Interview With Patty Duke

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San Fran Bay Guardian
By Louis Peitzman
July 14, 2009

Hollywood legend Patty Duke got an early start when she played Helen Keller in the play The Miracle Worker and its 1962 film adaptation, the latter for which she earned an Academy Award at the age of 16, a record at the time. Since then, she has kept herself busy with TV, stage, and film roles. But for many of us, Duke will always be Neely O’ Hara, the troubled starlet in 1967’s Valley of the Dolls. July 20, the Castro Theatre will host “Sparkle, Patty, Sparkle!”, a gala honoring Duke, complete with Valley screening, drag reenactments, and an interview conducted with Duke onstage by comic Bruce Vilanch. (That same day, the Castro will also screen The Miracle Worker at noon, for just $5 admission.) I spoke to Duke about Valley of the Dolls, her varied career, and how the industry has changed over time.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: In your 1987 autobiography Call Me Anna, you wrote about being so displeased with the finished product of Valley of the Dolls that you were unable to watch it. What’s changed since then?

Patty Duke: For so many years now, people have come up to me, at airports or department stores, and they go on and on about their love for Valley of the Dolls, and they wore me down. I finally had to embrace it and to realize that my critique of it was totally subjective. I enjoy it now.

SFBG: So your opinion of the movie has actually changed based on fan interactions?

PD: Fan interactions and my own growth, I hope.

SFBG: What Valley of the Dolls question are you tired of hearing?

PD: (laughs) Listen, it’s not as bad as The Patty Duke Show theme, where people ask me, does a hot dog make me lose control? What about Neely? Let’s see. Mostly people just sort of act out stuff. Of course it’s great fun in the early part of the movie, where I’m singing at some benefit and the beads are going to town by themselves on either of my breasts. (laughs) I’ll tell you the most welcome question. It’s, was Sharon Tate as nice as she was beautiful? And the answer is, she was a billion times nicer than she was exquisitely beautiful.

SFBG: Do you like Neely? Has your opinion of the character also changed over time?

PD: You know, I’ve always liked the character. It was my opinion of my acting that was negative. I identified with that character and I also thought, it was very lofty back then, that we were making a story about addiction. And we weren’t. I was silly and naïve. Of course, we were exploiting it.

SFBG: The movie is largely about fame. Over the course of your career, how has celebrity changed, and how have fan interactions to celebrities changed?

PD: Well, certainly with the advent of the Internet, there’s much more one-on-one, if you will. Fans don’t seem to be as hesitant as they were back in that day. They recognize more often that we are people first, and that’s been my experience. They treat me with respect and certainly enjoyment of my work. But they seem to know recognize that the character is one thing and the person is another.

SFBG: So most of your fan interactions have been positive over time?

PD: Oh my God, yes. Oh, I’ve been so lucky.

SFBG: You’ve beat the curse of many child actors in that you’ve continued to act throughout your life. What do you credit your survival as an actor to? How have you kept working?

PD: I want to say that I have always needed a job. My particular mental illness, which is bipolar disorder, one of the manifestations is over-spending. So I always had to be begging for the next job. I think once I get a job people recognize that I have a really solid work ethic. I like to be thought of as someone who is nice to have around.

SFBG: You mentioned that when you were making Valley of the Dolls, you thought it was going to be a realistic portrayal of addiction. Since then, have you seen movies or read books that better captured that struggle?

PD: Certainly. Certainly the ones that are semi-, quasi-biographies are very valuable to people who are struggling with a mental illness, because they get to see that someone else has walked that walk and come out on the other side. And certainly there are just reams and reams of books from the scientific community. But mostly what people like me want to find out prior to our diagnosis is, am I the only one? ‘Cause it feels like I’m the only one. And the good news-bad news is, you’re not the only one.

SFBG: In writing about yourself and your struggles, what did you learn?

PD: First of all, the writing itself helped clarify a lot for me, sort of put it in order. But mostly what I’ve gotten out of it is, again, from people who have read the book or heard about the book or someone has told them that this book that Patty Duke wrote talks about the same kinds of things you seem to be feeling, that’s where I’ve gotten my satisfaction. E-mails, where someone tells me that they were lost and in agony and someone gave them, usually a psychiatrist of a psychologist, gave them my book, and it helped them to see that there is hope and you can do it. What more can you ask than that?

SFBG: I wanted to talk a little bit about what you’re doing now as an actor in Wicked. How is stage acting different from screen acting? What is the benefit of live performance?

PD: Well, once I get past the terror of the first work, there is such a feeling of — I don’t know, it sounds so cliché — of being home. I started out in the theater, and you just can’t beat doing something and having 2,000 people out there giggle and laugh. I think it’s why we do what we do. Now I enjoy making movies very much. I enjoy the difference, which is that things are more intimate, and something can be done with the blink of an eye that would never be seen on a stage. But I do miss that interaction with the audience. I always think they keep me honest. Sometimes when you want to take that extra step, make something a little larger than it needs to be, they let you know. That instinctive thing. Either what should have gotten a laugh doesn’t, and when it does work, they let you know.

SFBG: You’re doing so many shows a week—

PD: Eight!

SFBG: And you have such a busy schedule. What do you do to unwind when you do have downtime?

PD: You know, I do very little. I try to rest a lot. My husband and I love driving around, certainly San Francisco itself, but also Oakland and the other places. We like to see how other people live. So there’s that. And of course, the greatest joy next to my husband, is on my day off I get to watch Jeopardy!

SFBG: Other than driving around, what do you like most about the Bay Area?

PD: Well, first the people. People in San Francisco are very nice, at least to us outsiders. And I just love the architecture. I could just ride for hours looking at each building and marveling at how all of this developed from disaster.

SFBG: With the gala fast approaching, what are you looking forward to most about the event?

PD: I’m looking forward to, of course, again, the people. But I’m also very much looking forward to Bruce [Vilanch]. I tell you, Bruce’s reputation precedes him. (laughs) I feel a tiny bit intimidated and greatly expectant of a good time.

SFBG: Going back to Neely O’Hara for one final question. If she were alive today, with the Internet and the paparazzi, do you think she would do better or do you think she’d do worse?

PD: I would like to think she’d do better. If she was going to avail herself of the Internet, there’s wonderful and important information on there for the types of struggles she was having. I’d also like to think that with age she was able to see the larger picture. Because Neely was very much about Neely.

“Sparkle, Patty, Sparkle!”
Mon/20, 8 p.m., $30
Castro Theatre
429 Castro, SF
(415) 621-6120

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