Oscar- and Emmy-winning Patty Duke returns to series TV in the NBC family drama "Amazing Grace," which premieres for a six-week tryout Saturday. Duke also serves as co-executive producer.
Shot on location in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, the picturesque town where Duke lives, the series features her as Hannah Miller, a newly ordained minister and mother of two who is attempting to get her life back on track. After a nasty divorce, Miller, an emergency-room nurse, had become addicted to prescription drugs. A near-death experience prompted her to change her life.
Duke, 48, one of the most successful child stars of all time, won the 1962 best supporting actress Oscar for her role as Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker." From 1963 to 1966, she starred in her own popular ABC sitcom, "The Patty Duke Show." She's won Emmys for her memorable work in the TV movies "My Sweet Charlie," "Captains and the Kings" and the 1979 remake of "The Miracle Worker," in which she played Annie Sullivan to Melissa Gilbert's Keller.
She also starred in ABC's 1990 adaptation of her best-selling autobiography "Call Me Anna," in which she frankly discussed her struggles with manic depression.
Duke talked to Times Staff Writer Susan King by phone from her home about "Amazing Grace."
How did the series come about?
It seemed to me to happen awfully quickly. Before we moved here I couldn't get a job to save my life. As soon as we moved here, it was as if somebody had turned over a rock and said, "Isn't that Patty Duke? Let's put her in everything."
I had done a miniseries for NBC (in 1993). I had been doing a number of TV movies in a row. I had a lovely couple of years, thank God, of work, but it also took me away from home. After the miniseries did really well--it was called "A Matter of Justice"-- I went on to do my couple of movies that year, one of them being for NBC. While I was down (in Los Angeles) getting ready to do the one for NBC, Don Ohlmeyer (president, NBC West Coast) asked if I would come in and meet. About six months before (the meeting), someone brought me a treatment for what has become "Amazing Grace." I loved the character, but didn't want to do a series. I explained to (Ohlmeyer) I didn't want to do a TV series because NBC and other networks have afforded me a very nice living with these movies and I get a lot of time in between. I really didn't want to do a series and go away from home.
He said, "What would it take?" I very flippantly, I thought, said, "You would have to shoot it in my back yard." He said, "Where is your back yard?" And I told him. He said, "OK." I thought "OK" meant we would be moving on to the next topic. After the meeting, one of the other people who was in the meeting was literally jumping up and down. I said, "What happened in there?" And they said, "You are doing a pilot."
How did the series change from the first treatment you received?
It has proven to be a difficult road. The first thing we did was a two-hour version. None of us felt we had quite hit the mark we wanted to. I thought that would be the end of it. Mr. Ohlmeyer and his staff surprised me when they said they were willing to stick with it until we got it how we wanted it to be. They didn't pick us up for the fall season. I was very disappointed in that, but I survived. They picked us up for this short order.
We had a few scripts to start and wrote as we went along. We were allowed to really evolve . . . there is very real evolution in who the people are and where we are going.
Was it difficult to find a balance as far as the religious aspect of the series?
It was nerve-racking trying to find a line to walk that is not alienating to people who are nonbelievers or in an agnostic phase. It was very important to me and (NBC). My first job is to entertain. I think we do that. The fact that they were willing to take a chance in terms of potential religiosity, but certainly spirituality, I think, was a very tuned-in move on their part. In my way, we're saying to the American public, you can choose to look at this woman because she wears a collar as a religious symbol, or you can look at this woman whose job endows her with a uniform that gives her some entre into a variety of places.
Will she be helping people in each episode?
Not necessarily. Sometimes people are helping her. One of the areas that we explore by the time we get to episode six is her inexperience due to lack of practice in mothering. I felt in the first five episodes, if I was watching I would say, "Excuse me, doesn't this woman know where her children are while she is busy-bodying everybody else?" This woman is not so hot at this job, this mothering thing. The daughter was really the mother and there's a very powerful speech that the daughter has in the sixth episode, which struck quite close to home for me. During a lot of years when I wasn't a very well-oiled machine and mother, I learned only later that my children were parenting me.
Do people still come up to you and ask you about "The Patty Duke Show"?
Certainly they mention "The Patty Duke Show" or they recognize me from television, but the lion's share of the encounters I have now with strangers have to do with depressive disorders. That's been a fascinating aspect of having done the book. It also has brought me to a place where I have to be very disciplined. I can't just toss off an answer to someone; in order for them to come up to me in the first place they had to be in trouble or someone they know has to be in very deep pain. I am very conscious now of not only how I answer, but what I answer.
"Amazing Grace" premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. on NBC.