Patty Duke ruled the 1960s, winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress at 16 for The Miracle Worker and later starring in her eponymous sitcom. Starting her career at just 7, Duke has unique insight into the life of a child star, and the specific challenges they face as they grow up in the public eye. Duke opened up about those struggles in her memoir, Call Me Anna, which showed how she overcame her own difficult obstacles.
With the sad news that perhaps the most famous child star of all time, Shirley Temple, passed away Monday night, EW spoke with Duke to discuss Temple’s influence on her, her own on-set experiences, and why she thinks so many child stars struggle once they hit adulthood. Note: Twitter isn’t helping.
I don’t know a whole lot about Shirley Temple’s home life or background to get what we saw on film. Except, having been almost in her shoes I know that that little girl worked hours and hours and hours and I hope somebody treated her very kindly. Every mother wanted their daughter to be Shirley Temple. I had very straight hair and my mother used to drive me crazy curling my hair so that I could look like Shirley Temple. Didn’t work! [Laughs]
I know that the child labor laws have really progressed since her time. We have moved along, partially from the Screen Actors Guild [Duke was president of the guild from 1985 to 1988], and partially from the pressure we have put on the various states to make sure there are rules about the number of hours children can work. I started working at 7. My first job I was an extra in Somebody Up There Likes Me, which starred Paul Newman. My brother was also an extra, he was in charge of me. I just did what my brother told me to do and it was exciting – all of this equipment and people all around!
Over my career, I’ve worked with people spanning five generations, including Laurence Olivier, Gloria Vanderbilt and Richard Burton. What I remember is one little gesture of kindness from them [made a big difference to me]. I also remember paying really good attention to what they did. Stealing from the best! [Laughs] My opinion: Actors as a whole are very kind people, especially with child actors, and they give them a lot of love.
I used to say I’d never put a kid in show business, but then I learned to never say never. It worked for my son [Sean Astin]. It’s been a wonderful experience for him, working now for almost 30 years. He had parents who made sure they were paying attention to what was going on on set and just his basic good behavior. Child actors get very inflated because people want things from them and are paid special kind of attention, and then the kid turns 10 and that goes away. It’s difficult to adjust to that. But Sean has made that transition beautifully. Knowing what I know now, I hope I would not have missed the experience of these 60 years [by not starting my career young]. For me, there has been some ugly down times, some okay times, and there has been ecstasy.
The [former child stars] who are now in their early 20s break my heart. I’ve followed just as a viewer what has been happening with them and I wanted to reach out, and yet I was afraid that it might be misunderstood coming from someone who is completely open about mental illness; it might frighten them more. So I haven’t. I love them, I understand their pressures, and I can’t believe how grateful I am that my illness was caught before I took that last drink or that last whatever. I’m the lucky one. And I believe that they will find that too. It’s very hard to get help when everyone on Facebook and Twitter is giving their opinions and critiques. We like to say “We don’t pay any attention to any of that,” but that’s not true. We’re people. When somebody says something about you, it hurts. And who knows? Maybe in these cases it fuels the sickness even more.
As a child, I idolized Shirley the movie star. My favorite Shirley Temple movies were the ones that had her incredible singing and dancing and dimples, but then she’d do a scene that was serious and I would be sobbing for days. The mold had been broken. There was only one Shirley Temple. But look, she’ll live on: When we go to a restaurant, my grandchildren order a Shirley Temple.
–As told by Patty Duke