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The Short Life of Elizabeth Hartman : Instant Stardom in 'Patch of Blue,' Then Unemployment, Then Suicide

November 22, 1987|SANDRA HANSEN KONTE | Konte is a San Francisco journalist

PITTSBURGH — I can't wait until I'm 45 and get all those great parts. --Elizabeth Hartman, in a 1971 interview.

The first reports of 43-year-old Elizabeth Hartman's June 10 suicide here were sketchy. Homicide detectives weren't sure just who the slight woman was who had thrown herself from the fifth-story window of her efficiency apartment. A handful of neighbors volunteered what they knew. She was an unemployed actress, they thought, who had starred long ago in some movie with Sidney Poitier.

She would have hated that description. Even though she was subsisting on disability insurance, Social Security benefits and family handouts, even though her days were spent with various psychiatrists or wandering through the Carnegie Art Museum or merely sitting, listening to records, when somebody asked Hartman what she did, she replied, "I'm a film actress."

Some of her therapists thought that this was another of her fantasies. But she was.

In 1965, at age 21, she was nominated for a best-actress Academy Award in her movie debut as a blind girl in "A Patch of Blue" (but lost to Julie Christie in "Darling"). She won a Golden Globe Award for most promising female newcomer. She was voted one of 1966's Stars of Tomorrow by the American Film Exhibitors. Columnist Hedda Hopper predicted glowingly that "those who watch her at work tell me she can't miss."

Biff Hartman (her nickname originated from her sister's childhood inability to pronounce Elizabeth ) of Youngstown, Ohio, had gone West and taken on the city that had been the object of so many of her childhood dreams.

And, in her own words, the city had won.

"All actresses are probably very paranoiac," she once said in an interview with the New York Times, "and never accept the fact they're good. You keep thinking: 'Nobody wants me, I can't get a job.' That initial success beat me down. It spiraled me to a position where I didn't belong. I was not ready for that."

After she died, once co-star Poitier issued the following statement: "It saddens me to think she's no longer with us. She was a wonderful actress and a truly gentle person. We have lost a distinguished artist."

(Another "Patch of Blue" co-star, Shelley Winters, declined comment. Her spokesperson at International Creative Management offered, "She's busy. She was asked to appear in a documentary about Marilyn Monroe and she turned that down, too.")

(Calls by Calendar to the Warners Bros. representative for Clint Eastwood, who starred with Hartman in "The Beguilded," were not returned.)

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette magazine editor George Anderson had a harder edge: "I think hers was a tragic American career that peaks at the beginning and has no follow-up. It's a common Hollywood story."

The headline in another Pittsburgh paper summed it up. "Failing Career/Mental Problems Blamed in Actress Suicide Here."

Those closest to Hartman get angry when it is suggested that it was just her faltering movie career that propelled her out that window. "There's so much more to it," says her sister, Janet Shoop. "That's what's so hard for people to understand about mental illness. It's not always outward. Hartman desperately wanted to resume her career. But, in the end, it was just too difficult for her to do so."

"I think that sort of illness is a spiraling thing," says her former husband, screenwriter Gill Dennis (co-writer of "Apocalypse Now," writer of HBO's "Home Fires"). "It would have gotten her . . . no matter what she decided to do."

But even Hartman's brother-in-law, attorney Bob Shoop, admits that the link was there: "Don't forget, she was nominated for an Academy Award in her first motion picture. She lived a pretty pressure-packed life for a youngster. The pressure had built up so much, I don't think she could handle it."

It's true that Hartman didn't die like Peg Entwistle, the '30s would-be starlet who hurled herself dramatically from the Hollywood sign in despair over her non-career.

But it is uncomfortably coincidental that Hartman leaped to her death on June 10, five years to the day after she left movies forever.

And people like Joe Don Baker, Hartman's co-star in "Walking Tall" (1973), do think her predicament is not unique.

"I was so upset when I heard," he said. "But I wasn't surprised. Nothing surprises me in this town. There are a lot of (people) here who won't stick with someone when they're down. She was a great actress. She should have been working. I keep thinking that acting is a noble profession, but it's nothing but a garbage pail. I wish more people had helped her."

His harsh Southern drawl softens. "I wish I had helped her."

All this has happened so fast, I'm kind of misplaced. I'm just drifting around. I'm in a very strange state of mind. I used to know who Biff was, but I don't, now. I'm suddenly in a different kind of world.

--Elizabeth Hartman, 1965 interview.

To the 21-year-old Hartman, her overnight discovery was initially part of the natural order of things.

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