15 facts you didn't know about the Helen Keller movie, "The Miracle Worker"

The 1962 film starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke became the stuff of legend for their bold, combative roles

Published July 30, 2022 2:59PM (EDT)

Actress Anne Bancroft, playing educator Annie Sullivan, pleads with actress Patty Duke, playing Helen Keller, in the 1962 production of "The Miracle Worker". (Getty Images / Bettmann / Contributor)
Actress Anne Bancroft, playing educator Annie Sullivan, pleads with actress Patty Duke, playing Helen Keller, in the 1962 production of "The Miracle Worker". (Getty Images / Bettmann / Contributor)

The story of Anne Sullivan's efforts to teach Helen Keller, a young Victorian-era blind and deaf girl, how to communicate is so well-known, it's taken on an almost legendary quality.

Helen had grown up in a family that had no clue how to communicate with her, much less raise her to be self-sufficient and a part of society. Signing was limited to a few gestures the Kellers developed for Helen at home, and at dinner she notoriously walked from family member to family member, using her bare hands to grab food  from each plate.

This early childhood and the pivotal mentorship by Anne Sullivan are dramatized in the 1962 film "The MiracleWorker," starring Anne Bancroft as the tenacious teacher and Patty Duke as her initially combative student. The most memorable scenes are the physical confrontations as Annie would force Helen to conform to certain behaviors (like staying seated during dinner and using utensils to eat) and the epiphany when Helen – who had lost her sense of hearing and sight at 19 months – finally connects that the signed word "water" is the liquid being pumped into her hands. That moment opens up the world to her. The film was critically acclaimed, earned two Oscars for its leads and more importantly became staple viewing for elementary school children across the country. 

Sixty years after the movie's debut on July 28, 1962, this classroom practice seems to have been discontinued, judging from more recent (and ableist) conspiracy theories that deny Helen Keller was able to achieve many of her accomplishments or that she existed at all. While Keller was a real person, her story certainly has been embellished and twisted to become almost mythical. "The Miracle Worker" no doubt contributed to that. 


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Here are 15 things you might not know about the 1962 version of "The Miracle Worker":

