Acting Out Anguish : Patty Duke Stars in ABC Movie Exploring Her Manic Depression

Times Staff Writer

Patty Duke has banished her demons.

“I want to get on with my life,” she says.

The Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress hopes to close the chapter on her past troubles by starring as herself in “Call Me Anna.” (Duke’s birth name is Anna Marie Duke).

The “ABC Sunday Night Movie” is based on her best-selling autobiography, written with Kenneth Turan, which graphically chronicled her manic-depressive mental illness, her bouts with alcohol and drugs and her mistreatment as a youngster at the hands of ruthless managers.


Thanks to the psychiatrist who diagnosed her problem and to medication for a chemical imbalance, Duke says, she has been mentally healthy for the last eight years. In person, the petite 43-year-old actress is warm, friendly, intelligent and in control. It’s hard to believe she had ridden an emotional roller coaster most of her life.

“I was very frightened when I wrote the book,” she says, lighting a cigarette. “You fear if you reveal yourself as having a mental illness, you are unemployable, you are an oddball. Plus, it’s just not you that you are exposing. But the boys (sons 19-year-old Sean and 17-year-old Mac) were very supportive.

“I was willing to take this (chance) because I felt so grateful that I was given back an extraordinary opportunity at life.”

It never entered Duke’s mind to do a TV movie based on her book. She says she was repulsed when she received a call from a producer. What changed her mind over the next two years was the tremendous feedback she received from the book, as well as from the seminars on manic depression she gives across the country.


“If the book did so much and if the talk shows I did to promote the book reached that many people, how can I stop now?”

Ari Meyers from “Kate & Allie” plays Duke between ages 11 and 15 and Jenny Robertson is Duke from 16 to the mid-20s. Duke plays herself as a mature woman.

The film opens with the adult Duke raging in the middle of the night, wailing and banging her head against the wall.

“When I am acting, I have this strange objectivity,” she says. “When I later watched that scene, subjectively I was slightly embarrassed when it started--as I was when I filmed it--that people should be seeing me this way.

“That lasted a split second. Then I noticed that people in the room were having a similar reaction. You almost wanted to look away, but couldn’t because it’s so astonishing what’s going on.”

Duke has little recollection of one of her low points--a long, incoherent acceptance speech 20 years ago when she won an Emmy Award for the drama “My Sweet Charlie.” She finally saw a film clip a few months ago.

Duke thinks she put the incident out of her mind because, “I am still mortified by my behavior. I am kind of glad I looked at it because the embarrassment is a little less, probably because it’s now couched with the explanation (of mental illness), but it’s been hanging out there for all of these years.. . .

“That was the first public moment that anyone knew there was a chink in this armor. I remember I said things like, ‘I don’t want the Emmy. I want to be a doctor,’ and that I had enrolled at UCLA. Whatever came into my head, that’s what came out of my mouth. I do know the faces of the people around me were filled with abject horror.”


“The pain so many people experienced because of my illness--I have been able to reconcile with most of them, thank goodness,” she said quietly.

When she received the Emmy, Duke hadn’t slept in three weeks. “That’s the chemical imbalance at work,” she says, “the depressive side no one saw except a doctor, and that was occasional because during the depressive end I would lie in bed and cry for weeks and months on end.”

Even during manic-depressive mood swings, Duke continued to work and give extraordinary performances. “I feel I was able to work, had to work, because it was one of the few areas in which this extraordinary energy had a place to function,” she says. “The downside of (the entertainment industry is that) it is one of the few places where abhorrent behavior was not only accepted, it was condoned. It was chalked up as eccentric actress behavior.”

Duke says she never wanted to quit the profession that caused her so much pain.

“It’s so far the best way I have found to communicate,” she says. “I have this incredible need to communicate. It wasn’t all horror. I hated a lot of it, but what I hated had almost nothing to do with the acting. I sit around and swap stories with old warhorses like myself and my stories are all wonderful. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

“Call Me Anna” airs Sunday from 9-11 p.m. on ABC.