Rebecca Schaeffer was destined to be a star. But before she had the chance to make it in Hollywood, she was murdered by an obsessed fan.
Twenty-one-year-old model and actress Rebecca Schaeffer was well on her way to becoming a star. By 1989, she had already appeared in several movies and TV shows.
However, the day she was set to audition for a part in The Godfather III, her life was horrifically cut short by an obsessed fan.
The Murder Of Rebecca Schaeffer
Rebecca Schaeffer paced her West Hollywood apartment on her final morning, July 18, 1989. She awaited the delivery of The Godfather III script which she would be reading before Academy Award-winning director Francis Ford Coppola. Schaeffer was auditioning for the part of Mary Corleone, Michael Corleone’s daughter; a role that would surely change her career.
When the doorbell rang, Schaeffer rushed downstairs, but she was not greeted by the courier she was expecting. The man on her doorstep was carrying a bag containing a copy of the book The Catcher In The Rye, an autographed photo of Schaeffer, and a card he had received from her in response to a letter he had written. Schaeffer’s card to him read, “Yours was one of the nicest I ever got.”
Schaeffer smiled sweetly and told him she needed to get ready for an appointment. She said to the man, “Please take care,” shook his hand, and closed the door.
The man, Robert John Bardo, had traveled 500 miles from Tucson, Arizona to West Hollywood to see Schaeffer. After the short interaction on the doorstep, Bardo walked to a diner and ate breakfast. He realized he had forgotten about the compact disc and letter he had also brought for Schaeffer, so decided he would return to her apartment.
This time, Schaeffer was not as patient; she was visibly annoyed and, according to Bardo, said: “Hurry up, I don’t have much time.”
Bardo responded, “I forgot to give you something.” He proceeded to pull out a .357 Magnum handgun and shot Schaeffer in the chest. She screamed, uttering, “Why, why?” Bardo turned and ran, leaving Schaeffer bleeding on her doorstep.
On hearing a gunshot and screaming, a neighbor called an ambulance, but it was too late. Schaeffer died shortly after arriving at the hospital.
Who Was Rising Starlet Rebecca Schaeffer?
Rebecca Lucile Schaeffer was born Nov. 6, 1967, in Eugene, Oregon, to Danna, a writer and teacher, and Benson Schaeffer, a psychologist.
Schaeffer was the couple’s only child. The family was dedicated to their Jewish faith and Schaeffer even considered becoming a Rabbi at one point. The family was also close, and Schaeffer said of them once, “No matter where we are in the world, we are like a three-legged stool.”
When the family moved to Portland, Schaeffer attended the prestigious Lincoln High School. She excelled socially and academically.
At the age of 14, Schaeffer was referred to talent agency Troutman Profiles Inc. by her hairdresser, Rick Putro. It wasn’t long before she was featured in department store catalogs modeling outfits for the back-to-school season. Schaeffer took to modeling and was determined to progress. The ambitions she once had of becoming a Rabbi were now behind her.
In August 1984, at 16, Schaeffer finished an internship in New York City. The city was a good fit for her; she loved the fast pace of life and endless opportunities the city had to offer. Instead of returning to Portland to complete her high school education, Schaeffer decided to return to New York.
She would attend the Professional Children’s School while looking for modeling and acting jobs. Not long after moving, Schaeffer landed the role of Annie Barnes in the soap opera One Life To Live.
Schaeffer had trouble finding modeling jobs due to her height. At five foot, seven inches tall, she was two inches shorter than the average fashion model. So she went instead to Japan, hoping she might have more luck there. Still unsuccessful, Schaeffer returned to New York and turned her attentions to acting.
With Fame Comes Misfortune
Acting jobs were steady for Schaeffer and it wasn’t long before the 18-year-old landed her biggest part yet, a leading role in the CBS sitcom My Sister Sam. In the show, charming 16-year-old Patti Russell (Schaeffer) goes to live with her sophisticated older sister, 29-year-old Sam Russell (Pam Dawber), a successful photographer in San Francisco.
