Patty Duke has gone from an Oscar-winning child star to an actress in her 60s who often has difficulty finding work, despite all of her impressive career accomplishments, which include three Emmy Awards. It’s a harsh reality that many actresses face once they reach a certain age, but this age discrimination hasn’t stopped Duke.
In 2012, she was a guest star on the Lifetime TV series “Drop Dead Diva.” She played Rita Curtis on the show, which is a drama about a beautiful-but-vapid model wannabe named Deb who is reincarnated in the body of a plus-sized attorney named Jane Bingum (played by Brooke Elliott). Here is what Duke said about her “Drop Dead Diva” experience when she did a telephone conference call with journalists in June 2012.
How did you get the role in “Drop Dead Diva”?
You know, in my world you never know how the hell you got a role. This one came to me as an offer which makes you feel good because you’re not auditioning and after 55 years of doing this, I’m still auditioning mostly, but I didn’t have to for “Diva.” And I’m telling you, I had a ball.
It was like a vacation. First of all, where they shoot is glorious but I knew that I admired Brooke Elliott. But my god, the first day, it was all I could do to concentrate on my part because she was so fascinating and she had to memorize I don’t know must have been 15 pages of monologue. Anyway, she’s a brilliant. I expect to see a lot of production done by her not necessarily of acting but producing.
Your campaign for being Sheldon’s Memaw on “The Big Bang Theory” is going well, right?
Oh my God, would I would die to be Memaw. I would just die and I happen to mention it on Twitter and people picked it up and they’re rolling with it but I don’t know that the folks who do the hiring are interested.
Can you talk about working on “Drop Dead Diva”?
It was a hard role because I was discovering things about the role as we went along which makes it far more interesting than to just say okay, this is what it is and that’s that and let’s just say the jokes and get out of here. It was a wonderful part. There was not a person on that set who was not gracious and kind and great senses of humor led of course by Brooke.
Have you ever had an experience in real life with someone who you saw shoplifting or someone that you watched be nabbed for a crime?
Bottom line, I’m a chicken. I want to, I wanted to speak up and say oh that’s person’s doing something wrong but the part of me that says, “You’re 65 years old now. Shut up and get out of the way” seems to come to the fore more often.
There is a serious element of this that I do, and that is anything to do with a child. If I see a little maybe 18-month-old child getting kind of rickety on their legs standing in an aisle and there’s no parent around, I just have fits. I would go over and engage the child and try to remind the parent that whatever they’re looking for isn’t nearly as precious as what they got.
It’s great to see that you’re on Twitter. How is it? How are you enjoying it and how is it important to you to promote your roles?
Well, it’s again it’s so new to me, I’m astonished at the speed with which information is exchanged. My husband up, until the last role, he has been doing the typing part. But yes, now I’m getting a little jealous so I might just decide to take it on myself.
Oh, I’m good at texting. I even do capital letters now. About five people have tried to teach me to do the smiley faces. I don’t get it. I do not see it, I can’t get it but I’m not going to give up.
What do you think it is about “Drop Dead Diva” that fascinates so many viewers?
Brooke Elliott. She is a force. She invites you into the most private part of her psyche and you feel safe there. She is so extraordinary and there are so many others on that show that are just wonderful and fun. April just kills me. But for me, the anchor is Brooke.
What are your memories of working with William Schallert on “The Patty Duke Show”?
First of all, that he’s the consummate professional, and then he does a 180, and he acts like a baboon, the troops laughing and forging on but I have been blessed with him in my life. He has been there for me at every turn, good, bad or indifferent. And as a matter of fact, his computer was hacked recently. And I mean to call him and suddenly I get this email that his computer was hacked and well, now this is an excuse to call him. Of course he’s annoyed, but he’s remarkable.
And what do you consider your proudest career achievement?
Well, one would expect for me to say “The Miracle Worker.” I’ve had so many opportunities to ply my craft as it were. I have roles that I get that nobody even knew about. There’s one called “Birdbath” that was done on public television and Leonard Melfi wrote it. Honest to God, the whole time I was rehearsing it, I didn’t know what in God’s name it was about.
Can you talk about what appealed to you most in the beginning? When you first read this part, this quirky character like Rita, what drew you to her and how much fun was it?
I tell you, I had not had that kind of fun on a set in I don’t know, maybe 40 years. The people were so just gracious and kind, first of all. And Brooke, oh my lord, the first day that we worked she had about six single-spaced pages to say, and I was the defendant, and I was sitting there on my hands doing nothing while this woman is struggling to get through six pages. She’s brilliant. She’s very loving and honest to God, I was just thrilled to have the opportunity. You know, at my age we don’t work all that often, and I’m a workaholic, so I’ve been in withdrawal for quite some time now.
In what ways did this light-hearted role give you something different to sink your teeth into as an actress rather than the more serious parts like in “The Miracle Worker”?
You now know that laughter is crucial to me. To find that line between making you believe what I’m doing and the humor is a very delicate kind of job. I find comedy much harder than drama, but I’ll do both.
I needed a whole lot of energy because Brooke has so much energy. Oh my God, you can’t believe it. The woman is I would say mystical but she’s real. Oh, I had a ball. You know, it was hard for me to leave there. They were going to have to throw me out.
Do you have a favorite moment on the set of “Drop Dead Diva”?
