UPDATE with more information throughout.
Patty Duke, seared in popular memory as Helen Keller opposite the Annie Sullivan of Anne Bancroft in both the 1959 Broadway premiere of The Miracle Worker and in Arthur Penn’s 1962 film, has died. Duke, whose real name was Anna Pearce, also enchanted a generation of 1960s television viewers in her dual portrayal of look-alike cousins — the cheeky, all-American teen Patty and the sober, formal Cathy, on The Patty Duke Show, which ran on ABC for 104 episodes, beginning in 1963.
“This morning, our beloved mother, wife, 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,” her family said in a statement. “We celebrate the infinite love and compassion she shared through her work and throughout her life.”
Duke won an Oscar as best supporting actress for The Miracle Worker — the youngest actress at the time to be so honored — and served two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild, from 1985 to 1988.
“She was a great star and a great person,” Ed Asner, who preceded Duke as SAG president, told Deadline. “I will miss her existence here on this earth.” In 1986, Duke led the guild through contentious negotiations for a new film and TV contract. There were threats of a strike — the membership even voted to authorize one — but in the end the talks were settled without a work stoppage. “Those were wild times and she acquitted herself admirably,” Asner said. “Unfortunately, things went downhill after that.”
Born Anna Marie Duke in Queens, New York, she was 12 years old and already an experienced television actor when she was cast in William Gibson’s play, also directed by Penn. She starred as the deaf and blind child whose Southern family has given up on her until the arrival of Annie Sullivan, near blind herself, who struggles to tame Helen and finally, triumphantly, gives her the gift of language. (Helen Keller, who died in 1968, would go on to global acclaim as much more than a symbol of the human capacity for overcoming devastating circumstances, but as a fierce advocate for humanity.)
“As Helen, little Miss Duke is altogether superb — a plain, sullen, explosive, miniature monster whose destructive behavior makes sympathy for her afflictions impossible,” wrote critic Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times, “but whose independence and vitality are nevertheless admirable…Although it is necessarily wordless, it is completely articulate.”
Duke played Annie Sullivan in NBC’s 1979 remake of the film with Melissa Gilbert playing Helen. Duke won an Emmy for her performance.
Having survived a horrendous childhood that included abuse at the hands of her managers, Duke managed to move effortlessly from Broadway stardom to film and television. In 1961 she played opposite Laurence Olivier and George C. Scott in The Power and the Glory and, two years later, became Cathy and Patty Lane in her self-named sitcom. The Patty Duke Show rode a wave of teen-centered movies and television shows that came in the wake of the huge success of Bye Bye Birdie. The show featured Duke and her New York family joined by her “identical cousin,” the Europe-educated daughter of sophisticates, as the show’s memorable Sid Ramin and Bob Wells theme song related: “Where Cathy adores a minuet/the Ballets Russe/And crepes Suzette/Our Patty loves to rock ‘n roll/A hot dog makes her lose control/What a wild duet!”
Following the show’s cancelation, Duke joined the cast of the druggy downer Valley of the Dolls, a choice her fans found hard to accept. At the same time, she recorded two hit singles, “Don’t Just Stand There” and “Say Something Funny.”
Duke’s other film and TV roles include Me, Natalie, My Sweet Charlie and Prelude To A Kiss. She returned briefly to Broadway in 2002, replacing Andrea Martin as Auntie Eller in a revival of Oklahoma!.
Duke married four times, including to John Astin from 1972 to 1985 and Michael Pearce, to whom she had been married since 1986. Diagnosed in the early 1980s with bipolar disorder, Duke spent much of her later life as an advocate for education and treatment concerning mental health issues. She is survived by her husband and children Sean Astin, Mackenzie Astin and Kevin Pearce.