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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Oscar-winning actress, Coeur d’Alene resident Patty Duke dies at 69

By Becky Kramer and Jonathan Brunt The Spokesman-Review

Friends, family and fellow actors mourned the loss of Patty Duke on Tuesday after the Oscar-winner and Coeur d’Alene resident died at the age of 69.

Duke was remembered as a caring, “regular” person and a strong advocate for people dealing with mental illness after sharing her own experiences with bipolar disorder.

To the surprise of her friends, she left Los Angeles in 1990 to live in North Idaho, where she volunteered her time for multiple causes, worked in local theater and made deep community connections.

“I found here the ability to have a conversation with someone in the supermarket or in a car lot that had nothing to do with anything but the grapes we were buying or the car we were looking at,” Duke told The Spokesman-Review in 2005. “I let the word out that I preferred to be called Anna, and soon acquaintances were calling me Anna. It was as if I was seeking roots, and they were willing to give some.”

Duke’s agent, Mitchell Stubbs, said the actress died of sepsis from a ruptured intestine.

Mike Kennedy, Duke’s nephew and a former Coeur d’Alene city councilman, said Duke’s death was unexpected. He said he visited her over the weekend, and she was expected to recover.

Youngest Oscar winner at the time

Duke is most famous for her connection to the story of Helen Keller, “The Miracle Worker.” She starred as Keller with Anne Bancroft on Broadway in the highly-acclaimed theatrical version, and when she was 14 filmed the movie version. Her performance won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, making her at the time the youngest person to have won an Oscar. She later won an Emmy when she played Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan, in the 1979 TV movie version of the show.

But Duke’s career was long and diverse.

After her Oscar, she played both “identical cousins” in the hit series “The Patty Duke Show” from 1963 to 1966. She won three Emmys, including the Emmy for “The Miracle Worker,” for TV performances in the 1970s. She won Golden Globe awards for “The Miracle Worker” and for the 1969 film “Me, Natalie.” She appeared in dozens of TV movies and TV programs and many movies, including one that isn’t set for screen until next year.

She was a vocal advocate for people who had AIDS, and she was active in supporting the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1985, she was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild in a battle between liberals and conservatives. She was endorsed for the position by the liberal out-going president Ed Asner.

“She’s way too young to have left us,” said Ellen Travolta, another actress who made North Idaho her home.

The two women met in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. Travolta told Duke that she had seen one of Duke’s Broadway performances of “The Miracle Worker.” Travolta was in college at the time.

“She was so young and so gifted,” recalled Travolta. “She had a successful, rich, full career.”

Managers abused her as a child actor

Duke was born Anna Marie Duke and grew up in New York. Her father was an alcoholic, and her parents separated when she was 7. Eventually, her personal managers, John and Ethel Ross, persuaded her mother to allow her to move in with them. It was the Rosses who came up with the name “Patty.”

“One day they called me into their apartment and said, ‘Anna Marie is dead, you’re Patty now,’ ” Duke told TV Guide in 1985. She later revealed that they emotionally and sexually abused her and significantly limited her contact with her parents.

“Their famous phrase was, ‘If it wasn’t for us you’d be working in a five and dime,’ ” she told TV Guide.

Treatment helped her help others

She struggled between highs and lows until being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“The nature of my own mental illness allowed me to be completely unpredictable as an adult,” she told the syndicated columnist Seli Groves. “Everything fine one minute and the next minute screaming abusively at my children. I didn’t beat them to death; I didn’t set their beds on fire. But every time I tried to commit suicide, I was abusing them.”

After her diagnosis she finally received treatment for the condition. In the years following, she became passionate about helping people who have mental illness by sharing her experiences.

“She was the tiniest person in the room, but she had the biggest spirit. If there was a door there, or a topic nobody wanted to talk about, she was going to open the door or go directly to the topic,” Kennedy said. “That was that. It was a wonderful way to live.”

She told The Spokesman-Review in 1985 that her TV Guide interview about her traumatic childhood gave her courage to move forward with a memoir.

“If someone reads it and discovers that one person survived such a trauma and became a success, and it helps that person then it will have been worth it,” she said. “Otherwise, I don’t know what the purpose would be in telling the story.”

That autobiography, “Call Me Anna: The Autobiography of Patty Duke,” was published in 1987. Her follow-up, “A Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness,” was released in 1992.

