Good-bye, Patty Duke – My Children Say Thanks for the Laughs and Your Mental Health Advocacy

My six kids love The Patty Duke Show. Years ago on our weekly outing to the public library, I saw the first season on the DVD shelf and thought “why not.” 

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With fond memories of watching re-runs 40+ summers ago in a friend’s cool basement, I checked it out – hoping my children would give the black-and-white tv classic a try. 

After all, they thoroughly enjoyed The Parent Trap – the original 1961 version with Hayley Mills playing both twins and the 1998 remake with Lindsay Lohan. 

Following Duke’s 1962 Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for playing a young Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, Sidney Sheldon wanted to create a comedy series just for her. So he invited Duke to spend a week with his family and soon noticed her two distinct personalities.

With Sheldon convinced of Duke’s acting range, his concept was born. The lead characters Patty and Cathy Lane would be look-alike cousins – but a story of contrasts, like Duke experienced for many years in real  life.

Interestingly, this was well before her bipolar diagnosis – which she publicly disclosed in her 1987 autobiography Call Me Anna. In it she also wrote candidly about attempting suicide and self-medicating with alcohol and drugs.

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From 1963 to 1966 in one of television’s most demanding roles for a child star, Duke played the impulsive, live-in-the-moment teenager Patty, who tried again and again to pull one over on her level-headed parents. She also played her identical yet prim-and-proper cousin Cathy, who carefully considered the consequences of everyone’s actions.

Hours of amusement for my children.

Dozens of teachable moments for me.

Soon Patty’s and Cathy’s responses became highly predictable – which all of my kids saw coming before they happened on screen. I could have lectured about appropriate behaviors for hours and not had the same effect.

Hands down, their favorite episode was “The Genius.” A computer glitch leaves everyone – except a dishonest Patty – thinking that she has an incredibly high IQ, in spite of a lackluster academic history. Eventually the truth surfaces but not before Patty soaks up the praise and preferential treatment from unsuspecting admirers.

Almost immediately, my kids pointed their fingers at each other for reacting much of the same thing.

I just smiled without saying a word.

In other words, the characters fit like a comfortable pair of shoes – even more so after I told them about Duke’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder. For the last 30 years of her life, she played a much more serious role – and certainly less glamorous – as a vocal and passionate mental health advocate.  In doing do, she simply told the truth of being a survivor.

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“She’s like us,” said one of my sons. 

Over the next three weeks, we laughed as a family. The reason was clear. Patty’s shenanigans mirrored their own. Sometimes she followed cousin Cathy’s advice. More often than not, she didn’t and got caught in another crazy act of deception. By the end of the 25-minute episodes, she came clean and told the truth.

Ironically, Duke’s managers refused to let her watch the show when it aired. Some 15 years ago while waiting for her military husband, she watched her initial episode – after flipping through channels and hearing the iconic theme song.

“The first thing I thought was what is that ugly hair? They actually let me go out like that? But by the end of the show, I realized it did have value. Patty was doing naughty things, but she had respect for her parents.”

In turn, they loved her unconditionally – while maintaining their expectations.

That testament of family values is the reason for initially watching the show with  my children – and many times again in the future on our own DVD collection.  I encourage you to take a look.

RIP Anna Marie “Patty” Duke Pearce. Glad my children met you.  DCP


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2 thoughts on “Good-bye, Patty Duke – My Children Say Thanks for the Laughs and Your Mental Health Advocacy

  1. I had the pleasure of working with Anna (Patty) in a play in 2003. I was in charge of the child actors during a large portion of the play where they were downstairs in the green room. For fun, I went on ebay and found the Patty Duke board game for the kids to play, thinking it would be fun since they were working with Anna, and as a way for them to learn that she had been an actor for a long time. I found out that Anna had never even seen the game before. I couldn’t believe that the adults in her life had kept so much from her. Sad.

    Anna and I bonded over being adoptive mothers. I have always admired her courageous struggle and brutal honesty regarding her mental illness. She had a huge impact of bringing mental illness into public conversation and advocacy. I think of her often as my son battles his inner demons. I will miss her presence in the mental health world.

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