s win for Best Supporting Actress made her, at the time, the youngest Academy Award winner in history.
In 1963, the 16-year-old Duke starred in The Patty Duke show on television and became the youngest performer to have a show bearing her full name. The top-rated program, about implausibly “identical cousins” Patty and Cathy Lane, ran from 1963 to 1966. Notably, writer and television producer Sidney Sheldon said he created the dual role for Duke after spending time with her and noticing she had two very distinct sides to her personality. Unfortunately, it would be years before Duke was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
When the The Patty Duke show ended, Duke, then 18, emphatically broke away from the Rosses’ strict control, and from her squeaky-clean child star image. She promptly married Harry Falk Jr., a 32-year-old assistant director on the show whom she had been seeing secretly. Duke also signed on to play ambitious pill-popper Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls, which became a box office success and a cult classic. But her marriage to Falk soon failed as Duke’s uncontrolled mental state manifested in mood swings, heavy alcohol and drug use, and several suicide attempts. The couple split after two years and later divorced.
Duke ramped up her personal and professional life with the kind of drama that tabloid writers dream about. At age 23, she began dating Desi Arnaz Jr., who was only 17. When Arnaz’s mother, legendary comedienne Lucille Ball, found out about her son’s romance with the older divorcee who was displaying increasingly erratic behavior in public, she was not amused. Duke’s odd behavior included giving an acceptance speech after she won her first Emmy award for her starring role in the made-for-TV movie My Sweet Charlie, in which she “rambled incoherently,” People magazine reported in 1977. Duke and Arnaz’s relationship ended after several months.
Duke also had an affair with John Astin, best known today as Gomez from the Addams Family TV show, who was married at the time. Then Duke suddenly eloped with Michael Tell, a rock promoter who was subletting her apartment, and remained married to him for 13 days. It turned out Duke had discovered she was pregnant and wasn’t sure who the father was.
The actress gave birth to her son Sean in 1971 and wed Astin in 1972 after his divorce was finalized. Duke maintained that Astin was Sean’s father but gossip persisted that Arnaz had fathered Sean. A 2016 People article published following Duke’s death detailed Sean’s quest to find out the truth: When Sean was 14, Duke confessed that Astin was not the boy’s father. Instead, she explained that Arnaz was, in fact, his biological father. After his mother told him about Arnaz, Sean and Arnaz developed a relationship. But when Sean was in his 20s, he met a relative of Tell’s who suggested they were related. In order to get the final, truthful answer, Sean underwent a DNA paternal test involving all three men. The outcome: Michael Tell was Sean’s father.
Sean has stated that he considers Astin to be his father but has developed close relationships with Arnaz and Tell as well.
Duke and Astin had a son together, Mackenzie, in 1973. Both Sean and Mackenzie are actors, with Sean best known for his movie roles in The Goonies, Rudy, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Mackenzie for his roles in the TV series The Facts of Life and in the movies In Love and War and Iron Will.
In 1982, Duke was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and began treatment. But it was too late for Duke and Astin’s relationship; they divorced in 1985 after 13 tumultuous years of marriage.
After surviving the harrowing side of child stardom and a career in the Hollywood spotlight, Duke’s life took a welcome, if unexpected, turn. In 1986, Duke married her fourth husband, Sgt. Michael Pearce, who served as a technical advisor on a TV movie she starred in, A Time to Triumph. The couple lived in Idaho with his two daughters and their adopted son, Kevin. They were married for 30 years until Duke’s death.
Duke wrote about her experiences in her 1988 New York Times bestselling book Call Me Anna: The Autobiography of Patty Duke and starred in the TV movie based on the book, at a time when mental illness was not openly discussed. Her accomplishments also include winning a second Emmy for the TV movie Captains and the Kings and a third Emmy for her role as Annie Sullivan in the TV version of The Miracle Worker. Duke was the second woman elected president of the Screen Actors Guild and wrote a second New York Times best-selling autobiography, A Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness.
Duke died at a hospital near her Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, home on March 29, 2016, from complications of a ruptured intestine.
“The true story of her life isn’t her work and it isn’t her advocacy, it’s the love relationship she’s had with her husband Mike for the last 30 years,” son Sean told the Associated Press the day she died. “He was a drill sergeant in the Army when they met and he became her 30-year project, and she finally in her life had a protector.”