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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

As usual, the critics had nothing but praise for her. "Elizabeth Hartman is a gifted actress who appears too seldom," wrote Pauline Kael. "A delicate-featured redhead with a beautifully molded brow, she has the appealing quality that the young Janet Gaynor had. You want to reach out to her, she's huggable. (Director Phil) Karlson uses her for as much tear-jerking potential as he dares."

Joe Don Baker has equally fond memories of Hartman. "I liked her an awful lot. She was such a sweet lady. She was fragile, a lot more fragile than I thought. There was a distant look in her eyes. But she was a wonderful actress. She helped me so much. She looked in my eyes and made me feel just like a hero."

It was her last major screen role. Shortly after its release, Hartman began her descent into mental illness.

I've spent years being unhappy. What it is is that when things become so important, they're no fun anymore. Making movies should be fun.

--Elizabeth Hartman, 1975 interview.

The signs were small at first. An increased paranoia, an oversensitivity to fancied slights. ("She'd walk down the street, and if someone didn't smile back, she'd fall apart," remembers a production assistant on one of her films.) She continued to voice her dissatisfaction about her lack of work. But when acting jobs were offered, she began to turn them down. Dennis says she rejected the Dyan Cannon role in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice." She even fired her publicist.

"If I encouraged her to work," her ex-husband says, "she'd say I was betraying her. If I didn't encourage her, she'd say I was betraying her. That's the trick with mental illness. There are always reasons."

She became a virtual recluse. Dennis would return home to find she had not left the house or eaten since his departure. (A reporter described her at the time as "5 feet 5 inches tall, 103 pounds, with a chalk white face.")

"She'd cry all day," he says, "or sleep all day, and then refuse to let me sleep at night."

The turning point, says Dennis, was when he was offered a job writing additional scenes for "Apocalypse Now." "I was told I had to stay in the Philippines a month. I realized we'd be out of our financial hole. It should have been a joyous time. But the moment she heard, she became incredibly paranoid."

Dennis returned home one day to find Hartman had collected a dresser drawer full of paper scraps that she claimed contained threatening messages from an unseen enemy. She said she had gathered them in the yard. He says, "I knew then it had gone far beyond what I could handle.

"I realized what I had perceived as shyness, lack of aggressiveness and overdependence, were actually symptoms of a much greater problem. I only stayed on location for two weeks, so I wouldn't be away from her too long. But I knew then I would not be able to survive it much longer. It was an extremely difficult decision, and a terrible, terrible time."

Janet Shoop says simply, "Gill couldn't handle her anymore. So he sent her back home."

In its Sept. 7 article on Hartman, People magazine contended that it was chiefly her growing mental problems that caused her career to come to a halt after "Walking Tall."

But Shoop claims that Hartman's determination to be ready for the right role--the one that never came--contributed to her fall.

"Biff was determined to maintain a heightened sensitivity. She felt her sensitivity gave her good qualities in acting. But the same sensitivities caused her to become unglued in real life. She didn't want to be in reality, fantasy was better. The fantasy was that she was going to get a film she would love, and be proud of, as 'A Patch of Blue.' The reality was she was having career problems. They frightened her, and she became less and less able to cope."

"I wanted her to work," says Dennis. "She was happier working. She got out of herself. But everything became a rationalization for her retreat, after a while. 'I don't want to do this role because I don't want to be typecast.' 'I don't want to do TV.' Then she'd get offered a movie role, and she'd find a reason for rejecting that. It's a tremendous thing, that kind of torment."

Whatever the case, Hartman arrived at her sister's home in Oakmont, a suburb of Pittsburgh, "not in good shape at all. She was very paranoid. She was unable to sleep, unable to talk, unable to literally do anything."

She was institutionalized (the first of 19 hospitalizations before her death) and later alternated between staying with the Shoops and with her mother in Youngstown. (Her father had died in 1964.) In 1978, she was sent to the Institute of Living in Connecticut, a facility that helps the mentally ill learn to take care of themselves. Hartman spent a year there, eventually taking an apartment near the institute and even doing a bit of community theater. By 1979, she felt ready to return to Hollywood.

Dennis helped her move her furniture into a new apartment. After that, he never saw her again. They divorced in 1981.

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