Yes. Oddly enough, it was the scene where the focus was not on me, it was on Brooke and she had pages and pages and pages of lawyer stuff to say. And I felt, sitting at the defense table, that I was being transported by this creature who could not only remember all the words in a row but deliver them with such energy and intelligence. You know, I fell in love with her off the bat.
And in a career as extensive as yours, is there a role that you would love to tackle one day that you have not yet portrayed?
Yes and it’s funny you should ask. The timing is only perfect. All my life I have wanted to play Mary Lincoln. I have missed every production that was done because somebody else did it. I am now a year away or a year in the process of getting ready to play Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. First we’ll play it in the museum in Illinois and then — are you ready for this — at the Ford Theater. Can you stand it? I can’t stand it. It’s going to be a lot of work and I hope I can be half as good as I claim I’m going to be.
Out of everything you’ve done, what’s been your favorite?
Oh, that’s interesting to visit. It seems such an obvious answer but it isn’t. I did two series with the late Richard Crenna, and I could have stayed in that place in that mode with him for the next 500 years. His work ethic, his humor and his grace. He’s gone now seven years, I think, and I still miss him.
Is there anyone that you’d like to work with that you haven’t yet?
Everyone. I would feel that I’d died and went to heaven if I could get the part of Memaw on “The Big Bang Theory.” I’ve started joking about it on Twitter and now it’s become a rallying cry. Just to be in the same room and watch them do what they do would be a thrill.
Do you have any advice for people trying to get into acting?
Oh, my God. Definitely have a day or night job. We have to be realistic. It’s very hard to be realistic when your passion is so great and you know in your heart that you can do this play or whatever. There must be some reality that says this is one of the toughest industries you can imagine and I will keep working at it but I can’t put my entire self worth in it.
Can you talk about your memoir “Call Me Anna”?
You know, it was of course a momentous time in my life and I’m now amazed that I actually did it, that I actually told my most personal insane behavior in that book. I have been rewarded for 30 years now with people saying, “I was reading it.” And I realized, “Oh my God, that’s what I’m doing. Wow. It’s powerful stuff.”
On “Drop Dead Diva,” how much are you like Rita?
I think there’s quite a bit. I was going to say not much at all but I just realized that yes, there’s a lot of me in Rita. I don’t know that I would be as bold as Rita under the same circumstances. I had to go way inside and find that kind of brass.
Can you talk about working with Valerie Harper?
It was such fun. You know, we were never together. She was on the bench, and I was at the events table but at the coffee table. Se had a ball but I really felt the mile marker that we were at least in the same space doing what we do. She was so funny.
Your sons McKenzie and Sean are actors. What is your secret to why they turned out so well?
I’m not absolutely sure but I think that the trouble that we went through during my bipolar undiagnosed time, they opted to really step up to the plate, and it was incredibly awful for them. They just had a terrible childhood and somewhere they found that to forgive is divine and that’s how they treated me. See, I’m Miss Divine.
What was the most challenging part for you to play this role in “Drop Dead Diva”?
It was difficult for me to make how much of a decision to make to be like the dead sister and to show you just a little bit of the Rita that exists but for me it was complicated partially because I played the twins so many years ago.
Yes, I wanted this to be a little more realistic I guess. The twins, they were very good at what they did but each one was one note if you think about it. I had to take stuff away from one in order to have the order and this time I didn’t. This time I got to walk both sides of the street.
Do you still get a kick out of people who come up to you with their children and say, “This is my child. We watched the film together”?
I get a kick out of it and I get a bigger kick when they sing the song and they know all the words. People come up to me in airports and ladies rooms and they’ll break into song. It’s so much fun to be part of some larger culture, you know?
What were some memories you have from your childhood that really still resonate with you?
The actors who played the family members really not only saved me but brought me great joy during the day when we’d work because unfortunately it was not so swell at home so their intelligence, their love, their caring is just emblazoned into my heart.
Is there anything new that you learned about yourself after being on “Drop Dead Diva”?
Yes. I had been going through a time where I kind of was doubting that I really could do it anymore. Part of that is because we older ladies don’t get cast as often so what I learned was something I already knew but had allowed to get kind of hazy and that is if I put one foot in front of the other and do my job, I can be proud of the work I do. But there’s never enough work. We’re terrible all us old ladies; we’d love to be working.
Which do you enjoy doing more: TV, movies or theater?
I have to tell you theater. I find joy in some TV or movies and all that, but the bottom line is theater is where I want to be most of the time.
Do you enjoy doing drama more than comedy or does it really not matter as long as you’re doing something that you love?
It really doesn’t matter as long as I’m invited to the party.
You spoke earlier about that you learned not to put your self-worth into the industry. Can you speak more on what led you to this?
Oh, I didn’t say I learned that. I was saying that was my advice. Oh, gee, I learned that because if I don’t get a part, I get excuse me but pissed.
Aside from “Drop Dead Diva” and “The Big Bang Theory,” what other TV shows do you currently enjoy?
I love “Smash.” Mostly I’m a news watcher and a public TV watcher but I like all that skullduggery they’re doing at “Smash.”
And can you envision yourself going on “Smash”?
Maybe they’ll adopt me … You must get the gist. I just like to work. I don’t care where, I don’t care why. I just want to work.
For more info: “Drop Dead Diva”