WHEN DEVOTION TURNS DEADLY In 1989, actress Rebecca Schaeffer opened her door and was shot by a deranged fan. But are celebs any safer now?
In 1989, up-and-coming actress Rebecca Schaeffer opened her door and was shot by a deranged fan. Are celebs any safer now?
Awhite van makes a slow turn onto North Sweetzer Avenue in central Los Angeles. Situated just south of West Hollywood, the block gives off the safe vibe of a middle-class suburb, dotted with two-storey homes and a shoe-repair shop on the corner. But something truly awful once happened here—and this van, filled with 14 patrons of the Dearly Departed Tour, an only-in-la excursion that visits sites where celebrities died, stops to view the front door of a residence halfway down the street. A tour guide named Scott begins: “In the 1980s there was a show on television called My Sister Sam, starring Pam Dawber and a young actress named Rebecca Schaeffer. And Rebecca Schaeffer had a stalker named Robert John Bardo, who paid a private detective to get her address.”
For many people, that brief description alone is enough to churn up memories of the macabre event that transpired. On the morning of July 18, 1989, a single shot fired from Bardo’s revolver took the life of 21-year-old Schaeffer. The bullet hit her heart, and she died in the doorway. Bardo, a 19-year-old who had never met Schaeffer before, fled down an alley.
The loss was incalculable. Schaeffer’s boyfriend at the time, film director Brad Silberling ( City of Angels, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events), searches for the right words to describe it before settling on ones once used by the actress’s grandmother Lucile: “It was as if a tornado came down and plucked her into the sky.” The death sent a shockwave of grief and alarm through not only the Hollywood community but the nation, resulting in the enactment of privacy and anti-stalking laws in all 50 states.
However, 28 years later, there is a generation of people largely unaware of Schaeffer’s story. “Rebecca cannot be forgotten,” says former deputy district attorney Marcia Clark, who successfully prosecuted Bardo in court, three years before she became a household name due to the O.J. Simpson trial. “Her case really brought to light the problem with celebrity and the dangerous nature of so-called fans.” But ultimately that is of little consolation to Clark: “The whole thing still breaks my heart. That this uniquely innocent girl at the very brink of stardom could be taken away—it’s the epitome of tragedy.” Rebecca Schaeffer never shied from the stage or the spotlight. Born in Oregon in 1967, the bright, energetic only child got her first taste of performing when she starred in a sixth-grade production of the feminist touchstone Free to Be …You and Me. By high school, Schaeffer was already outgrowing Oregon and took a 1984 summer job with Elite Model Management in New York. The 16-year-old was dazzled by the city’s gritty aura of possibility. “Like an idiot, I asked if she really wanted to stay,” mother Danna recalls. “And she said, ‘Yes, of course!’ So we threw her a big party and let her do it.”
Over the next two years, Schaeffer scored a short run on the soap One Life to Live, travelled to Japan to model, and nabbed small parts in Woody Allen’s Radio Days and on Steven Spielberg’s series Amazing Stories. But her big break came in 1986 when she landed a starring role on the sitcom My Sister Sam, playing the part of Patti, a giddy free spirit who lives with her older sister (Pam Dawber of Mork & Mindy). On the LA soundstage, co-star Jenny O’hara remembers Schaeffer being a mix of youthful energy and astute maturity, often shadowing the show’s crew and asking questions about their jobs. “Rebecca was just a beaming ray of
“This innocent girl at the very brink of stardom ... It’s the epitome of tragedy” —Marcia Clark, former deputy DA
light,” she says. “My daughter is now 28, and Rebecca was her first babysitter. Gosh, she was such a peach.”
My Sister Sam was a success in its first season. Though Dawber was the experienced TV actress, it was Schaeffer, 16 years her junior, who exhibited a sly, sideways kind of humour that gave the series its comic throttle. However, an unfortunate shift to Saturday night in its second season led to a decline in ratings, and it was cancelled with 12 episodes left unaired. While the cancellation was a setback, Schaeffer had made her mark in Hollywood. “She was such a spitfire,” says Silberling, who began dating Schaeffer in 1987 after a blind date at a screening of his student thesis. “There was that wicked sense of humour, but she was also very serious about the work.”
