TERRY DULLUM: The Dullum File — Remembering Patty Duke

It seems as if we’re losing a lot of entertainment industry folk this year. The latest, Academy Award-winning actress Patty Duke, who died early Tuesday morning at the age of 69.

I had the great pleasure of spending a few minutes of television time with her a couple of years ago.

Patty Duke won fame playing a young Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker” ― first on Broadway when she was just 12. The film version brought her an Oscar at 16.

The play and the movie are based on the true life story of a young woman who from birth could not see, hear or speak. Unresponsive and sometimes defiant as a child, she who would go on to become a world-famous author, teacher and lecturer.

The movie’s climatic scene has been burned into my memory.  In it, Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan ― played by Anne Bancroft ― repeatedly spells “w-a-t-e-r” with her finger into her student’s palm as water from an outdoor well pours over their hands. Suddenly Helen realizes that letters create words, words create sentences and sentences create ideas. And the world suddenly opens to her. Drama doesn’t get too much better.

In the 1960s, Patty turned to television comedy, becoming equally popular in “The Patty Duke Show” on ABC.  She played “identical cousins” Patty and Cathy. When I talked with her decades later, she seemed as confused as the rest of us as to just what identical cousins are.

My television conversation with her centered on a charming little public service announcement for the government in which she played older versions of the dual cousin characters as retirement age baby boomers. As I recall, it was complete with a new “theme song.” It’s purpose was to encourage retirement planning. Then as now, a daunting task.

Uncle Sam got his money’s worth when he hired Patty. In our little talk promoting the PSA, she was as warm, funny and as enthusiastic about the project as if it were a major motion picture.

I’m sure that it had occurred to her already, but when I suggested the older Patty and Cathy cousin characters would make for a good sitcom, great actress that she was, she reacted as if it were the best idea she had heard in ages, saying something like, “From your lips to God’s ear.”

Duke, who in real life suffered from bipolar disorder, also became a devoted and passionate spokesperson for mental illness issues and other causes.

She was something.

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