She spoke at charity and other events about her struggles, including when she spoke to graduates of Kootenai County’s Mental Health Drug Court in 2014.

‘They were meant to be’

Duke was divorced three times before she married Michael Pearce, an Army drill sergeant from Wallace who was the son of a Silver Valley miner. They moved from Los Angeles to Coeur d’Alene in the 1990, which “breathed new life” into her, Kennedy said.

“He changed her life; they were meant to be,” Kennedy said.

Pearce and Duke met on the set of a made-for-TV movie in Fort Benning, Georgia, where he was a technical adviser on military topics for the movie. Duke played a woman who had joined the Army to get health benefits for her children. They recently celebrated their 30th anniversary.

“I have a normal life now,” Duke said in 1993, referring to her move to the Fort Grounds neighborhood with her husband. “That’s really all I ever wanted.”

Active locally as a volunteer, in theater

Duke volunteered for a number of local charities. She was part of an effort to build a new facility for the Coeur d’Alene Homes senior housing complex and featured in a calendar that was a Coeur d’Alene Library Foundation fundraiser. She also starred in local theater productions.

She enjoyed interacting with local residents, Kennedy said.

“She didn’t think of this as a place where she had to be secluded or hide out,” he said. “The people of North Idaho were wonderful when they met her, and they gave her her privacy, too.”

Many had read her autobiography.

With the book, “she blew open the taboo subject of mental illness,” Kennedy said. “She spoke about it with such candor and clarity. … She put it all out there. By telling her story, her goal was to make it OK for others tell theirs.”

People talked to her about their own mental health issues or the struggles of family members, Kennedy said. When they learned that Kennedy was related to Duke, they often told him how much her candor on the subject had helped them.

Kennedy is the son of Duke’s older sister. Duke was a surrogate grandmother to his children, known as “Uncle Annie” because of a nickname one of his kids had given her.

After moving to Idaho, Duke maintained her acting career, often by traveling to other locations. But in 1994, when approached by NBC to do a sitcom, she persuaded the network to film it in Spokane. She described herself as ecstatic about the location, in part, because it allowed her to take her then-5-year-old son to work with her. She played a former nurse who became a minister.

But the show suffered from poor ratings and only a few episodes of “Amazing Grace” aired.

‘She raised the game of everyone in the room’

In 2011, Duke directed “The Miracle Worker” for Spokane’s Interplayers Professional Theatre.

“I’m so glad she had a chance to direct a professional production of ‘The Miracle Worker.’ It was an immensely ambitious project for Interplayers,” said Reed McColm, former artistic director at Interplayers, now the Modern Theater. “She raised the game of everyone in the room. She was kind, but she was demanding. She demanded a lot of herself.”

McColm worked with Duke on other local productions, including “Gypsy.”

“She was a rare person. You don’t see that kind of talent being shared,” he said.

Laura Little, executive director of the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre, worked with Duke when Duke was part of the cast two years ago in “Traditions of Christmas,” which was produced by Little’s company.

“She was such a blessing to everyone in the cast,” said Little, who was also a neighbor of Duke’s.

Duke took time to talk to the children in the production about the importance of listening to the director.

“She took moments to teach them,” Little said. “And any adult that wanted to talk to her could. She was very approachable.”

Duke refused an offer to have a private dressing room, sharing a room with other actors.

“She didn’t want to be treated like a star,” Little said.

Duke sometimes talked about starting a school, to teach people what she knew about acting and about the movie industry.

“She wanted to share that,” Little said. “There are so many people who will be touched by her loss. She was very authentic.”

Jadd Davis, artistic director for the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre, said Duke didn’t act like a famous person.

“She had this magic ability to make you feel like the most important person in the world,” he said.

Davis met Duke at Laura Little’s house, where many rehearsals were held.

“We talked shop,” he said. “We talked like artists.”

Duke is survived by her husband and their son Kevin Pearce and sons from previous marriages, actors Mackenzie Astin and Sean Astin.

“This morning, our beloved wife, mother, grandmother, matriarch and the exquisite artist, humanitarian, and champion for mental health, Anna PATTY DUKE Pearce, closed her eyes, quieted her pain and ascended to a beautiful place,” Sean Astin posted on his Facebook page. “We celebrate the infinite love and compassion she shared through her work and throughout her life.”