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Patty Duke's Third Act

By Melissa Luck, KXLY4 Executive Producer , melissal@kxly.com
Published On: Feb 24 2013 10:57:37 PM CST
Patty and Melissa
COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho -

Winning an Oscar is a dream for every actor who makes a movie. For one woman in North Idaho, it was a reality 50 years ago. And, as she enters her third act, the woman the world knows as Patty Duke is looking back on that historic night in 1963.

"The feeling I had was being in awe," she says, remembering that magical Hollywood night. "Bette Davis was there, Gregory Peck..."

In the midst of those legends sat a 16-year old girl, given name Anna Duke, who was about to become one herself. She was up against Hollywood heavy hitters like Angela Lansbury. A novelty because of her young age, Duke was an icon already because of the role for which she was nominated.

"The role itself - the dominating spirit of Hellen Keller as a child," Duke says, describing her role in The Miracle Worker. "The rage that is inside, because she's trapped in there. She exists. She's not just deaf, dumb and blind - there's a soul in there!"

Her performance made Oscar history. When Oscar winner George Chikiris called her name, Duke became the youngest winner in Oscar history.

"If I had known then, I would have thought it was an out of body experience," Duke recalls. "I remember that I got all flushed. From my knees to the top of my head, it was all flushed and feverish."

She's since watched the clip of that historic win and describes her younger self.

"I love the emotion I see in that little girl, I hate the hair - and, I hate the dress."

When she finally got on stage, she kept it short and sweet. Her acceptance speech? A simple "thank you."

"I've been told my acceptance speech is among the most brief... in the history of the academy. 

It was the end of a brilliant first act for a child actor turned rising star. But, when you win an Oscar at 16, what in the world do you do for an encore?

For Duke, it was television. Her next big role was the TV show which bore her name. She played the two starring roles on The Patty Duke Show.

"A lot of people thought it was a shame that I went to TV, but when you're 16 in 1960, there aren't many other places to go. So, we went into the tv series, that led into the television movies I did and I found a home there."

She was always busy, always working. But, the second act was marked more by darkness than success. Starting at age 19, Duke began suffering from extreme highs and violent lows. Though she wasn't diagnosed until she was 35, Duke lived with the shame of manic depression.

Before she got help, that disease brought out a dark side and led her to damage an old friend.

"There were times when I would get very violent. And, I was in an argument with my then-husband," she recalls. "Oscar was there and I was in a rage - and, I threw it. Not at him, but close by. And, of course, Oscar wound up in pieces. And, the shame... God forbid, anyone would ask me about Oscar."

In 1987, Duke gained the strength to share her diagnosis with the world. She wrote a book, detailing her struggle with mental illness; it finally lifted the shame.

"It was the first time a celebrity had come forward about it. It was, for me, a breakthrough."

She still spreads that message today, advocating for mental health and speaking to groups large and small. She's doing her part to erase the stigma of mental illness. And, the light has come back for act three. She's found life and love in Coeur d'Alene.

"When people say, 'you're just here in the summer, right?' I'm very offended! I go through the winters here just like everybody else."

Duke met Silver Valley native Mike Pearce on a movie set years ago. He was a real-life drill sergeant, tasked with preparing movie star Patty for a role. They fell in love, of course, and when it was time for a break from Hollywood, he brought his new wife back home to Idaho.

"It was supposed to be for a few years," she says. They've been here now for nearly 24.

Idaho is home now, but she does miss the work that comes more easily when you're close to Hollywood. You don't just give up being a movie star, after all.

"I would like to be doing anything," she says. "The gift doesn't die. It just takes different forms. The times I've been asked to play a grandma, I'm thrilled to get the job."

She's a real-life grandma, too. She has grandchildren in Idaho and in California. Her children have done very well for themselves. Her son, Sean Astin, is a bonafide star himself. And, she always has the companionship of an old friend named Oscar.

"He's out here now because you're here," she says of that statue she won so many years ago. "Normally he's in the kitchen, holding up the cookbooks. Next to the fish tank!"

Even after 50 years, he still looks good. He's whole again, thanks to the Academy.

"I have no idea if they put the pieces back together again, but its analogous my own journey. I was very broken. And it took much longer than it did for Oscar to make me whole again. That's what symbol he is to me."

It's the symbol of an historic career and the reasons she's now hearing from fans around the world.

"You know what's funny? None of them seem like strangers. When they write, I try to twitter back."

Yep, the great Patty Duke is on Twitter. She reaches out now to 10,000 fans who adore her, 140 characters at a time.

"That makes me feel so good!"

Talk about a career, coming full circle. This year's winners can only hope to sustain such adulation five decades after taking Oscar home.

"They come from Australia, Austria - how do they even know I exist?" she asks.

Then, to Oscar, with whom she's been through so much, she says simply, "This could have something to do with it. You're a good guy."

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