Q+A: Patty Duke Remembers 'The Patty Duke Show'

The Patty Duke Show was my favorite television show as a child. It debuted in 1963, but I didn't catch it until many years later, when Nick at Nite picked it up in reruns in the '80s. I was in the first grade in 1988, and I remember that the show would come on at 8 p.m., right before I went to bed every night.

Patty Lane (played by Duke) was like a high-school version of Lucy Ricardo, except she didn't have Ethel. She had something better: an identical cousin, Cathy (also played by Duke) from Scotland. The two girls would often switch places to wreak havoc on teachers, parents, and boys. In my mind, the series was as good as The Sopranos. But I was a little nervous to watch it again on DVD (the first season comes out today). How could the show possibly hold up to my memory of it? After all, Patty had stayed the same while I had evolved, finished grade school, graduated from college, and found new, more sophisticated TV interests.

A few weeks ago, at home sick with a cold, I popped the first episode into my DVD player. It wasn't one of my favorites—Patty falls in love with her French teacher—but I soon fell under the show's spell. I still loved the episode where Cathy got a flu shot by mistake because the doctor thought she was Patty, or when Patty opens her own baby-sitting service, even though she doesn't have any real babysitters to employ. The Patty Duke Show spoke to me as a kid because it was like a serialized version of The Parent Trap. But on second viewing, I also realized it was one of the first TV shows to feature a strong, single, opinionated young woman. You could say that it paved the way for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Murphy Brown, 30 Rock, even Hannah Montana.

Duke was 16 when the series was filmed, and as she chronicled in her autobiography, Call Me Anna, she shot the show during a dark time in her own life. She was living with her two managers, a married couple named John and Ethel Ross, who controlled every aspect of her life. In fact, Duke hasn't even seen more than a few episodes of the show herself. She spoke to Pop Vox from San Francisco, where she is now starring in a stage production of Wicked.

I'm so excited the show has finally come to DVD.
I'm so excited, too. I was 16 when I made the pilot. Then they made big changes, including moving to New York. We did that because there were no child-actor laws at time and I could work full time. In California, the day was three hours shorter. That came in handy with all the split screens we had to do. We were so primitive, and yet it worked.

What do you mean by primitive?
Now it's all digitized and everything moves with flexibility. Back then, you'd stand on this side and say your words. Then you'd stand on that side and say your words. Then a man I'd never met put the two together.

I've always wondered, how was there a laugh track on the show?
It's fake. We were a one-camera show instead of things like Two and a Half Men, where they do it like a play. I did a couple series like that later and I always had trouble. Do I play to the audience? Do I play for the camera? It always felt like a bastardization.

What is it hard to play two different characters?
One of the hardest things about doing the show was relating to the teenage people. I had lived a very isolated life with the managers of my career at the time. I had worked all my life, and when they would do one of the silly dances they would have to bring in teenagers to teach me.

How did you make Patty and Cathy different?
The best way that I found to do it was to eliminate certain behaviors for each character. For instance, Cathy never talks with her hands. Patty always talks with her hands. Cathy would never wear ruffles, because they weren't dignified. Patty would wear anything that was hot for a minute. But it was hard to get a whole person for each of them. Sidney Sheldon created the show and he asked me to spend a week with his wife and daughter and he observed me and this is what he came up with. Years later, when I got my bipolar diagnosis, I said, "You see, Sidney, how close you came."

The show was created just for you?
It was. It came on the heels on the heels of wining the Oscar for The Miracle Worker.

You also wore a different wig for each character?
Sometimes they used the front of my hair [as part of the wig] which makes it more real. Sometimes, after hours, the hair got relaxed. And you could see the separation and I always thought it looked like I got hit in the head with an ax.

How did you create Cathy's Scottish accent?
When we did the pilot, Cathy was from Glasgow, Scotland. I had a very specific and precise and, if I say so myself, quite good Scottish burgh. After the pilot, they decided they couldn't understand what the hell I was saying. So it was decided that Cathy should have a general Europe thing. All I did was speak English properly.

They cast one actress to play the back of your head, correct?
That poor girl. In the '70s or '80s, SNL did a spoof on Patty Duke's back. The girl was offended by it. It never occurred to me until then that even though we never saw her face, her persona was there. She was doing a job and fulfilling a very important positions and I guess she didn't like that people made fun of it. It was a thankless job. Can you imagine? "Diane, turn your face; we're seeing your face too much." She was very, very helpful.

I've read your autobiography. Although you seemed very happy onscreen, it was a dark time for you?
It was a very dark time for me. That show and the people who played the family members and crew really saved my life. Going to work was my lifeline. At any rate, I didn't begin to appreciate the show until many years later.

Have you watched it back?
I have never seen all of the episodes. Back in the day, when we were doing the show, I lived with those people who were my managers. They had strange rules about some things. One of the rules was that I was not allowed to watch my own show.

Why not?
I was not allowed to ask that question. The theory was that if I watched it, I'd become enamored with myself. The first time I saw The Patty Duke Show I was visiting my now-husband Mike in the Army while he was doing drill-sergeant stuff. I was staying at a hotel, and there it was. It was one of the moments where you go, "Do I watch?" And I put the DO NOT DISTURB sign on. God forbid the maid sees me watching The Patty Duke Show. The first thing I noticed was the stupid hair, and I looked fat for a kid. Then as the half-hair hour progressed, I realized we did good work.

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