It was a playwright (and a director) who brought them together the first time. In 1957, William Gibson (1914-2008) had written The Miracle Worker, a Playhouse 90television drama about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. With Burl Ives, Teresa Wright and Patty McCormack in the leads, itwas a hit and two years later, he expanded it for the stage. Anne Bancroft was given the role of Annie Sullivan.
She had costarred with Henry Fonda as Gittel Mosca in the two-hander Two for the Seesawa year earlier, winning a Tony Award. Along with director Arthur Penn, Gibson brought together Bancroft and Patty Duke. The play was a smash hit, winning Tony Awards for all three. He adapted the play for the film version, with both Bancroft and Duke being honored with Oscars for their performances. Bancroft was playing Mother Courage on Broadway, so Joan Crawford famously accepted the award for her.
Gibson and Bancroft
Gibson and Bancroft were devoted to one another. She would ultimately do four of his plays. In 1968, she played Anne Hathaway in A Cry of Players.In one of his earliest roles, Frank Langella played Will Shakespeare (1968). Bancroft also played Golda Meir in Gibson’s solo play, Golda, (revised as Golda’s Balcony,which starred Guthrie alumnus, Tovah Feldschuh in the title role).
His other plays include Dinny and the Witches, Goodly Creaturesand the libretto for Golden Boy, a musical based on Clifford Odets’ play, (the play and a musical both ripe for revival). Twenty years after The Miracle Worker, Gibson continued the story with Monday After the Miracle. Its short Broadway engagement featured Jane Alexander, Karen Allen and William Converse-Roberts in the story of Keller’s days at Radcliffe, and Sullivan’s ill-fated marriage to John Macy. A TV version starred Roma Downey, Moira Kelly and Billy Campbell.
Gibson was a disciple of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, publishing a book about his experiences. His novel, The Cobwebwas made into an MGM film, directed by Vincente Minnelli. Gibson’s wife, Margaret Brenman-Gibson, was a therapist and the biographer of Clifford Odets. She predeceased him. They had two sons. The Miracle Workerwill always be a beloved story and is Gibson’s legacy.
An Italian Girl from the Bronx
Anne Bancroft (1931-2005) is one of the most honored and respected actresses of the 20thCentury. Under the name Anne Marno, her early career was in live television, but in 1952 she played a lounge singer opposite Marilyn Monroe and Richard Widmark in the thriller, Don’t Bother to Knock(remade as The Hand that Rocks the Cradle). Bancroft continued working in film and television, but her breakout role was that of Gittel Mosca.
As previously mentioned, Bancroft would go on to star in The Miracle Worker(Tony Award) and Mother Courage. She appeared opposite Jason Robards in The Devilsand starred as Regina Giddens in Mike Nichols’ Lincoln Center revival of The Little Foxes. While she would frequently return to the stage, Bancroft was destined to become a movie star!
Here’s to You, Mrs. Robinson
When Mike Nichols was casting for his production of The Graduate, based on Charles Webb’s novel in 1967, Jeanne Moreau was his top choice for the role of the seductive and amorous Mrs. Robinson. Among others considered were Doris Day, Geraldine Page, Judy Garland, Anouk Aimee, Simone Signoret, Anne Baxter and Ava Gardner. However, Bancroft won the part opposite Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross (she was less than a decade older than either of them), receiving an Oscar nomination. At the time of its release, the film was praised for being hip and edgy. Sadly, it hasn’t aged well. Seen today, the characters are merely arrogant, bored and self-absorbed, treating each other maliciously.
Mrs. Mel Brooks
Bancroft had a short-lived marriage in the early 1950s, but in 1964, she met comedy writer and director Mel Brooks when they both appeared on a talk show. Following their marriage, they remained together until her death. Their son, Max, is the author of the popular World War Zseries. With Brooks, she had an uncredited role in Blazing Saddles, played herself in Silent Movieand the two starred in the remake of To Be or Not to Be. She also appeared in Brooks’ adaptation of The Elephant Man.
Other film credits include The Turning Point, Agnes of God, Torch Song Trilogy, Honeymoon in Vegas, Point of No Return, 84 Charing Cross Road andGreat Expectations. She wrote and directed Fatso, costarring with Dom DeLuise, and was the original choice for the role of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest(Faye Dunaway got the part). In addition to two Tony Awards and an Oscar, Bancroft won an Emmy, the Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award, as well as a star on the Walk of Fame. She’s also been honored by the American Theater Hall of Fame.
Anne Bancroft passed on from uterine cancer. A very private person, her grave features a simple marble weeping angel.
There are several biographies about Bancroft. William Holtzman’s Seesaw: A Dual Biography of Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks; Anne Bancroft: A Lifeby Douglas K. Daniel and Anne Bancroft: The Life andWorkby Peter Shelley. As research for this article, I read the Shelley book, which Bancroft herself would have stopped from publication. The author seems more interested in her clothes, hair, make-up and styling than in analyzing her acting technique. She is worthy of a far worthier book than this one.
