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QueensLine: Elmhurst-born Patty Duke overcame personal problems

Anna Marie Duke was born Dec. 14, 1946, in Elmhurst. Known by her stage name, Patty Duke, for a half century she remains one of the most recognizable personalities on stage and screen.

Her father was an alcoholic and her mother an undiagnosed manic depressive. Her childhood was marred by her parents fighting. Although older brother Raymond’s interest in acting caught the attention of agents John and Ethel Ross, it would be young Anna who became their client.

Although only 8, the Rosses recognized Anna’s obvious talent. They took over her life — even changing her name, telling her, “Anna Marie is dead. You’re Patty now.”

She started in commercials and had a small role in a soap opera. She first got national exposure at age 12 by winning $32,000 on the quiz show “The $64,000 Question.”

Anna, now Patty, was 12 when stardom came. Playing the role of Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker,” she won the Theatre World Award for Best Debut Performance for the 1959-60 Broadway season. She was the youngest actress at the time to have her name above the marquee title on Broadway.

In 1962, she recreated her role on film and at 16 became the youngest person — at the time — ever to win an Oscar and the youngest ever, at 16, to have a TV series bearing her name: “The Patty Duke Show”. From 1963-66, Duke starred in that series, in which she played two parts: a “normal American teenager” and the teen’s identical cousin from England.

Years later, in a biography, Duke revealed she hated her life in these years and lived as a virtual prisoner in the hands of the Rosses. As an adult, she discovered they had squandered most of her earnings. The abuse at their hands would leave a mark on her for decades.

To escape, she left the show at age 18 when she got married. A few years later, her marriage fell apart. She led a troubled life, becoming anorexic, drinking heavily and overdosing a number of times. She would go on to have three more marriages.

Yet it is amazing that, despite suffering under the stress of these personal ordeals, she not only made the difficult transition from child to adult actress, but went on to triumph as a singer and later as an award-winning artist of stage and screen.

Duke’s successful singing career garnered several Top 40 hits such as “Don’t Just Stand There” in 1965 and “Dona Dona” in 1968.

In 1967, she accepted a challenging role in the movie “Valley of the Dolls.” Audiences and critics had a difficult time accepting the all-American teenager as an alcoholic, drug-addicted singing star. Her career hung on a balance.

Duke ultimately triumphed, going on to win a Golden Globe for the film “Me, Natalie” in 1969 — which was also Al Pacino’s acting debut — and winning a series of Emmys with “My Sweet Charlie” (1970), “Captains and the Kings” (1977) and “The Miracle Worker” (1980), where she played Helen Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan.

In 1982, Duke was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and became a spokeswoman for advancing awareness of mental health issues. She was elected president of the Screen Actor’s Guild in 1985.

She received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2004 for her contributions to the motion picture industry. In December 2007, Duke was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of North Florida for her work.

Notable quote: “Actors take risks all the time. We put ourselves on the line. It is creative to be able to interpret someone’s words and breathe life into them.”

For more information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit astorialic.org.

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