And work she did. Following My Sister Sam’s cancellation, Schaeffer went to Egypt to co-star with Burt Lancaster and Eva Marie Saint in the TV film Voyage of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair and received high marks playing a spoiled daughter in Paul Bartel’s satire Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills. In casting circles, Schaeffer’s name was in the mix, and she was even briefly considered for the lead role in Pretty Woman but was seen as too girlish. Schaeffer was, in fact, only nine days younger than the movie’s eventual star Julia Roberts, which indicates that she was fighting against “little sister” typecasting caused by her TV series.
The obsessive prowling of famous people is a phenomenon that predates the invention of radio. Some attackers have delusions that the love is reciprocal. In the early 1900s, a French woman suffering from “erotomania” insisted that King George V was sending her secret love messages through Buckingham Palace’s curtains. In 1949, baseball player Eddie Waitkus was shot in a hotel room by an infatuated fan. Prior to Schaeffer’s death— which fully popularised the term “stalker” as we know it today—the most notorious examples of this crime had been the 1980 murder of John Lennon by an unhinged fan; the 1981 assassination attempt of Ronald Reagan by a man who was trying to impress Jodie Foster; and the violent stabbing in 1982 of Raging Bull actress Theresa Saldana, mere miles from where Schaeffer was gunned down.
All three of those incidents provided demented inspiration to Robert John Bardo. The youngest of seven children from Tucson, Arizona, Bardo had exhibited an abnormal fixation on female celebrities from an early age. His first known target was a young goodwill ambassador from Maine named Samantha Smith. After Smith died in a plane crash at age 13, Bardo shifted his attention to other famous faces. “Bardo was obsessed
with several celebrities,” says Dr Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist who has studied stalking for decades. Dietz interviewed Bardo extensively and found that he had also targeted 1980s teen pop stars Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, bombarding them with fan letters. “Hate mail, interestingly, is not as dangerous a sign as obsessive love mail,” Dietz explains.
When My Sister Sam premiered in 1986, the then-16-year-old high-school dropout shifted much of his attention to Schaeffer. In 1987 he even travelled to Los Angeles in an attempt to access the Warner Bros lot where the show was filmed. “I thought he was just lovesick,” the studio’s chief of security later said, adding that Bardo had also made a number of phone calls to the studio. “He was terribly insistent on being let in. ‘Rebecca Schaeffer’ was every other word.” Ultimately deemed harmless, Bardo was escorted off the premises. “He came with a knife in his bag,” says Silberling. “Security didn’t let him on the lot, but they sent him away with just a pat on his butt. That would never happen today, thank God.” (The security chief, who died in 2010, said that he informed the show’s production company of the incident.)
As she did for hundreds of other fans, Schaeffer would respond to Bardo’s fan mail with a postcard-size head shot and a note, which read, “Yours is one of the nicest letters I’ve received.” That was an inadvertent trigger for Bardo, according to Marcia Clark, who worked closely with threat-assessment expert Gavin de Becker on the case. “It was not Rebecca’s fault, of course, but security specialists now counsel celebrity clients to keep correspondence on a very impersonal level, if they communicate at all,” she says. “But it’s so complicated. A failure to reply can encourage them to get more hostile more quickly, while a platonic kind of ‘best wishes’ answer can piss them off, too.”
Bardo, who had been working as a cleaner, acquired Schaeffer’s home address by paying $300 to an Arizona private investigator. In a sick twist, he had learnt about this method from a news report about Saldana’s attacker, who had obtained her address the same way. The PI merely needed to request Schaeffer’s name via the Department of Motor Vehicles [DMV], costing only a few bucks. Armed with that information—and a .357 magnum handgun, purchased by an older brother—bardo made his way from Tucson to Schaeffer’s residence. “She came to the door, she was nice to him, she shook his hand, wished him a nice day,” says Clark. “And because she was so disarming, he walked away.”
