There she was, Patty Duke -- Broadway stage veteran, an Oscar at 15 for her portrayal of Hellen Keller in "The Miracle Worker," the star of her own show ("The Patty Duke Show") at 16 -- standing on a set for a television movie five years ago, in her underwear, freezing, at 6:30 in the the morning, waiting for the makeup man to put a latex hourglass over her body. She was playing a woman who metamorphoses into a black widow spider in a movie appropriately named "Black Widow."
"I thought, 'Oh boy, here I am at the height of my art. This is what I've worked all my life for -- to be standing here at 6:30 in the morning in my underwear,'" says Patty Duke, sitting in a chair in the president's house at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The head goes back stoically, the grin amused.
"actually, it was my son's favorite. And it was a very scary movie," she says.
And not at all depressing -- "not when you see how much you get paid for eight days' work," she says, this time very serious, because those were the days when she needed money badly. "Actually, I played this interesting lady -- very uptight . . ."
Voluptuos . . ." adds John Astin, her husband (the actor, the director, the producer, the writer) in an off-hand whisper that floats sexily across the room from the couch.
"It was a lot of laughs," she says. "If you take yourself that seriously that you can't play a spider even to help your family out a little . . ."
They sit across the spacious, elegant floor from each other, comfortably throwing little barbs of dialogue at each other, the Nick and Nora of, well, the made-for-TV-movie set.
She was recently acclaimed for her portrayal of a neurotic young woman in the television production of "The Women's Room." Now she's worrying about tonight's show. Formidably thick notebooks lie beside them, the "script," such as it is, for tonight's two-person performance (at Shriver Hall on the Hopkins compus) of their very own "You Can Go Home Again and Bring the Little Woman," a mixture of poetry readings and skits.
Astin is an alumnus, a math major who switched to drama three credits from the end. And the university has been trying to get him back for years.
"Well," says Astin, standing, taking a deep breath, the familiar voice amused, "there've certainly been enough years."
They met in the late '60s at one of those conferences where TV stars are paraded out for the affiliate stations. He was Gomez Addams then, the black-haired urbane eccentric of the popular television series "The Addams Family." She was the teen-age Patty Duke.
"It was an NAB coonference . . ." he begins.
"No, dear . . ." she interrupts.
A verbal skirmish ensues.
When they married in 1972, she was 25; he 42. "The age difference worried me a little," he says.
"You knew you would get gray hair," she says. The smile is playfully taunting.
Someone comes in and asks if they mind being seated at different tables for the dinner tonight. "Ahh, no," says Astin. "But we usually prefer to sit together. I like my wife."
They love this playing together -- they do it on the road in plays, they do it during interviews, they probably do it in private too. He is 50; she 33.They look like a comfortable relaxed couple who live in L.A. with five kids -- which they do. (The two youngest are theirs; the others, his by a previous marriage, she has adopted.) He, the relaxed optimist who makes the houseguests feel at home. She, the amused cynic.
His hair is thinning and gray, his beard graying, but the resonant voice that always sounded so perpetually amused in "The Addams Family" is still there. He is handsomely professorial now, half-glasses hanging from a chain around his neck.
She is tiny and slender, hair back in bun, suede-tooled boots on little feet. Her eyes are unblinking bright gray; her manner worldly-wise. There is not much softness in her face.
"It's a nightmare," she says, gray eyes big, face between a cringe and a smile at the thought of the show for tonight, which they were still editing yesterday afternoon on the living room floor."It sounded like it would be so wonderful. But reading poetry for two hours -- I'm afraid the place will go to sleep."
"Oh, it's wonderful," says Astin. "I've been dying to read certain poems and pieces of literature. The whole thing is experimental. That's why she's --"
"-- has no fingernails," she interrupts, lifting tiny fingers with bits of nail.
"It's a concert reading of sorts," he says. "We're doing some pieces from Thomas Wolfe, James Agee, T. S. Eliot, A. A. Milne -- "
"Can we slip in a few of the women?" she asks. "Amy Lowell . . ."
"Oh, Amy Lowell, yes," he says.
He calls his wife Anna, since that is her real name.
"Anna Marie Duke from New York City," says John.
"Yeaaahuh," she says as if still there.
"You know, there was a lot of stuff put out, maybe by John Ross [her first manager, who propelled her into the limelight] saying she couldn't talk -- he had to teach her how to talk," says John.
Ross helped her get the role in "The Miracle Worker." "He was a marketer and he marketed this child actress beautifully," she says of herself.
"There was another thing put out saying I was a dirty street urchin. I was one of the cleanest children around," she says. "My mother was in pain over that."
They discuss gossip.
She says, "There was one about us going to New York and having dinner with Tuesday Weld in a new restaurant. One, we didn't even know Tuesday Weld then. Second we would have never been able to go to New York for that."
"Yeah," says John. "That's when we were broke."
They have a history of hard times together.
In the early '70s, the Astins had business problems that cost them most of their money.
"We were extraordinarily in debt," she says."We lost everything -- in the six figures. For a while I was doing anything that paid greenbacks."
That's when she did the spider movie. The two of them also toured in plays for five years, many directed by him.
"We would do game shows to keep our faces in front of the audience," he says. "'Password,' 'Match Game' . . ."
"We love game shows," she says. "I still like to do them."
And they both like TV. He mainly directs, writes, and produces. "I decided only to do TV if it was something I really liked," he says. "Directing is fun. You're in on it all. I'm developing two or three television shows -- a couple of specials and a couple of series. One is a project for Anna. If it comes through it will be a tour de force."
She recently played Annie Sullivan, the teacher of Helen Keller, in a TV special. Her performance won her an Emmy.
She just wants to work. "I don't care where it is -- as long as it's working," she says. "I don't have an elitist attitude toward TV."
Her role in "The Women's Room" wasn't the first time in recent years that she's played the roles of slightly wacky people. "Those are the most interesting parts," she says. "I have no apologies for playing those kinds of roles. I have no apologies for spiders either."