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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

"It was hard to be optimistic and encouraging after a while," says Shoop. "At first, I used to say, 'You'll be able to work again.' But I realized it was unfair. We weren't seeing progress. After a while, it wasn't 'I want you to act again.' It was 'Let's try to go out to lunch.' "

In the early part of 1987, Hartman became increasingly depressed. Neighbor Vee Toner told an interviewer that "she was very morbid. . . . She'd say things like 'Vee, I'm 42 and all by myself.' "

Shoop, too, remembers that Hartman was obsessed with age. "My youngest son had graduated from high school on June 5, and Biff couldn't believe my kids were as old as they were. Then she realized my oldest son was 21, the same age as she was when she made 'A Patch of Blue.' It threw her."

On June 9, the last day she saw Hartman, Shoop remembers that Hartman was depresed but not unusually so. She wanted to take her to lunch, but Hartman said she didn't feel like it. Instead, they had coffee at her apartment and talked about a slipcover that Shoop was making for her daybed. She wanted to take Hartman to the fabric store, but again Hartman said no. Shoop, who usually called her sister at 9:30 every morning, had a meeting the next day and told Hartman that she'd reach her the next afternoon.

She will always regret not making the morning call. On Wednesday, June 10, something happened that upset Hartman. She called her physician and said she wanted to go to the hospital. After a discussion, she calmed down a bit and said she might be all right after all.

The physician told her to lie down and relax and that Biff could come in later if she needed to see her. Instead, she opened the window.

"Biff was able to zero in on something so keenly she could exclude everything around her," Shoop said. "It gave her a fine ability in terms of her acting. She also did that in terms of living--in that she didn't always see the whole picture. People talk about the fine line between madness and brilliance. That same thing that gave her the ability to act did not allow her to live normally."

Whatever the case, Hartman is dead. Despite the conflicting theories about just why, she is certain to be relegated to the annals of those "killed by Hollywood."

Hartman's family doesn't think this was true. Others aren't so sure.

"I get so damn bitter about her lack of work at the beginning," says Baker. "I may be idealistic. But a good actress like that should have been working. But that doesn't surprise me in this town."

"I was very saddened by the news," says Arkin. "But it echoed something of the condition I had seen in her. It didn't startle me; it was not a complete surprise. She seemed so haunted. I guess she just gave way to her demons."

"It's a difficult thing to be an actress," says Dennis. "It's a horrible thing, in many ways. The great roles just don't exist. Sally Field, Meryl Streep and Cher get them right now. In two years, it'll be three other people.

"Nobody ever knew what happened to Cinderella after the ball. Yes, dreams can come true, but, for some people, life can be even harder when they do."

Whatever one believes, it's likely that film buffs can catch repeated TV reruns of "Patch of Blue" until the interest dies down. Shoop caught it on cable TV the other night, when she was alone in the house.

"At first, I just lost myself in the movie," she says. "As usual, I forgot it was Biff. I completely believed the character. But, shortly after it began, the camera zeroed in on her hands, stringing her beads.

"Biff had such childlike hands, so delicate, so sensitive . . . just like she was.

"That's when it became difficult for me. After the movie was over, I just sat back in my chair and thought about Biff and all her pain. And I cried."

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