Call Her Anna
Speaking of biographies, prior to her death at 69, Patty Duke (1946-2016) conducted a series of interviews with her good friend, William J. Jankowski. In them, she not only spoke of the ups and downs of her extraordinary career, but about people she had met and truly admired, from Helen Hayes and Richard Crenna, to Helen Keller, Garth Brooks and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This book, In the Presence of Greatness, is a must, because she speaks humbly and is often awed by these remarkable people.
Anna Marie Duke was born and raised in Queens, New York. Her early childhood was troubled, and when she was eight, her mother passed her off to John and Ethel Ross, talent agents, who first trained Duke specifically for the role of Helen Keller. Changing her name from Anna Marie to Patty, partly because of the success that Patty McCormack had following the stage and film version of The Bad Seed, Duke was unethically treated, sometimes relying on prescription drugs and alcohol to boost her self-esteem. This treatment would later become a factor when she was diagnosed as bipolar.
She appeared in The Goddess(film) and Meet Me in St. Louis (TV). Prior to The Miracle Worker, she appeared on the $64,000 Questionfame show, winning half that amount. However, the game had been rigged, so she testified before a Congressional grand jury because she’d been coached.
The Miracle Worker and Identical Cousins
Patty Duke had been trained well and a run-of-the-play contract kept her in the role of Helen Keller for almost two years, earning her above the title status. For the film version, she became the youngest actress to win the Academy Award up to that time (Tatum O’Neal and Anna Paquin later broke that record). This led to television stardom with The Patty Duke Show. Sidney Sheldon (I Dream of Jeannie, The Brady Bunch) noticed that Duke had a two-sided personality, so he created a series for her. She would play Patty Lane, a typical American teenager from Brooklyn Heights, as well as her Scottish cousin, Cathy Lane. Both girls’ fathers were identical twin brothers played by William Schallert. Jean Byron, Paul O’Keefe, Eddie Applegate and John Spencer also appeared on the popular series, which lasted three seasons.
Marriage and Acting Challenges
Duke broke free of her acting coaches and the first adult role she accepted was that of Neely O’Hara in the film version of Jacqueline Susann’s bestselling novel, Valley of the Dolls. Neely is based on Judy Garland (who was also cast in the film, only to be fired). Her addictions and notorious behavior are very much a part of the story. The film costars Barbara Parkins and the late Sharon Tate. Today it’s seen as a trashy camp comedy (similar to Mommie Dearest), as it vaguely resembles Susann’s novel, which was actually a thinly disguised biography.
Meanwhile, she’d met and married director Harry Falk, 14 years her senior. The marriage lasted two years, as Duke’s bipolar disorder became significantly a part of her life. She would later say that during this time, the film she was most proud of was Me, Natalie, about a young woman growing up in Greenwich Village. She won a Golden Globe for her performance.
Duke would appear in occasional films, but it was television and the theater where she worked most frequently. Costarring with Al Freeman, Jr. she won an Emmy for her performance as a pregnant, racist teenager in My Sweet Charlie. She’d be honored with the award for her roles in the miniseries Captains and the Kings, and for a television remake ofThe Miracle Worker, this time playing Anne Sullivan. She would later play Martha Washington in two miniseries, costarring Barry Bostwick. She appeared with Richard Crenna in It Takes Twoand portrayed the first woman President of the United States in Hail to the Chief. When the Fox network was new, she starred in the comedy series, Karen’s Song.
Personal and Private
During this period, Duke had a short marriage (later annulled) to Michael Tell. She then married actor John Astin (The Addams Family), and they had two sons, Sean and MacKenzie Astin, both actors. In 1982, Duke finally received the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, which had caused a strong riff in her marriage to Astin. She wrote honestly about her early career in her first book, Call Me Anna (1987). The book became a TV movie in 1990.
From 1985-1988, Patty Duke was the President of the Screen Actors Guild, and with her illness under control, returned to the stage, playing Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!,Madam Morrible in Wickedand Phyllis in Follies. She directed a production of The Miracle Workerand, as Patty and Cathy did Public Service announcements for Social Security. She worked tirelessly for Mental Health issues, writing A Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illnessin 1992.
Happy at last
In 1986, while working on the TV movie A Time for Triumph, Patty Duke met Army drill Sergeant Michael Pearce. They married, moved to Idaho, adoped a son, Kevin and raised llamas. Her son, Sean gave her three granddaughters and created the Patty Duke Mental Health Initiative. She passed on from sepsis in 1916 and is interred at Forest Cemetery in Coeur d'Alene, Colorado. When Patty Duke met Anne Bancroft and William Gibson, it was one of the most important theatrical meetings of the century!