Monday, August 8, 2011

Patty Duke on William Asher

Four years ago, when I was writing a two-part article about the remarkable career of writer-director William Asher (whose birthday is on Monday), I had the chance to interview a number of Asher's colleagues. There were many to choose from. Asher is perhaps best known for his work on I Love Lucy and Bewitched, as well as the "beach party" films he made for American International Pictures, such as Beach Blanket Bingo. (Film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon credits Asher with "concocting what was practically a new genre" in the beach movies.) During his five-decade career, he did a lot more than those projects, however, and I didn't limit myself to the most famous ones. (For example, I interviewed the editor and the director of photography of his final feature, the underrated Movers & Shakers.)

One of the people I most enjoyed speaking with was Patty Duke. With Sidney Sheldon, Asher co-created The Patty Duke Show, and he directed the majority of episodes during the first season. I was eager to hear what Duke remembered about working with him on this very innovative series -- as memorable, in its way, as Lucy or Bewitched.

At the time of our conversation, I had only seen a handful of episodes of The Patty Duke Show. I admired Duke primarily on the basis of her dramatic work, most notably her truly iconic performance as Helen Keller in Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker, as well as her Emmy Award-winning performance in the lesser known My Sweet Charlie, directed by Lamont Johnson. So when Shout! Factory began releasing all three seasons of The Patty Duke Show on DVD in 2009, it was a revelation -- at least as far as I was concerned. Playing the dual role of cousins Patty and Cathy Lane, Duke was clearly a born comedienne.

For Asher's part, the first season of The Patty Duke Show was just one of the many things that occupied his time in 1963 -- that same year, he had two movies in theatres (Beach Party and Johnny Cool), and he had two more (Muscle Beach Party and Bikini Beach) out the following year. "Our producer-director, Bill Asher, was a man who liked to be simultaneously involved in several different projects," Sidney Sheldon wrote in his autobiography -- and my research told me that was an understatement.

Though we only spoke for perhaps 15 minutes, Duke couldn't have been more helpful. When I called, she had in mind several points that she wanted to make to me, and I chose to let her guide the brief, highly enjoyable discussion that followed. I found her to be completely disarming, and full of enthusiasm for the show -- and for its director. In fact, everybody I talked to sang the praises of William Asher (and I plan to post more extracts from my conversations with his collaborators in the near future), but Patty Duke sang them especially well.

Some of this material first appeared in my article, "Up From the Cutting Room: The William Asher Story, Part 1," CinemaEditor, Volume 57, Issue 4, Fourth Quarter 2007.

Patty Duke: Sidney Sheldon actually created the concept and the story. But certainly Bill's work on the set, and what he brought to it as a director, was a major contribution to the creativity of it. On a personal level, one of the many things that Bill did for me -- and I don't exactly know how he did it, except by osmosis -- was to infuse me with a kind of confidence that I really didn't have going in. He got that going and then he kept it afloat for playing both characters. I always had more trouble with the Patty character, the supposedly more outgoing one. Oddly, the other character was more like me! Shy. Bill would run around, saying, "Come on, Chicky Baby! Come on, Chicky Baby! Chicky Baby, you can do this!"

I only know this in retrospect, but his energy had enormous sex appeal. And so for a girl of 16, in that day and age, it was very easy to have a crush on him. And I was not alone!

Peter Tonguette: I gather that he was a rather debonair figure in those days. He knew John F. Kennedy...

PD: Oh, yes. And yet he wore it with complete ease. Never did I feel that he thought he was better than somebody else. But his innate, enormous energy was the key, I think, to why he was so successful.

He did the pilot and sent us off in good stead. Then he did, I believe, six episodes*, but he was committed to other things and so it was time for the series to get in the mode of having a different director every week. But he set the tone, he set the class of what we did. And, again, when you look back on it, it seems to be so primitive, but if you really look at the acting work, it's very classy. And that has an enormous amount to do with Bill.

PT: Several years later, he became so identified with Bewitched...

PD: Yes, and was I jealous or what!

PT: Bewitched was noted for its special effects work, and there's some of that in your show, too.

PD: Yes, there was. Believe it or not, we were groundbreakers! Of course, we didn't have the benefit of all the computers things that you can do now. But when I talk to people who still seek out the show, what they like about it isn't necessarily the special effects. Yeah, they liked that there were two girls who looked alike. But basically it was the stories and the acting. And, of course, the direction.

PT: In your experience, do you find the qualities you describe in William Asher to be unique?

PD: Most definitely. Of course, he as a person is unique. And "unique" can be a word that gets bandied about, but my understanding of "unique" is that kind of one-ness that someone brings to something that totally alters for the better what that thing is.

PT: People who've worked with him have told me that he would bring out the best qualities in a show or in a script.

PD: Oh, absolutely. The best qualities not only of the story, but of the performers. And the tricks. If there were tricks in the show, he made them work!

PT: I think his background in post-production -- he began as a film editor -- must have contributed to his understanding of all of the technical stuff.

PD: It is absolutely invaluable for a director. Not a lot of directors get that little facet, but they eventually catch up. When we were doing the split-screens -- which, again, to us then were complicated! -- his ease and comfort with it just allowed you to do your work and not worry that it was going to turn out okay. I would bet he would liken it to a kind of freedom, to go and deal the story and the actors because he's got all that other stuff at the tip of his fingers.

He also always wore little velvet slippers. I just don't want you to miss the picture!

PT: You're painting a very vivid picture! Did you remain in touch with him after The Patty Duke Show ended?

PD: We have throughout the years -- not nearly as much as we would like, but certainly we remain connected.

PT: Did anything else ever come up where you would work together again?

PD: Sadly, no. But I haven't given up hope yet!

PT: Earlier, you mentioned that he could only direct so many episodes of The Patty Duke Show because he was committed to other projects. He was so prolific.

PD: And he never sacrificed quality.

PT: You never got the sense that his attention was elsewhere while he was working with you?

PD: No, absolutely not. He has the capacity, particularly with women, for that woman to think that she is the only woman in the world.

* According to the Internet Movie Database, Asher directed a total of eight episodes, in addition to directing the pilot.