Schaeffer wasn’t thrilled about moving to LA given how much she enjoyed living in New York. However, she fit right in on the set of My Sister Sam where her fellow cast members became her extended family.
In 1987, Schaeffer began dating 23-year-old Brad Silberling, a graduate student studying filmmaking at UCLA.
Schaeffer was beginning to get more of a feel for the celebrity lifestyle. The first season of My Sister Sam, which originally aired in October 1986, was a hit from the start. Schaeffer was idolized by readers of Seventeen magazine and was featured on the cover of the March 1987 issue.
She also began to receive fan mail.
Schaeffer told Judy Crown, a hairstylist on the set of My Sister Sam, how excited she was about this, but it set off alarm bells in Crown’s mind. She recalled telling Schaeffer not to respond to mail or gifts she received from fans as people could be crazy.
Crown told the Television Academy Foundation in an interview that Schaeffer was “very beautiful, very sweet, a little bit naive.”
My Sister Sam was canceled after two seasons. The final episode aired April 12, 1988. Later that year, however, Schaeffer was cast in Scenes From The Class Struggle In Beverley Hills directed by Paul Bartel. A sexy and sophisticated black comedy, the movie was different from anything Schaeffer had done previously and brought her to a new level of stardom.
Enter Robert John Bardo
Bardo fell hard for Schaeffer the first time he saw her in My Sister Sam, but this wasn’t the first time Bardo had fallen in love with a fresh face on screen.
Bardo had previously become obsessed with Samantha Smith, a 10-year-old American schoolgirl and peace activist.
Smith was known for writing a letter to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov hoping to better understand the tense Soviet-US relations. At Andropov’s request, Smith even traveled to the Soviet Union where she met and spent time with locals.
Meanwhile, Bardo traveled to Smith’s home state of Maine to try and find her. Tragically, Smith was killed in an airplane crash on Aug. 25, 1985.
Bardo then began to write letters to Schaeffer. He became increasingly convinced that he was connecting with her with each letter he sent. He wrote that he was “a sensitive guy” and that he related to Schaeffer’s character in My Sister Sam.
He knew nothing of Schaeffer outside of her TV show. When Schaeffer responded to one of Bardo’s letters saying, “Yours was one of the nicest I ever got,” Bardo only felt more convinced that she reciprocated his feelings.
On receiving the letter from Schaeffer in the summer of 1987, Bardo caught a flight to Burbank from Tucson. He made his way to Warner Brothers Studios clutching a bouquet of flowers and a giant teddy bear.
Security Chief Jack Egger remembered Bardo pleading with him to be let in, “I gotta see her. I love her. If I could just see her for a minute.” Egger felt bad for Bardo who he saw as nothing more than a lovesick teen and offered Bardo a ride back to the hotel where he was staying. Bardo accepted.
The two talked during the car ride and Egger told Bardo it would be best for him to return to Tucson. Bardo said he would. But Bardo returned a month later with a knife. He was prevented from entering the studio this time.
An Obsession Turns Deadly
The movie Scenes From The Class Struggle in Beverly Hills was released June 3, 1989, and no one was more anxious to see it than Bardo. However, on finishing the movie, the usual warmth and affection he felt for Schaeffer when watching My Sister Sam had vanished and were replaced with resentment and disgust.
What changed Bardo’s attitude towards Schaeffer was a scene featuring her character in bed with one of her male co-stars.
Bardo made his way to Anthony Agency, a Tucson private investigation firm, with a photo of Schaeffer. He told the private investigators that Schaeffer was an old friend of his and that they had corresponded in the past but he needed her current address so that he could send her a gift.
Gaining access to Schaeffer’s home address proved to be incredibly easy. Bardo paid $300 to this private investigator and they got in touch with the California Department of Motor Vehicles on his behalf. The California DMV, in turn, provided the P.I. with Schaeffer’s home address. This was all perfectly legal, given driver’s license information was public record at the time.
