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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

I would like to play a well - adjusted girl who isn't afflicted, in a comedy like Katharine Hepburn used to do. Oh, I forgot. Nobody writes well-adjusted things anymore.

--Elizabeth Hartman, 1979 interview.

Hartman attempted to go back to work. Unfortunately, her absence had only lessened producer interest in her. She was reduced to taking roles in undistinguished movies like "Full Moon High," in which she played a high school teacher trying to cope with a teen-age werewolf, played by Adam Arkin.

Arkin, now a co-star in NBC's "A Year in the Life," says: "She seemed haunted, vulnerable, obviously very fragile. She kept her distance from everybody. I tried to talk to her a little bit and asked if I could do anything to make her feel more comfortable. She seemed to want privacy, but also seemed pleased--and surprised--by my intentions."

However, things improved when Hartman was offered the role of Myrtle Brown in the national company of "Morning's at Seven." After the Boston opening, she received the kind of glowing reviews she had gotten in the old days. But the situation had worsened. Shortly after the run began, Janet Shoop received a call from a concerned physician.

"She was very suicidal," she recalls. "As soon as I arrived, she took an overdose of sleeping pills and was rushed to intensive care. But, the next night, she appeared on stage and she was wonderful. I spent two weeks with her to try to get her to the theater every night. She was frightened of everyone and everything. We'd go to breakfast, and she'd get up and dash out as though somebody was after her.

"But on stage, she was functional. The second she took her bow, she wasn't."

When the play came to Los Angeles as a production of the Center Theatre Group in 1981, a family friend was hired to look after Hartman. But, during the Chicago run, she felt unable to continue. "She quit," says Shoop. "But everyone connected with the show was wonderful and supportive about it."

She returned to Hollywood. But, even though Hartman was now willing to take anything, the offers were sparse. Baker remembers seeing her in a Beverly Hills restaurant in 1982. "She seemed very upset about not working," he says. "Nothing was happening. She seemed very disappointed. She felt she should have been in some A movie."

She accepted one final role, the voice of the mouse heroine, Mrs. Brisby, in the Don Bluth animated feature, "The Secret of NIMH."

But it was her final performance. On June 10, 1982, feeling depressed, disillusioned and unable to take care of herself, Hartman returned home for good.

One of her last lines in the movie is: "Don't let me fall. I'm afraid of heights."

As for the future, I'd just like to be offered some roles and be healthy enough to accept them, and--ha--live a happy, peaceful, contented life. --Elizabeth Hartman, 1971 interview.

For a while, she rested and read, wrote and brooded. She was hospitalized again and, for a time, lived in a halfway house.

When she felt better, on the advice of a physician, it was decided that she would have an enhanced sense of self-sufficiency if she got her own apartment. It was a tiny place (all her money had long since gone to doctors and hospitals). But she felt at home. For a while, things worked well. Hartman had never learned to drive, and the apartment's closeness to the museum, the grocery store and Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic was convenient. She even attempted some volunteer work, setting up programs at the museum, and worked for a time as a cashier there.

But Hartman could not forget her past. Once, she ran away for two weeks. No one knew where she was. Eventually, she was tracked to Los Angeles, where she checked into a hotel room, and just sat waiting, no one is sure exactly for what. She said she wanted to die.

Her neighbors were vaguely aware she had been an actress, but she seldom talked about it. "She didn't have any friends. She said it was too difficult for her," says Shoop. Among the few friends who remained from the old days were Francis Coppola and Geraldine Page, who continued to communicate with and support her. (Page died of a heart attack shortly after Hartman died.)

"I had received a letter from her shortly before her death," says Coppola. "She seemed excited about acting in the theater again. She sent me an identification card from a library she was working in. It had a current picture. She made a few jokes in the letter, and seemed happy to be going on her own and thinking about acting again. I was mentally composing a letter in response to her when I learned of her death."

On her good days, she did indeed think she might try to work again. Once, she gathered all her courage and went to call on the director of a local theater company. His first words, says Shoop, were "Well, here's Miss Hollywood."

Another director was more supportive. He even suggested another meeting. Hartman never kept the appointment.

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