NEW YORK — Forty years ago, she was Broadway's reigning princess. Now, after an admittedly self-imposed exile, Patty Duke has returned to the New York stage in "Oklahoma!"
"It was a real adrenaline rush," she giggles, recalling her first performance as Aunt Eller, on her Dec. 14 birthday. "My husband always gives me great birthdays, but this was something really special."
The role originally went to Andrea Martin, who then made plans to work in TV, on the coming sitcom based on "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
Duke says, "They called and said, 'Would you be insulted if we offer you the role when Andrea leaves?' I said, 'Insult me! Insult me!'
"I was really attracted to this part because there's nothing superficial about Eller," says Duke. "She takes it as it lays, and does the best she can with what she's got. I'm drawn to her sense of survivorship, and her sense of fun."
Her return to the stage was supported by her two sons, Sean and Mackenzie Astin, who are both established actors. (Sean is currently starring in "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.")
"They helped me understand how the business had changed, and how to live in the new system," Duke says.
She was reluctant, and even offended, at the idea of needing to audition for roles.
"I said to Sean, 'How many times do I need to prove myself?' And he said, 'Mom, every time.' "
Duke skyrocketed to stardom at the age of 12, portraying Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker," William Gibson's searing 1958 Broadway drama, which also starred Anne Bancroft. When Duke re-created the young Keller on film in 1962, she received an Academy Award.
This visibility led to "The Patty Duke Show," which ran from 1963-1966 on ABC and depicted Duke in dual roles as cousins with opposite personalities, one American, one British. More film and television roles followed over the next four decades.
But Duke long harbored a different dream. "During 'The Miracle Worker,' we performed out of town in theaters with an orchestra pit, so for some reason that had to do with unions and money, they had to hire an orchestra.
"Every night, they would play an overture of show tunes, and I would stand right behind the curtain in my Helen Keller costume, with my dirt all over it, and all over my hands and face, and sing along. I remember thinking, 'When I finish this, I'm going to do a musical. Who knew I'd have to wait 40 years!"
Standing a shade taller than 5 feet, the energetic actress did have a few brushes with music early on, performing opposite Jane Powell in a television version of "Meet Me in St. Louis" in 1959 and recording a few pop tunes during her days on the series. But she didn't return to the stage.
"I made my life choices in my late teens and early 20s, unfortunately, from the viewpoint of a manic depressive," she says candidly.
"So I thought, 'Spend all this money! Get married! Have babies!' I didn't pay attention to how far away I was getting from the theater. And by then, the fear of failure on stage was too great in me. I was trapped in the 'must have that money from another TV movie' mentality, supporting three children, three cars I thought I needed. And it went on like that until my 30s."
Duke confronted manic depression, and she wrote two books about it: "Call Me Anna" (1987) and "A Brilliant Madness" (1992) and starred in a 1990 TV movie about her life. As a result of her openness, she gets approached by others struggling with mental illnesses, whom she tries to guide to organizations that can help.
Though she garnered three Emmys for her TV roles and got to work opposite veteran performers such as George C. Scott, Helen Hayes, Fred Astaire, and Sir Laurence Olivier, Duke found herself longing to return to the stage.
She discovered the Spokane Civic Theatre close to the Idaho farm she shares with her husband of 17 years, firefighter Michael Pearce.
Duke says, "Actors should not feel they're being put out to pasture because they're doing regional theater. There are people out there who want to be in those audiences, sitting in those seats. And the actors at Spokane are a joy to work with. They're there because they want to be.
"But," she continues, "there came a time when I said to my family, 'I adore this farm, and the air and the sky, and it is hard not to notice the beauty of creation here, but I'm going nuts not working more!' "
On the "Oklahoma!" set, she keeps an eye out for the children and teens in the cast. Her concern stems from her own experience as a child star - being manipulated by managers who, as she detailed in her books, plied her with alcohol and prescription drugs and helped themselves to her earnings.
"I'm very happy to see that [the young actors] have something we didn't have back in the 'olden days.' There's a woman who is their chaperon, independent of their families, who takes care of all the issues relating to maintaining the proper decorum for the children, and the adults in relation to the children. And I make myself available to any of them, should they like to talk to me."
Allowing herself a moment to reflect, she confesses: "It was important to me to show that the Broadway success all those years ago was not a fluke. That I wasn't just a kid who could only tell one story. This role has given me that second chance."