Bardo attempted to buy a gun, too, but the owner of the shop refused to sell one to him when he found out about Bardo’s history of mental illness. Bardo then asked his brother, Edward, to buy one for him and Edward agreed as long as his brother promised only to use it when they were together for target practice.
Shortly before Bardo boarded a Greyhound Bus headed for L.A., he wrote a letter to his older sister in Knoxville, Tennessee.
In the letter, he wrote:
“I have an obsession with the unattainable. I have to eliminate [what] I cannot attain.”
He did not specifically mention Schaeffer, however.
Bardo’s Arrest And Trial
The day after Bardo murdered Schaeffer, he was located in Tucson attempting to kill himself by running in and out of traffic. He was yelling that he had killed Rebecca Schaeffer.
Authorities in Tucson arrested Bardo and held him on a one-million-dollar bail. They contacted the LAPD and told them that they were holding Robert John Bardo, and faxed his photo over.
LAPD showed the photo to witnesses who had come forward saying they had been approached by a man asking where Rebecca Schaeffer lived the morning she was murdered. Witnesses confirmed it was the same man in the photo.
Discarded just blocks from Schaeffer’s apartment, LAPD found a yellow shirt, a gun holster and a copy of The Catcher In The Rye. LAPD also received a phone call from a Tennessee Highway Patrol Officer. The officer informed them that Bardo’s sister had gotten a phone call from her brother the morning of the shooting.
Bardo had told her he was just one-and-a-half blocks away from Schaeffer’s apartment at the time.
Bardo’s public defender, Stephen Galindo, argued that Bardo was incapable of planning the murder due to mental illness. Bardo’s brother, Edward, added in court that his brother had spent time in a psychiatric hospital when he was younger.
While in jail awaiting trial, Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist, interviewed Bardo and the young shooter told him “there was something very special about Rebecca, and I just couldn’t let go of her.”
Bardo explained that he identified with Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s killer. Indeed, both Chapman and Bardo were carrying a copy of The Catcher In The Rye when they killed their victims.
Bardo also told Dietz that the song “Exit” by U2 gave him the idea to kill Schaeffer. During the trial, Galindo played the song. Bardo was transformed by the music, he sang along, tapped his feet, and bobbed his head to the beat.
Dietz testified finally that though Bardo was a schizophrenic since childhood, he was not legally insane.
Prosecuting Bardo’s trial was Marcia Clark, who would later prosecute OJ Simpson. Clark argued that Bardo could not be simply insane given that he had stalked Schaeffer for two years before going on to murder her.
Judge Dino Fulgoni sided with the prosecution. On Oct. 29, 1991, Bardo was convicted of first-degree murder. He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Bardo is currently incarcerated at Avenal State Prison in California. In prison, he spends much of his time drawing celebrities. A number of his drawings are available for purchase online.
Remembering Rebecca Schaeffer
In honor of Schaeffer, the cast of My Sister Sam gathered to make a PSA about preventing handgun violence. Pam Dawber even testified before Congress on the issue of implementing common-sense gun laws.
If anything positive came out of Schaeffer’s death, it was the anti-stalking movement which led to several changes in the law.
In 1990, California passed the first anti-stalking law in the country and officially labeled stalking a crime. There was also a strong push from the Screen Actors Guild to protect personal information held by the DMV; California was the first state to restrict access to this information.
In 1994, the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act was passed by Congress which required every state to do the same.
Rebecca Schaeffer was buried at Ahavai Sholom Cemetery in Portland, Oregon.
Over 200 mourners attended the service. Condolences poured in from the many people whose lives were touched by Schaeffer during her short time on earth.
After this heartbreaking look at the death of Rebecca Schaeffer, a rising starlet, read up on another bright talent distinguished too early with the story of Dorothy Stratten, the playmate murdered by her husband. Then, read about the disturbing murder of starlet Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson Family.