But madness was stewing inside Bardo. He retreated to a nearby restaurant, where he ate onion rings and cheesecake. In his bag was a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, a piece of copycat paraphernalia—it was the same book found in the possession of John Hinckley Jr (Reagan’s shooter) and Mark David Chapman (Lennon’s killer). Whether Bardo was feeling snubbed or, as per his own account to Dr Dietz, had simply forgotten to give Schaeffer a note and a CD, the fact remains that he returned and rang her doorbell again. This time, when she opened it, he fired.
When the downstairs buzzer in Schaeffer’s apartment rang on that fateful morning in 1989, the actress was waiting for a courier to deliver a script for The Godfather Part III. She was scheduled to meet with director Francis Ford Coppola later that day to audition for a role in the film. The intercom in her building was broken, so Schaeffer walked downstairs to open the door, where Bardo was waiting for the second time.
That same morning in Portland, Oregon, writer and teacher Danna Schaeffer was working on a play and trying to ignore the telephone, which had started ringing around 11.30. “I knew it wasn’t Rebecca,” she says of her daughter, “because we’d spoken on the phone the night before.” Eventually Danna listened to her answering machine and heard ABC executive Tom Nunan—she knew his name because he was dating Rebecca’s best friend—urgently asking her to return his call. “I still remember how sunny my voice sounded when he picked up the phone,” Danna recalls. “Then he said, and these words are inscribed in my brain, ‘Mrs Schaeffer, I have terrible news. This morning Rebecca was shot and killed.’ ” Disbelieving, she hung up and called one of her daughter’s talent agents. “He got on the phone and he could not talk,” she says. “I could just hear him sobbing. And that’s when I knew.”
Rebecca’s father, Benson Schaeffer, a child psychiatrist, had been picked up from work by a friend and driven home. When Danna saw his face, even from a distance, she could tell that there was a trace of doubt, a glimmer of hope in his eyes that this was all a terrible mistake. Approaching her husband, she wailed, with tears running down her face, “It’s true, it’s true!” Within an hour, the couple were at the Portland airport en route to Los Angeles. Both were
“Hate mail, interestingly, is not as dangerous a sign as obsessive love mail” —Dr Park Dietz
crying so much that instead of tissues, Danna packed tea towels.
Meanwhile, at the offices of Universal Studios, Silberling was sitting at his desk when he received a call from another of Schaeffer’s agents. He remembers, “I was told, ‘There’s been an accident with Rebecca, and you need to call this detective.’ And my first thought was, ‘OK. Accident. She’s been hurt horribly, but we can deal with that.’ Our brains have an amazing ability to realign. So then when I called the detective and he told me that she was dead, I screamed into the phone. It violated everything that I’d just adjusted my thinking to.”
More than a decade later, Silberling would write and direct the film Moonlight Mile (2002), starring Susan Sarandon and Dustin Hoffman as a couple whose daughter is senselessly killed and Jake Gyllenhaal as the daughter’s boyfriend. Silberling based much of the script on the events of that week in his life, when he travelled with the Schaeffers and Rebecca’s friend Barbara Lusch back to Portland to arrange the funeral. “To have them with us was unbelievably wonderful and—this is a strange word to use—exciting,” says Danna. “It was the closest thing to having Rebecca with us.”
On the evening of Schaeffer’s murder, Silberling recalls gathering with her family, collectively numb in a bubble of sorrow. “Danna turned to each one of us and said, ‘OK, now, who’s booked their therapy appointments?’ And I just started howling with laughter. Because it was so sharp and funny and real. And because that was Rebecca’s sense of humour.”
Later, in lengthy interviews with Dr Dietz, Bardo would say that Schaeffer uttered these words before falling to the ground: “Why? Why?” Bardo escaped LA but was found stumbling through highway traffic the next day in Tucson. When police apprehended him, he incriminated himself and claimed that he was stunned and saddened to see on television that Schaeffer had died. After being taken to California, Bardo was charged with firstdegree murder. Clark’s office pushed for a bench trial, to be decided by a judge rather than a jury; Bardo agreed to it in exchange for the prosecution not seeking the death penalty. Though he confessed, Bardo still pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, which classified the killing as premeditated. (Although Bardo did not opt for an insanity defence, his public defender called witnesses, including Dr Dietz, to testify about his mental condition.)
