For actor David Huffman, it was only a short walk in broad daylight from the warmth and safety of Balboa Park's Old Globe Theatre to a stabbing death Wednesday afternoon in the cool gulley of a secluded park canyon.
Huffman, 40, who starred in the Old Globe's current production of "Of Mice and Men," was found slain at the far end of a narrow nature trail. His body was found by a group of schoolchildren on a field trip. He had been dead less than hour.
Because Huffman had no wallet on him when he was found, his body was not identified until late Wednesday night, slowing the police investigation of his death. A Los Angeles resident, Huffman is survived by his wife, Phyllis, and two sons.
Homicide detectives beginning their work Thursday said they were baffled. They had no suspects, no motive and only a vague idea of how Huffman came to be the victim of what appeared to be a random crime.
"Who would think that anyone would be killed with all these people walking around?" Sgt. Ted Armijo asked as he stood at the spot where Huffman's van was found with its doors unlocked, the keys in the ignition and the emergency lights flashing.
"There are a lot of pieces that just don't fit together," said one stunned fellow actor who asked not to be named.
The following scenario was pieced together after interviews with members of the Old Globe crew, Balboa Park workers and police investigators:
Huffman, who was scheduled to leave the production Sunday for a job in a television miniseries, went to the theater sometime before noon Wednesday to share cookies with the cast and crew as a gesture of friendship. He was last seen at the theater sometime between 12:15 and 12:45 p.m.
Huffman left the Globe on foot, heading to his van, which apparently was parked near the Organ Pavilion about half a mile away. The van was seen parked illegally on a busy park street near the pavilion at 12:20 p.m., and it was found there by Huffman's co-workers late Wednesday night.
The body was found at 1:09 p.m.--less than an hour after Huffman left the theater. It lay in a gulley in Palm Canyon, a steep-sloped crevice covered with eucalyptus and palm trees and known to be frequented by transients. Found by a group of schoolchildren who were on a midday nature walk, the body was next to an archery range, about 200 yards from Huffman's van and not more than 100 yards down a hill from the Balboa Park Club. About 25 San Diego police officers were training at the club at the time of the slaying.
Actor Paul Rudd, who came to know Huffman while the two worked in separate plays at the Globe, said Huffman was the kind of person who would not have hesitated to stop his van, leap out and run down into the canyon had he been led to believe
that someone needed his help. In the absence of other clues, Rudd and others surmised that such an incident may have been what led to Huffman's death.
Although the coroner's office has said that Huffman died of puncture wounds to his chest and abdomen, the wounds were small and the foul play was not immediately evident to those who found the body.
Police homicide investigators at the scene Thursday afternoon said it appeared that the confrontation was brief. To get from his van to Palm Canyon, the actor would have had to cross a busy park street and a small lawn to a staircase leading to a canyon trail.
Police said there were no signs that the body was dragged to the spot at which it was found. There was no indication of a struggle. There was no wallet or other identification on Huffman's body, although there was a small amount of money in his pants pocket.
"I'm sure if someone had seen it happen they would have notified us immediately," a police investigator said. "That's why I say . . . it must have happened very rapidly."
Although the spot where Huffman appears to have died is near some of the park's most-traveled corridors, it is also secluded. The canyon walls are steep and slippery (a park maintenance man said he watered the slope shortly after noon) and the tall trees shade the gulley, blocking the view from the canyon's rim. Airliners heading toward Lindbergh Field pass directly overhead, sometimes muffling all other sounds.
"We're right here under the landing path," groundskeeper Bill Klumpp said as he stood on the trail. "Some days it's so loud you can't even hear yourself think."
In the Old Globe "Of Mice and Men" production, which opened Feb. 2 and runs through March 10, Huffman played George, the grousing ranch hand of John Steinbeck's classic Depression-era tale. George is the shrewd buddy and protector of the hulking, feeble-minded Lenny, whom George ultimately must shoot in an act that mixes mercy with retribution. Huffman was to give his final performance in the role on Sunday night, then depart on Monday for Hollywood, where he was to begin shooting a TV miniseries about the Civil War, titled "The Blue and the Gray."
"It was an offer he couldn't refuse," Old Globe spokesman Bill Eaton said of Huffman's decision to depart the "Of Mice and Men" cast before the end of the show's run. Ironically, Huffman's understudy in the George role had not performed the part before Wednesday afternoon's special student matinee. Huffman was not scheduled to perform the Wednesday matinee.
Rudd, who has the lead role in the Old Globe's other current production, "Stage Struck," said he became friendly with Huffman during the last month and was immediately concerned for Huffman's safety when he learned that the actor was missing.
"David was such a responsible actor that I had this feeling that he had come to harm as soon as I heard he was missing," Rudd said. "We became friendly backstage, as actors do, and David was clearly somebody who had been through the same things I had, and he was clearly a very happy man, the way he talked about his two boys and his wife.
"He was definitely a Good Samaritan type, someone you would surely be able to count on if you were in trouble."
Old Globe production stage manager Douglas Pagliotti said, "He was very much a regular guy, very supportive of everybody else." Pagliotti identified Huffman's body for police late Wednesday.
Huffman had previously appeared at the Old Globe in last year's production of "Quartermaine's Terms." On Broadway, he appeared in the original company of Tennessee Williams' "Small Craft Warnings," and he created the role of Mark in "Shadow Box" at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum. He played Elliot Roosevelt in the made-for-TV movie "Eleanor and Franklin"; Orville Wright in another TV film, "The Winds of Kitty Hawk," and had roles in such other TV films as "In the Matter of Karen Anne Quinlan" and "Captains and the Kings."
Huffman also had supporting roles in the films "Firefox," "F.I.S.T.," "Ice Castles" and "The Onion Field" and had leading roles in "The Honor Guard" and the horror film "Blood Beach."