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Authors: Melissa Gilbert

Prairie Tale

BOOK: Prairie Tale
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Copyright © 2009 by Half Pint Enterprises

“Fully Alive” © 2005 by Dawna Markova (

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.

ISBN-13: 978-1-4391-2360-7

ISBN-10: 1-4391-2360-8

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, D



I will not die an unlived life.

I will not live in fear

of falling or catching fire.

I choose to inhabit my days,

to allow my living to open me,

to make me less afraid,

more accessible,

to loosen my heart

until it becomes a wing,

a torch, a promise.

I choose to risk my significance;

to live so that which came to me as seed

goes to the next as blossom

and that which came to me as blossom,

goes on as fruit.

“Fully Alive”
Dawna Markova

By Patty Duke

y friend Melissa and I met when I was a so-called grown-up and she was a so-called kid. This happened shortly after my agent phoned and informed me that Melissa’s company was producing a television version of
The Miracle Worker,
in which Melissa would play Helen Keller and I would play Teacher Anne Sullivan. Some twenty years before, I had played the role of Helen Keller, opposite Anne Bancroft as Teacher, and the experience had an enormous impact on my life and career.

Two decades later, my reaction to the remarkable opportunity to play Teacher was a cacophony of feelings: thrilled, flattered, and not a little apprehensive. How would it work, having a thirteen-year-old actress be my boss? Not to mention the fear of trying to fill Anne Bancroft’s extraordinary shoes. As I child I had longed to play Teacher, and here I’d been presented with the chance to fulfill that dream.

I took a deep breath and said yes, and with that, negotiations were under way. In the meantime, however, there was something my heart insisted I do. With a good deal of anxiety, I called Anne Bancroft. There was no way I could do the movie if it created any discomfort for her. But my anxiety was quickly dispelled; Anne was excited for me, and she couldn’t have been more supportive. As had been the case as long as I’d known her, her generosity of spirit and her demonstration of unconditional love were inspiring.

Once I’d secured Anne’s blessing, it was on to the task at hand. What I knew of Melissa Gilbert going into the movie was this: she was the adorable Half Pint on
Little House on the Prairie,
and her talent was real and had kept growing over the years. What I didn’t know was that we were almost exactly the same size.
The Miracle Worker
is very physical; the characters go at it in no uncertain terms, and often. After I’d sized her up (literally), my biggest fear became:
She could take me with a couple of moves or less

But my biggest obstacle had yet to be revealed. It came to light on the first day of rehearsal, when the director pulled me aside and exacted a vow from me not to influence Melissa’s performance. No tips, no critique.

This agreement didn’t feel right to me. In rehearsal we are supposed to explore each other and delve into each other’s psyches. If I wasn’t such a people pleaser, I would have never taken that vow. But I would learn that a desire to please people was just one of the many characteristics Melissa and I have in common.

As we rehearsed, the vow was an intrusion in the process. Finally, I couldn’t stand the secrecy anymore, and I became determined to reveal the director’s instruction. Rehearsals were coming to a close and we’d soon be off to Palm Beach for a two-week run of the play prior to filming.

During the flight to Palm Beach, I imposed on our friend Charlie Siebert, who would play Captain Keller, for his insight and advice. He aimed me in the direction of trusting my instincts. Melissa and her mom were in the seats in front of us, and I leaned forward and tapped Melissa on the head and said, “We need to talk.” She popped up, looked back, and grinned a mile wide.

I rushed into sharing insights about playing Helen, and called up directions from Arthur Penn (the original director of the 1959 version) from memory. The relief was enormous for our new and energized team. With the barriers gone, our work was able to breathe free and our personalities were falling in love with each other. Melissa’s confidence grew in leaps and bounds, and she absorbed and delivered Helen Keller.

Since Melissa had never been onstage, it was important for me to also teach her theater etiquette and superstitions (she actually picked her nose during one of the first curtain calls). I emphasized discipline so often, I sounded like Anne Sullivan both onstage and off. We both learned a lot during the run and became tighter than ticks. Our trust in each other didn’t waiver and hasn’t since. We made our movie with determination, joy, love, and some good performances.

It wasn’t until years later that we found the time to fill each other in on the dark sides of our lives: The early deaths of our fathers. The pressure to be perfect kids and actors. The responsibility of being breadwinners. The search for love and respect. Like most folks, we had family issues, career issues, and just plain girl issues. Watching Melissa grapple with these challenges was like looking at a younger version of me, walking the same tightrope.

As is typical in show business, our paths took us in different directions for some time, but to this very day, whenever we catch up, it’s as if we’d talked yesterday. And thankfully, over the years we were teamed again in two more television movies, and both times we luxuriated in our symbiotic and solid friendship. Even our age disparity fell by the wayside.

Later, was I surprised when Melissa ran for Screen Actors Guild president and won handsomely? Nope! My only advice, having held that office, was “Stay tough” and “Don’t let them get to you.” She did, and they didn’t. For decades I’ve been getting all puffed up with pride as I watch her mature. You’d think she was my daughter. And I’m prouder still of her for this book, her latest accomplishment. In the following pages, she presents herself, warts and all, and allows insight into one woman’s emotional roller-coaster ride.

Once again, she makes me proud to be (as she calls me) her teacher/friend.

BOOK: Prairie Tale
5.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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