Beautiful 22-year-old actress Rebecca Schaeffer started her film career as a teenaged model. In 1986, she landed the supporting role as Patricia “Patti” Russell in the 1980s sitcom My Sister Sam. The show ran for two years before its cancellation due to low ratings. However the beautiful actress appeared in several films, including, ironically, the black comedy Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, which was released six weeks before her death.
Schaeffer appeared in department store catalogs and also appeared in television commercials and as an extra in a television film. In August 1984, Schaeffer’s parents allowed her to move to New York City by herself to pursue a modeling career.
In late 1984, Schaeffer landed the role of Annie Barnes on ABC’s One Life to Live, for a stint that lasted six months. During this time, she attempted to further her modeling prospects. At 5 ft 7 in, she was too short for high fashion modeling and struggled to find work. In 1985, Schaeffer moved to Japan in hopes of finding more modeling jobs, but still encountered difficulty due to her height. She returned to New York City and decided to focus on an acting career.
In 1986, Schaeffer won a small role in Woody Allen’s Radio Days, but her performance was deleted. She continued modeling and worked as a waitress. After landing the cover of Seventeen magazine, she caught the attention of television producers who were casting for My Sister Sam, starring Pam Dawber, who would later gain fame as Mindy alongside Robin Williams in the highly successful sitcom Mork and Mindy.
Schaeffer won the role of Patricia “Patti” Russell, a teenager who moves from Oregon to San Francisco to live with her 29-year old sister Samantha “Sam” Russell after, in a creepy irony, the death of their parents. The series was initially a hit, ranking in the top 25, but was canceled halfway through its second season in April 1988 due to falling ratings.
On July 18, 1989, Schaeffer was fatally shot by lunatic Robert John Bardo, an obsessed fan who had been stalking her for three years. At 19, he was a high-school drop-out whom his teachers described as having “no social skills.” Bardo became obsessed with Schaeffer after the previous target of his obsession, child peace activist Samantha (ironic) Smith, died in a plane crash in 1985, yet another dark foreshadowing for things yet to be. Did anything that wasn’t grim follow this woman?
Bardo wrote numerous, doubtlessly creepy letters to Schaeffer, in which he claimed he was going to marry her. Finally, one of his letters was answered by an employee of Schaeffer’s fan service, who sent him an autographed picture. Encouraged, in 1987, Bardo traveled to Los Angeles hoping to meet with Schaeffer at the My Sister Sam set, but was turned away by Warner Brothers security. Angry, he returned a month later armed with a knife but security guards prevented him from gaining access to the actress a second time. Bardo returned to his native Tucson, Arizona and lost focus on Schaeffer for a while when he became preoccupied by pop singers Debbie Gibson and Tiffany. It may well have been one of the teen pop queens who died at Bardo’s hands, had his sick interest not returned to Schaeffer.
Bardo revealed that it was when Schaeffer appeared nude in bed with an actor in Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, that he became enraged with jealousy. Bardo told police he felt Schaeffer should be punished for becoming “another Hollywood whore“. After learning that Arthur Richard Jackson, a man that stalked and stabbed actress Theresa Saldana in 1982, had used a private investigator to obtain Saldana’s address, Bardo approached a detective agency in Tucson and paid them $250 to find Schaeffer’s home address. Bardo’s brother helped him get a Ruger GP100 .357 calibre handgun because at 19, he was underage although Bardo looked older than his 19 years, with his penetrating, dark eyes, receding hairline and shaved head.
Bardo traveled to Los Angeles a third time. He wandered around Schaeffer’s neighbourhood asking passersby where she lived. Finally he located her apartment building and rang the doorbell. After a brief conversation, Schaeffer sensed Bardo’s mental instability and told him not to return to her apartment. Bardo left and went to a nearby diner for breakfast. Bardo cheerfully told police that, an hour later, he returned to Schaeffer’s apartment for a second time to “give her a letter as an excuse to bring her closer….it’s hot, you know?”
Schaeffer answered the door again with “a cold look on her face,” Bardo later said. This was all the justification Bardo needed to kill Schaeffer. Bardo pulled out his gun from a brown paper bag and shot her in the chest at point-blank range in the doorway of her apartment building. He demonstrated the act for police in a grand Clint Eastwood gesture, with sound effects,(“pow!”) pointing his hand with his finger pointed. He emphasized that “blood spurted out and she was like whyyyy? She was just screaming.” Schaeffer screamed and collapsed in her doorway as Bardo fled.
A neighbor phoned paramedics, who arrived to transport her to Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre but Schaeffer was pronounced dead thirty minutes after her arrival. Bardo ran away after killing Schaeffer waiting for “the great result that would come and it didn’t come, so now he gets back to Arizona and he acts in a way that will predictably bring attention to himself.” The next day, Bardo was arrested after motorists reported a man running through traffic on Interstate 10. He immediately confessed to the murder.
After his arrest and trial, Bardo was found guilty of homicide in the first degree and sentenced to life in prison. Schaeffer’s life and death became the topic of the first E! True Hollywood Story episode, which aired 10 years after the murder, on March 29, 1996. Her murder was highlighted in the E! television special 20 Most Horrifying Hollywood Murders. At the time of her death, Schaeffer was dating director Brad Silberling, after they had previously dated and broken up. Her death served as the inspiration for Silberling’s 2002 film Moonlight Mile, about the grief of a man whose fiancee was murdered. The film bore little resemblance to the briefly renewed relationship between Schaeffer and Silberling.
Why does a person become a stalker? A psychotherapist explained that stalkers feel as though they”aren’t somebody unless somebody loves them….they are trying to achieve the feeling I am worthy. I am loveable.”
Schaeffer appeared in two more dark-themed movies, The End of Innocence and Voyage of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair, that were released posthumously 1990. On the brink of major stardom, Schaeffer’s movie career ended the way her life had: in bleak despair.