One of Sean Astin’s favorite memories of his mother, actress Patty Duke, is her water skiing during a trip to Mexico. “She, my brother Mackenzie and I were on our own — and we were terrified she’d die,” the Lord of the Rings star exclusively recalls to Closer. “But her bravery and gumption stirred something in me.”
Throughout her life, Patty, who was born Anna Marie Duke, never lacked courage. It allowed her to rise to greatness playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker and helped her survive many childhood traumas. It also compelled her to look for answers when bipolar disorder threatened her life and family and to selflessly share what she learned with others. “She worshipped the fact that her pain was a gateway to others’ healing,” Sean, 50, explains in Closer‘s latest issue, on newsstands now.
The Oscar-winning actress and star of TV’s The Patty Duke Show married The Addams Family’s John Astin in 1972 and tried to settle into family life with Sean, who arrived a year earlier, and John’s three sons from an earlier marriage. In 1973, they added another son, Mackenzie, to their home. But their life together wasn’t as idyllic as it looked. “I remembered the agony of lying in bed for months at a time in abject sadness,” recalled Patty, who suffered severe mood swings. “And I remembered the things I did when I was manic that were so destructive.”
It was hard on the boys, who tried to hide from their mother’s rages. “She could be strangely jealous of me and often verbally and emotionally abusive,” Sean admits. “Occasionally, physically abusive too.” At times, life felt overwhelming. “I was a truly loving mom, but I didn’t have the tools to do the job,” said Patty, who gulped tranquilizers looking for relief. As Sean says, “It was touch and go that she’d survive many times.”
The actress’ long undiagnosed mental illness probably ran in her family. Her mother, Frances, also suffered from severe depression while Patty’s father, John, was an alcoholic. In her best-selling 1987 memoir, Call Me Anna, Patty recalls being placed in the care of talent managers John and Ethel Ross at age 8. The couple renamed her Patty and found her acting work, but they controlled every aspect of her life, charged excessive fees for their services, and on two occasions fondled Patty inappropriately. “My response both times was to vomit,” she recalled.
Yet her career took off. Patty won accolades for playing Helen Keller on Broadway. In 1963, the film version of The Miracle Worker, in which Patty reprised the role of the blind and deaf child, won her an Oscar at age 16. The victory, however, was a little emptier when Patty’s managers blocked her mother from attending the ceremony.
That same year, the young actress became the star of The Patty Duke Show, in which she played identical cousins, Patty and Cathy. “She was a marvelous actress,” her costar William Schallert told Closer in 2016. “People fell in love with her because she was very lovable.”
But Patty longed to escape her bondage to her managers. She found her liberation in her 1965 marriage to Harry Falk, an assistant director she met on the set, but quickly discovered that she didn’t know how to function on her own. “I didn’t know how to be an adult,” said Patty, who began drinking heavily and taking Valium to counter her frequent mood swings. She briefly became anorexic during the four-year marriage and committed herself to a psychiatric hospital twice.
Patty never stopped searching for relief from her unpredictable moods. In 1982, she was finally diagnosed with manic depression — what is now known as bipolar disorder — and prescribed lithium, which helped her find balance. She began publicly speaking out about her experience with mental illness, which was unthinkable for a celebrity at the time. “She really was a pioneer,” Dr. Frederick Goodwin, who worked with the actress, told Closer. “Bipolar illness and lithium was very stigmatized. I guess she felt, ‘Look, I’m in the position to help. Why shouldn’t I?’”
Sadly, her marriage to John wouldn’t survive the decade. Sean would also discover through a DNA test that his biological father was Michael Tell, a man Patty had briefly married during a manic phase. But medication and therapy helped Patty to start healing the rift in her family. “My father, John, is the oft omitted central figure in her life. For much better and much worse, that 15-year marriage and the five boys that defined it occupy extraordinary space in her life,” Sean says. “She would try and turn chapters in her life, but the echoes were present until she passed.” Patty acknowledged this too. “I had to learn how to forgive others, but mostly, I had to learn how to forgive myself,” she said.
In 1986, she married Michael Pearce, an Army drill sergeant she met on a film set. The couple moved to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where they adopted a son named Kevin. It gave Patty a last chance to be the mother she always wanted to be. “There was powerful redemption for her as a mother with Kevin,” Sean says. She continued to act professionally, but Patty also got involved with community theater. “She was in love with my stepdad and happy,” Sean says. “She felt that the success she had and the sacrifices she made were finally redeemed there.”
The actress, who passed away in 2016 at age 69, felt blessed to have turned her life around. “I am one of the people who is tremendously grateful that the diagnosis was made and the treatment worked,” she said. “I have had a life with my husband that I could never have imagined when I was 6.”