Clark had two challenges. To prove that Bardo acted intentionally would condemn him to 25 years to life in prison, yet there’d be the possibility of parole. In order to remove that possibility, she needed to also prove a “special circumstance.” Clark says, “In this case, that was called ‘lying in wait.’ And it was that tape of Bardo being interviewed by Dr Dietz, where I saw him describe the murder by making a motion of his hand behind his back. He held it there in order to conceal his weapon. And I presented that as proof. He had no uncertainty of purpose.”
The judge agreed. In October 1991 Bardo was found guilty, and two months later he was sentenced to life with no chance of parole. As Bardo was being escorted out of the courtroom after the conviction, Danna uttered at him, “Have a wonderful time in jail.” Silberling was more forceful. “Your cowardice is going to haunt you for the rest of your life,” he said.
These scenes and emotions would play out again in Moonlight Mile, with Holly Hunter playing a prosecutor who asks the murdered woman’s family their thoughts on capital punishment. The prosecutor’s name in the film is Mona Camp—an alliteration of Marcia Clark. “That scene is taken right from our conversation with Marcia,” Silberling says. “It was a remarkable moment because Danna and Benson and
“We deal with [stalking] on a daily basis” —a publicist
myself are rather left-leaning, but I remember one of us saying, about Bardo, that we’d just like to see him eviscerated. Those are huge feelings, just tremendous, incredible rage.”
Publicity generated by the case helped fuel the creation in 1989 of the LAPD’S Threat Management Unit, the nation’s first police team to specialise in stalking cases. California also passed a law that year that restricted the DMV from releasing individuals’ home addresses, the loophole that allowed Bardo to find Schaeffer. The measure was adopted nationwide in 1994. Stalking laws, which criminalise patterns of threatening behaviour, were nonexistent in Schaeffer’s lifetime but are now on the books in every US state. In California, for example, sentences can include a 10-year restraining order for a felony harassment conviction.
While the lessons of Schaeffer’s death have mostly melted into history, the ugly phenomenon of celebrity obsession has metastasised. Stars exist in public—taking selfies with fans at a premiere or waiting for luggage at the airport—vulnerable to risks, especially since their locations are geo-targeted by anyone who might want to harm them. In a recent tragic example, The Voice US alum Christina Grimmie was killed in 2016 by a fan, one whom she had just opened her arms to hug at a concert in Orlando.
“We deal with this issue on a daily basis,” says one veteran publicist (who asked not to be identified) who can recount numerous death threats and advances made in public by stalkers. Social media, according to the publicist, has perpetuated the problem: “It plays into the culture of stalking. There’s an industry expectation for stars to be open, but it’s harder to separate the genuine fan from the dangerous fan as long as you’re using those magnets.”
Silberling, who has been married to Amy Brenneman ( Judging Amy) since 1995, adds, “People feel like they’ve been tweeted at personally by celebrities. That adds challenges to finding appropriate boundaries. I am always going to be more cautious in life because of my experience, but it’s made my wife a great ambassador to younger actors she
works with. You can’t be flip or reckless.”
Danna Schaeffer acknowledges that her daughter’s death was like a lightning strike: rare, sudden, unexpected. Attitudes regarding stalking were adjusted, but Danna winces at the notion that Rebecca did not die in vain. “Yes, on a very nuts-and-bolts level it changed Hollywood,” she says, “but Rebecca was not a soldier fighting for a cause. She didn’t choose this.” Clark also has trouble attaching much positivity to the case, though it was one of her greatest courtroom victories. “I’m relieved that Bardo is locked up,” she says. “But I don’t think of myself as proud in any way of getting the verdict. Good things came of it, but none of those things bring Rebecca back.”