01
The title "The Miracle Worker" was inspired by Mark Twain
The "Huckleberry Finn" author  was the first person to refer to Sullivan as "the miracle worker. He once inscribed on a photograph, "To Mrs. John Sullivan Macy with warm regard & with limitless admiration of the wonders she has performed as a miracle worker." Twain admired Sullivan's and Keller's efforts, and urged  his friend, financier and industrialist Henry Huttleston Rogers, to fund Keller's education at Radcliffe.
02
The movie's leads Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke shared the same given name
The two "Miracle Worker" stars have widely used their stage names throughout their career. However, it appears that their given names are actually the same. Duke was born Anna Marie Duke, and Bancroft was originally Anna Marie Louise Italiano. Coincidence? Yes, but maybe also a sign of a fated relationship.
03
The cast had previously starred in a stage version of "The Miracle Worker"
William Gibson first wrote "The Miracle Worker," based on Keller's autobiography, for CBS' 1957 episode of "Playhouse 90," starring Teresa Wright ("Shadow of a Doubt") and Patricia McCormack ("The Bad Seed"). In turn, that was adapted into a 1959 Broadway production starring Bancroft and Duke, which is the beginning of their collaboration.
04
The studio pushed to hire Elizabeth Taylor for the role of Anne Sullivan
Despite the fact that Anne Bancroft gave an impressive performance as Annie Sullivan on stage, she wasn't the first choice to play the role. Arthur Penn, the director of both the play and the movie, revealed in his book "Arthur Penn: Interview" that "United Artists [was] very anxious that Elizabeth Talyor play the lead in 'The Miracle Worker' because she had expressed considerable interest in the role." However, Penn insisted on sticking with Bancroft, negotiating  for months until he prevailed.
05
Patty Duke almost missed out on playing Helen Keller
Similar to Bancroft, Duke wasn't the preferred actress to play Helen Keller for the film, despite playing the character for more than a year on stage. The studio thought that at 15, she was too old to convincingly play the role of a 7-year-old Helen Keller.
06
Before filming, Patty Duke met Helen Keller herself
Duke met Helen Keller, who was 80 at the time, about a year before the movie came out and found her very much like a grandmother. Duke was "in awe" of the activist, and the two took a photo together, along with Keller's dachshund, Sunshine.
07
François Truffaut wanted to direct "Miracle Worker" but was too late
According to the 1970 New York Times article "So Truffaut Decided to Work His Own Miracle," the acclaimed French film director  expressed his desire to helm "The Miracle Worker": "He was so fired up by the intensity and beauty of Annie Sullivan's struggle to bring light and understanding into the dark world of the young Helen Keller." He instantly communicated with his representative in New York, wishing her to start negotiating the film rights. However, "her cold water reply was that Arthur Penn was smack in the middle of making the movie."
08
Anne Bancroft put on an Irish accent to play Anne Sullivan (who didn't have an accent)
Of Bancroft's portrayal, novelist Edwin O'Connor said:  "This is the most astonishingly accurate Irish accent I've ever heard." That's high praise . . . except Anne Sullivan did not speak with an Irish accent, even though she was of Irish descent. So how did this happen?  According to Bancroft's biography, "Anne Bancroft: A Life," she had played  someone with an Italian accent in her  previous role in "Two for the Seesaw," which was also directed by Penn and written by Gibson.  Penn, who had also directed that play, designed the Irish accent to allow Bancroft to distance herself from that. "He gave her an Irish accent, a brogue, which Annie Sullivan did not have," pointed out Gibson, who had also written that play.
09
The actors used Method Acting to perform, including that combative meal scene
Enforced Method Acting requires actors to react unplanned and unscripted, or to help them create feelings or thoughts inherent in the characters they are playing. This approach also appears in "The Miracle Worker," most typically the nearly nine-minute meal scene in which Sullivan tries to get Keller to sit down and eat with a spoon. They wore padding because the scene was so physical. Duke also recalled in a 1988 interview, "On a daily basis, I was put through exercises pretending to be blind, and stumbled around the house with my eyes closed."
10
During that harrowing fight scene, the eggs that were thrown had a strange filler
In the dining room fight scene, to protect the cast from getting hurt in the heat of the confrontation, the eggs Duke threw at Bancroft's face were mixed with popcorn. Meanwhile, in Bancroft's biography "Anne Bancroft: The Life and Work," it is mentioned that neither actor had ever filmed a fight scene like this before, so both Bancroft and Duke wore padding beneath their costumes.
11
A sweeter, manufactured ending to the movie was used
The film ends on a touching note, with teacher Annie Sullivan holding her student and telling her, "I love Helen" late at night.  It's a sweeter ending than was conceived for the original play, which didn't tack on that particular coda. Duke revealed in an interview, "The end was at the pump. The teacher said 'I love Helen,' but in the movie the pump scene happens and then they go to the scene at night . . . I think they didn't need to do that."
12
Patty Duke had a tearful last day of filming
Movie scenes aren't necessarily shot in order, and for Patty Duke, that meant the final shooting day wasn't that sweet hug with Anne Bancroft. Instead, the teenager was inconsolable on the day in 1961 when she filmed her final scene because to her, "The Miracle Worker" – both the play and the movie back-to-back – was almost all she knew. She was afraid that she'd never see this Hollywood family again.  "I was heartbroken, absolutely heartbroken," says Duke, 50 years later. "In fact, I'll tell you a little secret. There is a shot of my face when a chick is being born in my hand. My face and eyes are puffy and red because I had been sobbing for hours."
13
Critics heaped on praise for the film, but were also rocked by the "violence"

Overall, Penn's film was critically acclaimed with raves for both Bancroft and Dukes' commitment to their roles. Many film critics, however, were simultaneously admiring and yet startled by the physicality of that extended dinner table fight scene. Time Out London cited how the actors "spark off each other with a violence." 

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote: "Because the physical encounters between the two ... seem to be more frequent and prolonged than they were in the play and are shown in close-ups, which dump the passion and violence right into your lap, the sheer rough-and-tumble of the drama becomes more dominant than it was on the stage . . .  The bruising encounters between the two . . . are intensely significant of the drama and do excite strong emotional response."

14
"The Miracle Worker" raked in awards, with Patty Duke making history at the Oscars
Patty Duke won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her performance as Helen Keller, which was an accomplishment twice over. She was the first child star to win a competitive Oscar, whereas before, young stars such as were only awarded honorary Juvenile Oscars. In addition, at 15 years old, she was the youngest actor at the time to have won an Oscar, until Tatum O'Neal won for "Paper Moon" at age 10 in 1973.  When talking about this achievement during the interview, Duke said, 'The role won the award."
15
In 1979, Patty Duke returned to"The Miracle Worker," but this time as Anne Sullivan

While Patty Duke had been associated with "The Miracle Worker" throughout her life, she cut her teeth on the role of Helen Keller. The 1979 made-for-television movie allowed her to return to the beloved story, but this time as the honored teacher. 

"I did not want to do an imitation of Anne Bancroft, I wanted it to have its own signature,'' Duke said during her interview with the Commonwealth club. "So I finally got the courage enough and called her [Anne Bancroft], she said, 'Oh, honey, that's wonderful!" Duke received  a Primetime Emmy for her work.


By Yuyan Lu

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By Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and food. She also co-hosts the Good Pop Culture Club podcast, which examines the good pop that gets us through our days, from an Asian American perspective. Follow her at Hanhonymous.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Anne Bancroft Anne Sullivan Blind Deaf Disability Helen Keller List Movies Patty Duke The Miracle Worker