HOLLYWOOD -- Patty Duke and Melissa Gilbert, who made TV magic in 1979 with superlative performances in 'The Miracle Worker,' have joined forces to star Feb. 21 in 'Family of Strangers' for CBS.
'I couldn't believe more than a dozen years had gone by when Melissa and I got together for this movie,' Patty said on a visit to Hollywood from her home in Northern Idaho.
'We had a good time on this one. It's a powerful piece. Melissa plays a young woman who doesn't know she's adopted until there's a medical crisis and she has to find out genetic information.
'Bill Shatner, who plays her adoptive father, tells her she was adopted, after which she goes searching for her birth mother. She finds me and wants to find her real father.
'But my character was raped and her genetic father could have been one of five guys. Together, mother and daughter go on a detective search to locate him.
'All the dynamics bring the two women together under very difficult circumstances. It's a wrenching, highly dramatic story of denial.'
As actresses, Duke and Gilbert have much in common. Both were child stars, both were adopted -- although Patty's adoption was not a legality so much as her life being taken over by managers with whom she lived.
Their bond is further strengthened by the fact that they have succeed as adult performers.
All the same, the generation gap, different lifestyles and geographical separation have prevented them from becoming close friends.
Both actresses as youngsters played Helen Keller in 'The Miracle Worker,' the story of the blind and deaf child who grew up to be a celebrated author and lecturer. Duke won an Academy Award for best supporting actress in the 1962 movie version. Gilbert played Keller in the 1979 TV film with Duke as Keller's teacher, Annie Sullivan.
'We were fortunate to work together in 'The Miracle Worker,' and this picture gives us a chance to play lots of emotionally powerful scenes again,' Duke said.
'Melissa and I didn't spent much time discussing our similar backgrounds, but in the course of a 15-hour work day things pop up. What we have most in common is the actual work experience. It gave us a certain shorthand on the set because we're both old war horses, even though we're not so old.
'What we don't have in common, as Melissa tells me, was her experience with Michael Landon in 'Little House on the Prairie.' It was a wholesome, nurturing situation as was her relationship with her adoptive parents and siblings.
'That's where we part company. My experiences with my managers was very different. The healthiest part of my life has always been the workplace, the only place were I felt safe and nurtured. That had a lot to do with my eventual sanity.'
In her autobiography, 'Call Me Anna,' Duke revealed the horrors of abuse and exploitation she suffered at the hands of people who manipulated her private life as well as her career, leaving her with psychological scars that almost destroyed her.
'In recent years Melissa has had her problems trying to grow up in the public eye,' Duke said. 'It's no easy thing to do, being scrutinized by the media -- who you're going out with, having people judge you.
'I'm surprised that neither of us harbor any bitterness about growing up in a fish bowl. We sort of took it in stride.
'The best thing about being a child actress is working in an adult world where you're expected to function with professional and adult skills. Melissa is a wise old soul, even at 14 or 15 when we did 'Miracle Worker.'
'We got to know each other better on 'Family of Strangers' because we spent more time together. We lived next door to one another for four weeks in the same hotel on location in Vancouver. We had some bathrobes and washed-hair kinds of nights sitting around chatting.
'I don't know if our common experiences and backgrounds make our relationship so pleasant or whether we're just two folks who hit it off well. Maybe just as important as anything is that I love working with good actors.'
Duke says she has seen changes with kid actors as she plays a growing number of mother roles.
'There's a healthier atmosphere now,' she said. 'It used to be, 'What do we have to do for this little tyke to get what we want?' People are more enlightened now and treat children better, although I hear a few war stories.
'Once in a while on a set I speak up when I think a child is not being treated appropriately. I'll say, 'We've been working 14 hours. What is this child doing here?' It doesn't endear me to the company, but I remember the old days too well.'NEWLN: