Patty Duke, who won an Academy Award as best supporting actress for her stirring portrayal of deaf and blind Helen Keller in 1962’s The Miracle Worker and the eternal love of gay film buffs as drug-addicted starlet Neely O’Hara in the 1967 camp classic Valley of the Dolls, as died at age 69. ABC News has confirmed Duke’s death through her rep, Mitchell Stubbs, who said the cause was sepsis from a ruptured intestine.
Duke was a prolific child actress, appearing in numerous feature films and television series before she was cast as the young Keller in the Broadway drama The Miracle Worker in 1959. When she repeated the performance on film three years later she garnered wide acclaim, including a Golden Globe and an Oscar. In 1965 she headlined her own popular sitcom The Patty Duke Show, portraying two identical cousins, one American and one English (“a hot dog makes her lose control”). The series ran for three seasons. By then Duke was looking to transition into an adult actress and accepted the role of Neely O’Hara in the much-anticipated film adaptation of the torrid best-selling novel Valley of the Dolls. Loosely based on the life of Judy Garland, the highly dramatic part called for Duke to pull out all the stops, singing, dancing and emoting with complete abandon. Although the film was a big box office hit, it was a critical disaster and soon came to be regarded as the ne plus ultra of camp films (seriously, it’s on Netflix so invite your friends over for a viewing party tonight!). For years, Duke refused to discuss the role.
Duke’s career would thrive, however. She won three Emmy Awards for her work in television over the years. She also headlined another sitcom in 1985, playing the first female president of the U.S in the short-lived series Hail to the Chief. In 1988 she wrote a memoir Call Me Anna, which detailed her battle with bipolar disorder and was later adapted into a TV movie. She eventually came to embrace Valley of the Dolls’ peculiar legacy and appeared at a screening at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre to discuss the drama behind the drama.
Watch a favorite scene from Valley of the Dolls below.