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Patty Duke: Award-winning Actor, Champion of Mental Health Recovery



Yesterday, when I first learned of Patty Duke’s death (on Twitter, of all places), the first thing that went through my mind was the theme song from her hit TV show of the mid 1960s, The Patty Duke Show. If you are over 55 and grew up in America, it’s probably etched in your mind too… “Where Cathy adores a minuet, The Ballet Russes, and crepe suzette, our Patty loves to rock and roll, a hot dog makes her lose control — what a wild duet!”

In a podcast by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), Patty Duke told the interviewer that complete strangers would still approach her in airports and would sing the theme song – every word. I remember her show, which she starred in from ages 16 to 18, as the first high concept series on television. In it she plays dual lead roles as an ordinary American teen and her “identical cousin” from Scotland who comes to stay with her family in Brooklyn Heights, NY. The humor of this premise derives from the contrast between Patty and her cousin Cathy, mirror images of each other in appearance but total opposites in respect to personality.

The many big-name pop stars making cameo appearances on the show says something about the innocence and cultural cohesiveness of those times just a few years before Woodstock and Altamont: Fabian, Bobby Vinton, Frankie Avalon, Robert Goulet, and Frank Sinatra, to name a few. The episode in which Patty is tasked with finding a singer for her high school prom and comes up with Sammy Davis Jr. is a good example of the kind of pluck and impulsive, sometimes frenetic style displayed by the teen screwball Patty (imagine a blonde Lucille Ball at 16), in contrast to staid cousin Cathy. The delicious irony of the show’s conceit is that Patty Duke was really both characters, playing different sides of the same coin, a theme that would emerge later in her personal life with more devastating consequences.

Which brings me to the second thing that came to mind on hearing the news: Patty Duke’s years of public advocacy for better awareness, understanding and acceptance of mental illness. She was the first big star I remember to open up about her own struggles with a serious mental health condition, in her case bipolar disorder. Patty Duke wrote two autobiographical accounts of her experience with mental illness and the trials of child stardom, growing up with an alcoholic father and severely depressed mother. In the books she vividly describes her exploitation by a pair of abusive managers who become her surrogate parents and her serial marriages to older men until finding the “love of her life” in fourth husband Army drill Sergeant Michael Pearce.

By the time she headlined her own TV show at age 16, Patty Duke had already won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker and before that had played the same character on Broadway. Thirteen years later, she won an Emmy for her portrayal of Helen Keller’s teacher Annie Sullivan in a television version of the play. But for me, her greatest accomplishment was her years of tireless advocacy for mental health.

Patty Duke was the first major celebrity to normalize mental illness for millions of Americans. In the DBSA podcast she calls her mental health advocacy the second great passion of her life after her love for her husband Pearce. Her dream was to make bipolar disorder an “ordinary illness” that people no longer fear so much that they opt for secrecy instead of seeking treatment. “I want to be able to turn to my family member and say: ‘You know, maybe you need to see the doctor because maybe you need some medicine,’ instead of ‘hush, hush, she’s crazy.’”

These sentiments are so in tune with the mission and message of www.rtor.org I wish that Patty were still with us to continue the conversation here on these pages. Since she is not, I leave you with Patty’s own definition of mental health recovery from the podcast:

“It means to me life. Life now with the same deck of cards that everybody else gets and now I have the ability to do it right, wrong, make mistakes, screw up, be neurotic, just like anybody else.”
– Patty Duke (1946-2016)


And here is the theme song from The Patty Duke Show in its entirety for those who don’t already know the words by heart…


The Greenwich Chapter of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance is an RtoR Family-Endorsed Provider.  To find a local chapter for support groups near you visit dbsalliance.org 

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Jay Boll, Editor in Chief www.rtor.org

3 thoughts on “Patty Duke: Award-winning Actor, Champion of Mental Health Recovery

  1. Denise Vestuti, Resource Specialist says:

    Beautifully written piece Jay honoring Patty Duke – an inspiring mental health advocate.

  2. Jondi Whitis says:

    I really appreciated that, Jay. Well done and a wonderful reminder of what we’re all hoping to do in the healthcare and mental healthcare fields – normalize for the person and the world what is going on for them, and compassionately serve them in any way that is ours to do. Kudos!

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