Identical Cousins

If the Sissi movies are a little too involved and Middle European for your tastes, there are other entertainments that are appropriate to these troubled times. (Indeed, if times were troubled when I wrote the Sissi piece, they’re even more troubled now.)

One such entertainment is a frothy trifle from the annals of 1960s television, The Patty Duke Show.

The show, all 106 episodes of which are currently available on YouTube (at least at the time of this writing), sprang from the brain of the prolific Sidney Sheldon, who also bears the responsibility for such things as the television sitcom I Dream of Jeannie and the trashy best seller The Other Side of Midnight. Apparently responding to a sense he got from the teenage Duke that there was something double about her (she would eventually be diagnosed with bipolar disorder), he came up with the biologically preposterous idea of having her portray identical—not twins—but cousins, Patty and Cathy Lane. (The conceit of identical cousins was “explained” by having Patty’s and Cathy’s fathers be identical twins. That doesn’t help.)

Patty and Cathy, as the unforgettable-once-you’ve-heard-it theme song tells us, are identical in appearance yet opposites inside. Patty is the all-American girl with the traditional sitcom knack for getting herself into trouble, her dialogue liberally laced with American teenage slang of the period. Cathy, having grown up as the daughter of a widowed foreign correspondent, has lived all over the world and is soft-spoken with a some kind of a British accent that may or may not have something to do with the Scots origins described in the pilot. Cathy is usually Ethel to Patty’s Lucy, but she’s frequently also the voice of reason that tries to talk Patty out of her scheme of the week.

It’s all enormously silly. It’s also enormously well done, and I’m sure that audiences in 1963 were mildly amazed by the way in the way in which Patty Duke was able to appear alongside herself onscreen. There is ample use of body doubles for scenes with both Patty and Cathy (usually the stand-in is wearing Cathy’s wig and sitting with her back to the camera), but there is enough trick photography to keep the illusion alive that Patty and Cathy are indeed identical. The chief difference in their appearance is that Patty wears her hair curled over at the ends, while Cathy’s is worn curled under. There’s also the matter of Patty’s all-American wardrobe and the rather dowdy (read “sophisticated”) clothes the costumer chose for Cathy.

The young Duke became a star at a very early age thanks to her portrayal of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, first on Broadway, then in a movie that netted her a supporting actress Academy Award. She was poised to become one of America’s sweethearts, and her conquest of television audiences for three seasons made her one. There’s not much subtlety of acting in the differentiation of Patty and Cathy, but there’s enough to let us know which twin she’s playing at any given time. (The pilot, also to be seen on YouTube, hands her the overlarge challenge of having to play Patty pretending to be Cathy and then Cathy pretending to be Patty. Later in the first season, she was again required to play Patty pretending to be Cathy, but there’s not much difference between the real and the imitation Cathys.)

The show owes much of its success to its very good ensemble. William Schallert as Patty’s father (and occasionally Cathy’s) is a wonderful presence, warm, wise, patiently suffering two teenage girls in the house, and not above saying no to the often willful Patty. (Cathy is altogether easier to manage.) Jean Byron as Mrs. Lane offers a less strongly drawn character, although she quietly provides Schallert with the understanding he lacks of teenagers. There’s also a great turn by the young Paul O’Keefe as the cliché of the bratty younger brother. Patty’s boyfriend is likably goofy (and always loud, although that may be the joke) as played by Eddie Applegate. The two don’t exactly generate kilowatts of sex, but, in 1963, nobody wanted to see Patty Duke generating even milliwatts of sex.

The scripts, many of them written by Sheldon, are likable if not overly original. Yes, Patty and Cathy owe a great deal to Lucy and Ethel, and Laverne and Shirley owe a lot to the Lane cousins. The difference is that it took two actresses to play those duos; in The Patty Duke Show, it’s all the young, charming and precociously talented Duke. It’s quite an achievement for an actress still in her teens. Arguably, it’s as much an achievement as Romy Schneider’s in the Sissi movies. The scale is smaller (a TV screen as opposed to a movie screen brimming over with elaborate sets and costumes), but the challenge of playing twins is considerable.

The Patty Duke Show was arguably the high-water mark of Duke’s career. Faced with having to do something to counteract her squeaky-clean child star image, Duke next assumed the role of a child star gone awry (the model was Judy Garland) in The Valley of the Dolls. It was nearly a career-ending performance, with “I’m Neely O’Hara!” becoming something of a camp catchphrase as a result of Duke’s histrionics.

Duke bounced back, however, if perhaps never matching he success of her early years in the industry. She worked, wrote, lived through mental illness, became an advocate for the mentally ill, and did a great deal to open America’s eyes to the realities of bipolar disorder. It was quite a life.

One needn’t think too much about the subsequent realities of Duke’s life and career when watching her teenage selves romp through frothy 1960s scripts to an overloud (and not always appropriate) laugh track. The point of The Patty Duke Show was to divert America. That it still does. Look it up on YouTube: its moment may have come again.

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