SAG-AFTRA Mourns the Passing of Former SAG President Patty Duke

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SAG-AFTRA Mourns the Passing of Former SAG President Patty Duke

Los Angeles (March 29, 2016) — SAG-AFTRA mourns the passing of former Screen Actors Guild President Anna Patty Duke Pearce, better known as Patty Duke. Duke was elected president in 1985, becoming the second female president of the union. Duke was an Oscar and Emmy-winning actor, labor activist, and pioneering advocate for mental health issues. She was 69.

“It is a difficult time for the union, and Anna’s death is another devastating loss to our union family. She was a committed unionist and a champion for her fellow members,” said SAG-AFTRA Acting President Gabrielle Carteris. “I had the honor of working with Anna and she had an amazing energy, resolve and positive spirit. She will be sorely missed and our thoughts and prayers go out to her family.”

Long before celebrity memoirs became de rigueur, Duke published Call Me Anna (1987), a brave and detailed account of her struggles with bipolar disorder. She was born Anna Marie Duke, but was forced to call herself Patty by unscrupulous managers who were trying to mold her into the next Patty McCormack, a prominent child actor of the 1950s.  The identity split would come to define a lifelong challenge.

Duke was born on Dec. 14, 1946 in Elmhurst, Queens, to John and Frances Duke. Her parents separated when Patty was 6, and when she was 8 she came to the attention of talent managers John and Ethel Ross. The Rosses were successful in guiding the newly minted Patty Duke’s career, but proved to be exploitive business partners. Frances essentially turned her daughter over to the Rosses, who controlled every aspect of Patty’s life, even deciding when her mother could visit her. They shared very little of Patty’s earnings with her or her mother, and provided alcohol and prescription drugs to Patty beginning at age 13. When Duke was finally emancipated from the Rosses’ control, there was virtually no money left, in blatant violation of the Coogan Law designed to protect child performers.

Despite these challenges, Duke had remarkable success as an actor. She booked TV commercials, print ads, soap operas and was caught up in a game show scandal as a 12-year old contestant on The $64,000 Question, which it was later revealed had been rigged. Her big break came soon after, when she was cast as Helen Keller opposite Anne Bancroft in the Broadway production of The Miracle Worker in 1959, in which she gave an astonishing performance in a grueling role. The play was turned into a film in 1962, with Duke and Bancroft reprising their stage roles. Both women received Oscars for the film, with 16-year old Duke becoming the youngest recipient of a competitive Academy Award at the time. 

Duke parlayed her success into her own television program, The Patty Duke Show, in which she played identical cousins Patty and Catherine Lane. The show ran for three seasons, and included cast member William Schallert, who also would go on to become a Screen Actors Guild president, as her father.

In 1967, Duke appeared in her first adult role in the movie Valley of the Dolls. As with many child performers, the transition proved jolting for audiences, who were not prepared to see their beloved Patty Duke as an alcoholic, drug-addicted singing star. The film was a box-office success but did not have the intended effect on Duke’s career.

Duke returned to television for the 1970 TV movie My Sweet Charlie, in which she played a pregnant teen on the run. The performance garnered her first of three Emmy Awards. From that point on, Duke worked steadily, mostly in television, in starring and guest-starring roles. She headlined several sitcoms, including the short-lived Hail to the Chief, in which she portrayed the first female president of the United States. Duke won her second Emmy for Captains and the Kings in 1977, and her third for a production of The Miracle Worker, this time portraying teacher Annie Sullivan, with future SAG president Melissa Gilbert as Helen Keller.

After years of emotional turmoil and substance abuse, Duke’s bipolar disorder was diagnosed in 1982. Therapy and medication enabled Duke to stabilize her life, and she became a tireless advocate for educating the public about mental illness and removing the stigma from those who suffer from it. In addition to Call Me Anna, Duke also wrote Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness. In 2007, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of North Florida for her work in advancing awareness of mental health issues.

Her dedication to public service also extended to her fellow actors, and in 1985 Duke was elected president of Screen Actors Guild. During her tenure, she oversaw the establishment of the SAG Foundation; relocation of the Guild headquarters; creation of a low-budget motion picture agreement that offered incentives to productions that hired women, minorities, seniors and disabled performers; and payment of the one-billionth dollar in residuals to a SAG member. Duke also led a six-week animation strike and a three-week commercials contract strike, and fought the recurring threats of so-called “right-to-work” legislation and runaway production. In 1988, she resigned from the presidency in order to produce a TV movie of Call Me Anna, in which she starred as herself.

In later years, Duke continued intermittent work on stage and television, appearing in a San Francisco production of the musical Wicked and a 2011 episode of Hawaii Five-0.

Anna Patty Duke Pearce was married four times. She is survived by husband Michael Pearce; sons Sean and Mackenzie Astin, both actors, and Kevin Pearce; and three granddaughters.

Click here for a photo of Patty Duke at her 1985 Screen Actors Guild election. Photo credit: Ray Bengston/SAG-AFTRA Archives
Click here for a photo of Patty Duke at a 1987 animation strike rally. Photo credit: Ray Bengston/SAG-AFTRA Archives

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