NINETEEN SIXTY THREE was quite the year for little (5-foot-0) Patty Duke. On April 8, the sixteen-year-old won a Best Supporting Actress award for playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, and five months later she became the youngest person at the time to star in a self-titled television show, “The Patty Duke Show.” But it wasn’t all a joyride, as she described in her 1987 autobiography, Call Me Anna. Duke said she enjoyed The Miracle Worker experience and cherished working with her co-star, Anne Bancroft, and her director, Arthur Penn. Her three years on “The Patty Duke Show” produced mostly misery, however, which she ascribed to the manipulation of her managers, John and Ethel Ross.
Duke was only twelve when she initiated her Helen Keller role in the Broadway version of The Miracle Worker, which ran from October of 1959 to July of 1961. The play earned excellent reviews and became a feature film starring Duke and Bancroft, the play’s original Ann Sullivan, in 1962. Directed by Penn, who’d also directed the play, the film earned dual Oscars for Duke (best supporting actress) and Bancroft (best actress). Duke thus became the youngest winner of a competitive Academy Award (six-year-old Shirley Temple had won an honorary Oscar in 1935), a record she held until ten-year-old Tatum O’Neal won a supporting actress Oscar for 1973’s Paper Moon.
The Miracle Worker made Duke famous and television executives believed she could carry a prime-time TV show. On “The Patty Duke Show,” she played lookalike cousins Patty and Cathy Lane, the first a boisterous, rock-and-rolling American, the second a prim and proper Brit. The actress said in her 1987 autobiography that she enjoyed her TV co-stars but became increasingly agitated with the controlling actions of her managers, whom she lived with. John and Ethel Ross wouldn’t even let her watch her own show, she wrote in Call Me Anna.
Duke appeared in a variety of Hollywood and TV movies after “The Patty Duke Show,” including 1967’s Valley of the Dolls and a 1979 update of The Miracle Worker in which she played Anne Sullivan with Melissa Gilbert as Helen Keller. In 1982 she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder; she then became a spokeswoman for mental health issues.