TheaterMania Logo
Home link
Obituaries

Patty Duke, Broadway's Original Helen Keller, Dies at 69

Her performance in The Miracle Worker earned the child star an Academy Award in 1962.

Patty Duke as Aunt Eller in the 2002 Broadway revival of Oklahoma!
(© Joan Marcus)

Patty Duke, the Oscar-winning actress who originated the role of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, has died. She was 69.

"Anna 'Patty Duke' Pearce passed away this morning March 29, 2016 at 1:20 am," said one of her representatives, Mitchell Stubbs, in a statement. "Her cause of death was sepsis from a ruptured intestine. She was a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a friend, a mental health advocate and a cultural icon. She will be missed."

Duke made her Broadway debut in 1959 as Helen Keller in the original production of William Gibson's The Miracle Worker, starring opposite Anne Bancroft. She reprised the role for the 1962 film adaptation at the age of 16, receiving the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance, and returned to the play in 1979 for a TV version, playing Annie Sullivan opposite Melissa Gilbert's Helen Keller. In 2011, she directed a production of The Miracle Worker at Interplayers Theater in Spokane, Washington.

In 1963, Duke was given her own television series, The Patty Duke Show, created by Sidney Sheldon. On the show, Duke portrayed Patricia "Patty" Lane and her "identical cousin" from Scotland, Catherine "Cathy" Lane. In 1967, she took on the role of Neely O'Hara in Valley of the Dolls, followed by her 1969 performance in the film Me, Natalie, which earned her a Golden Globe Award.

Throughout her teenage years, Duke suffered from bipolar disorder and issues with substance abuse, which she later depicted in her 1987 memoir Call Me Anna. She became the first celebrity to go public with her bipolar disorder diagnosis and became an activist for numerous mental health causes, lobbying the United States Congress and partnering with the National Institute of Mental Health and National Alliance on Mental Illness to increase awareness.

The actress was last seen on Broadway in the 2002 revival of Oklahoma!, replacing Andrea Martin in the role of Aunt Eller.

She is survived by her fourth husband, Michael Pearce; her three children, Sean Astin, Mackenzie Astin, and Kevin Pearce; and three granddaughters by her eldest son Sean, actress Alexandra "Ali" Astin, and her sisters Elizabeth and Isabella.