Rebecca Schaeffer circa 1986
IN 1989, AN UP-AND-COMING YOUNG ACTRESS NAMED REBECCA SCHAEFFER OPENED THE DOOR OF HER L.A. HOME—AND WAS MET WITH A BULLET. THE GRISLY MURDER COMMITTED BY A DERANGED FAN SPARKED ANTISTALKING LAWS ACROSS THE COUNTRY, BUT NEARLY 30 YEARS LATER, ARE CELEBRITIES ANY SAFER?
BY JOE MCGOVERN @JMCGVRN
A white 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-story adobe 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-L.A. excursion that visits sites where celebrities died, stops to view the front door of a brown-trimmed 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 the 21-year-old Schaeffer. The bullet penetrated her heart, and she died in the doorway. Bardo, a 19-year-old who had never met Schaeffer before that day, 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’ grandmother Lucile: “It was as if a tornado came down and plucked her into the sky.” The death sent a shock wave of grief and alarm through not only the Hollywood community but the nation, resulting in the enactment of privacy and antistalking 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.”
Schaeffer with Pam Dawber on My Sister Sam
Rebecca Schaeffer never shied away from the stage or the spotlight. Born in Eugene, Ore., 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 her junior year in high school, Schaeffer was already outgrowing Oregon and took a 1984 summer job with Elite Model Management in New York City. 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.”
Schaeffer was 16 and living in the craziest, biggest city in America. New York posed a lot risks and challenges, especially in the mid-80s, but she was more than a match for it. Within the first week of living there, she was on her way to meet with a modeling agency when she noticed a young woman sitting still with a terrified look on her face in a subway station. A strange man was pacing in front of her and waving a sharpened screwdriver. Schaeffer hurried over and, pretending to know the girl, said, “It’s so great to see you, let’s go get a coffee!” and pulled her up the stairs.
Over the next two years, Schaeffer scored a short run on the soap One Life to Live, traveled 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 CBS’ new 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 L.A. soundstage, costar 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 light,” she says. “My daughter is now 28, and Rebecca was her first babysitter. Gosh, she was such a peach.”
"I love this photograph," mother Danna says of Rebecca's March 1987 Seventeen cover.
My Sister Sam, slotted in between network hits Kate & Allie and Newhart, was a success in its first season, ending the year tied as the 21st-highest-rated show. Though Dawber was the experienced TV actress, it was Schaeffer, 16 years her junior, who exhibited a sly, sideways kind of humor that gave the series its comic throttle. In the March 1987 issue, she landed on the cover of Seventeen magazine. “I love that photograph,” says Danna Schaeffer. All shining eyes and wild brunette curls, the cover shot in subsequent years has become something of an iconic image of the actress.
For My Sister Sam, an unfortunate shift to Saturday night in its second season led to a decline in ratings, and CBS eventually pulled the plug 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 UCLA screening of his student thesis. He’d often sit with Dawber’s husband, Mark Harmon, on the set and watch Schaeffer perform. “There was that wicked sense of humor, but she was also very serious about the work.”
Thank you, Jack. I don’t know why my husband loved that thing so much - something’s always wrong with it. Maybe I should just sell it.
Jack GASPS, playfully.
And work she did. Following My Sister Sam’s cancellation, Schaeffer went to Egypt to costar with Oscar-winners 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. She was also composing poetry and working on a screenplay.
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.
But the parallel with Roberts offers a hypothetical glimpse into what kind of career Schaeffer could have had. The actress was barely out of her teens with a world of potential ahead of her. Flash-forward a decade and could it have been Schaeffer winning an Oscar for Erin Brockovich? Or headlining a hit show like Will & Grace? She never got a chance to find out.
Thank you, Jack. I don’t know why my husband loved that thing so much - something’s always wrong with it. Maybe I should just sell it.
Jack GASPS, playfully.
You watch your mouth, Mrs. Peabody. This is a 1967 Chevelle. You cannot sell a 1967 Chevelle.
Alright, alright, I’ll keep it.
Schaeffer with Paul Bartel in Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, 1988's NBC TV movie Out of Time, 1991's The End of Innocence
Photo: CinECom/Everett Collection, Skouras Pictures/Photofest, NBC/Photofest
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 popularized 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, Ariz., 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 ’80s 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 traveled 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 janitor at Jack-in-the-Box, acquired Schaeffer’s home address by paying $300 to an Arizona private investigator. In a sick twist, he had learned 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, 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.”
Schaeffer's L.A. home
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, 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, Ore., 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—whose name she knew 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 crying so much that instead of tissues, Danna packed dish 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, ‘Okay. 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 traveled 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, ‘Okay, 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 humor.”
Later, in lengthy interviews with Dr. Dietz, Bardo would say that Schaeffer uttered these words before falling to the ground: “Why? Why?” Bardo escaped L.A. 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 brought to California, Bardo was charged with first-degree murder. Clark’s office ultimately 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 the first-degree murder count, which classified the killing as premeditated. (Although Bardo did not opt for an insanity defense, 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.”
Schaeffer's parents, Benson and Danna
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 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.”
Bardo, now 47, has been housed in California’s Ironwood State Prison since 2011. “What causes someone to do what he did?” Clark wonders. “In part, for sure, it’s a desire to climb out of their own anonymity. Bardo’s name will forever be linked to hers and he did indeed become famous as a result.” Occasionally he still makes the news. In 2007, Bardo was stabbed 11 times by a fellow inmate. His artwork, which has made its way to the outside world, includes portraits of Charlie Hunnam, Pennywise the clown from Stephen King’s It, John Wayne Gacy, Jennifer Aniston, Taylor Swift—and several of Rebecca Schaeffer.
A Younger Rebecca
Robert John Bardo in court and in a police handout photo
“To put it mildly,” says Robert J. Martin, a former LAPD captain who now consults for the security firm Gavin de Becker & Associates, “Schaeffer’s death was a tipping point.” In September 1989, Martin was present at a meeting in Beverly Hills organized by angry and startled Hollywood figures in the wake of the actress’ murder. “There were 600 people in the room, half of whom you would know by name, and a very well-known producer stood up and said to me, ‘What do you need us to do?’ ”
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 specialize 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 criminalize patterns of threatening behavior, were nonexistent in Schaeffer’s lifetime but are now on the books in every state. In California, for example, sentences can include a 10-year restraining order for a felony harassment conviction.
“We weren’t aware of the ripples going out right after Rebecca died,” says Silberling. “But it was an earthquake.” He remembers having a conversation years later with Brad Pitt, who was a working but relatively unknown actor in 1989. “He told me he’d actually been living on Rebecca’s street. And he said, ‘It’s no consolation, but the impact of her loss and the sense of awareness and safety for younger actors was huge.’ ”
While the lessons of Schaeffer’s death have mostly melted into history, the ugly phenomenon of celebrity obsession has metastasized. 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 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 in order to keep clients safe), before recounting 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’s 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—and sometimes celebrities themselves blur the 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. “I know in my mind’s eye that we were at the very end of the bell curve,” she says. 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.”
Rebecca Schaeffer’s apartment is just one of many stops the Dearly Departed Tour will make as it winds through L.A.—a pause before cruising on to Michael Jackson’s house or the Viper Room where River Phoenix died. And in many ways, that stucco doorway is the worst way to remember the young woman whose only mistake in life—and this is heartbreaking to fathom—was being polite to a delusional loner who rang her buzzer. A thousand miles north, in Portland’s Ahavai Sholom cemetery, there is a headstone with a swirly blue pattern that makes you feel like you’re staring at the starry night. Inscribed in the marble, the words read: i am so wise/to think love will prevail/i am so wise. r.l.s. 1989. ◆
Pop culture reaction to Rebecca Schaeffer's murder has come in various formS.
Law & Order 1992
The TV classic's second-season episode "Star Struck" was inspired by Schaeffer's case and aired less than a month after her killer was sentenced.
E! True Hollywood Story 1996
The cable network's flagship scandal show premiered in 1996 with "The Stalking and Murder of Rebecca Schaeffer."
The Fan 1996
Portraying a creeper who torments a baseball star, Robert De Niro got into character by listening to audio of Schaeffer's murderer, Robert John Bardo.
Moonlight Mile 2002
Dusitn Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, and Jake Gyllenhaal star in this deeply personal drama directed by Schaeffer's former boyfriend Brad Silberling.
The LAPD's Threat Assessment Unit, created in the wake of Schaeffer's murder, was the focus of this CBS procedural.
Once Upon a Crime 2016
Podcast host Esther Ludlow deep-dives into famed crime cases. The "Fatal Fans" chapters deal with Schaeffer and three other victims of stalking..
My Little Jezebel 2017
Danna Schaefer's one-woman show about her daughter premiered earlier this year in Portland, Ore.. More dates are planned. "I wanted it to be art," she says, "not therapy."
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