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The Short Life of Elizabeth Hartman : Instant Stardom in ‘Patch of Blue,’ Then Unemployment, Then Suicide

<i> Konte is a San Francisco journalist</i>

I can’t wait until I’m 45 and get all those great parts. --Elizabeth Hartman, in a 1971 interview.

The first reports of 43-year-old Elizabeth Hartman’s June 10 suicide here were sketchy. Homicide detectives weren’t sure just who the slight woman was who had thrown herself from the fifth-story window of her efficiency apartment. A handful of neighbors volunteered what they knew. She was an unemployed actress, they thought, who had starred long ago in some movie with Sidney Poitier.

She would have hated that description. Even though she was subsisting on disability insurance, Social Security benefits and family handouts, even though her days were spent with various psychiatrists or wandering through the Carnegie Art Museum or merely sitting, listening to records, when somebody asked Hartman what she did, she replied, “I’m a film actress.”

Some of her therapists thought that this was another of her fantasies. But she was.

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In 1965, at age 21, she was nominated for a best-actress Academy Award in her movie debut as a blind girl in “A Patch of Blue” (but lost to Julie Christie in “Darling”). She won a Golden Globe Award for most promising female newcomer. She was voted one of 1966’s Stars of Tomorrow by the American Film Exhibitors. Columnist Hedda Hopper predicted glowingly that “those who watch her at work tell me she can’t miss.”

Biff Hartman (her nickname originated from her sister’s childhood inability to pronounce Elizabeth ) of Youngstown, Ohio, had gone West and taken on the city that had been the object of so many of her childhood dreams.

And, in her own words, the city had won.

“All actresses are probably very paranoiac,” she once said in an interview with the New York Times, “and never accept the fact they’re good. You keep thinking: ‘Nobody wants me, I can’t get a job.’ That initial success beat me down. It spiraled me to a position where I didn’t belong. I was not ready for that.”

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After she died, once co-star Poitier issued the following statement: “It saddens me to think she’s no longer with us. She was a wonderful actress and a truly gentle person. We have lost a distinguished artist.”

(Another “Patch of Blue” co-star, Shelley Winters, declined comment. Her spokesperson at International Creative Management offered, “She’s busy. She was asked to appear in a documentary about Marilyn Monroe and she turned that down, too.”)

(Calls by Calendar to the Warners Bros. representative for Clint Eastwood, who starred with Hartman in “The Beguilded,” were not returned.)

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette magazine editor George Anderson had a harder edge: “I think hers was a tragic American career that peaks at the beginning and has no follow-up. It’s a common Hollywood story.”

The headline in another Pittsburgh paper summed it up. “Failing Career/Mental Problems Blamed in Actress Suicide Here.”

Those closest to Hartman get angry when it is suggested that it was just her faltering movie career that propelled her out that window. “There’s so much more to it,” says her sister, Janet Shoop. “That’s what’s so hard for people to understand about mental illness. It’s not always outward. Hartman desperately wanted to resume her career. But, in the end, it was just too difficult for her to do so.”

“I think that sort of illness is a spiraling thing,” says her former husband, screenwriter Gill Dennis (co-writer of “Apocalypse Now,” writer of HBO’s “Home Fires”). “It would have gotten her . . . no matter what she decided to do.”

But even Hartman’s brother-in-law, attorney Bob Shoop, admits that the link was there: “Don’t forget, she was nominated for an Academy Award in her first motion picture. She lived a pretty pressure-packed life for a youngster. The pressure had built up so much, I don’t think she could handle it.”

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It’s true that Hartman didn’t die like Peg Entwistle, the ‘30s would-be starlet who hurled herself dramatically from the Hollywood sign in despair over her non-career.

But it is uncomfortably coincidental that Hartman leaped to her death on June 10, five years to the day after she left movies forever.

And people like Joe Don Baker, Hartman’s co-star in “Walking Tall” (1973), do think her predicament is not unique.

“I was so upset when I heard,” he said. “But I wasn’t surprised. Nothing surprises me in this town. There are a lot of (people) here who won’t stick with someone when they’re down. She was a great actress. She should have been working. I keep thinking that acting is a noble profession, but it’s nothing but a garbage pail. I wish more people had helped her.”

His harsh Southern drawl softens. “I wish I had helped her.”

All this has happened so fast, I’m kind of misplaced. I’m just drifting around. I’m in a very strange state of mind. I used to know who Biff was, but I don’t, now. I’m suddenly in a different kind of world.

--Elizabeth Hartman, 1965 interview.

To the 21-year-old Hartman, her overnight discovery was initially part of the natural order of things.

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Ever since her childhood in Youngstown, she had been positive an acting career was her destiny.

Although desperately shy and a loner, she could lose herself in a character to such an extent that she could tune out the world, and what she perceived as her disabilities: her timidity, her daydreaming and her desire to retreat into her private fantasies. She felt her talent could make her overcome these obstacles, that it was, ultimately, all she would need for stage and motion-picture success.

“She wanted to be a movie star,” says Janet Shoop. “But she didn’t think about the glitter and glamour. She didn’t dream about those parties she’d be too shy to attend anyway. She wanted to be a star because of her abilities.”

Her success as the shy, sweet heroine Emily in a local production of “Our Town” (she was selected as Ohio High School Actress of the Year) and further triumphs in summer stock and at Carnegie Tech’s drama department, made her determined to try her luck in New York. Her excessive shyness made this initial venture a disaster. She spent five months huddled in her hotel room, too afraid of rejection to audition for acting roles. “My illusions were shattered,” she said later.

She returned to Ohio, where she got a job as a resident actor with the Cleveland Playhouse and, later, with the Kenley Players in Warren, Ohio. John Kenley, now director of the Civic Theater in Akron, encouraged her to return to New York, but not without reservations.

“She didn’t have the aggressiveness it takes,” he recalls. “She had no confidence in herself.”

Nevertheless, she came back, with an agent as a buffer this time, and was quickly offered two major roles. She accepted the ingenue lead in a play called “Everybody Out, the Castle Is Sinking.” The production closed out of town, but her performance caught the eye of MGM scouts, then casting “Patch of Blue.” She was brought to Hollywood to audition for director Guy Green, who owned the rights to Elizabeth Kata’s novel and had casting approval. The moment he saw Hartman, he says, he knew she was right for the part of the blind heroine.

“She wasn’t a glamour girl,” he says. “But I gave her a personality test, and it was astonishing how well she came across for someone with no screen experience.

“I told Sidney Poitier I wanted to cast an unknown, and he was horrified at first, until I arranged for them to work on the set together and he, too, became very happy.”

“Patch of Blue” tells the story of the waiflike Selina, accidentally blinded with boiling water by her slatternly mother (Winters). She spends her days in the park, stringing costume jewelry beads to earn her keep, where she strikes up a friendship with a kindly newsman (Poitier), never realizing he is black.

“She held her own like a pro with that cast,” says Green. “At first, I thought she was quiet, shy and retiring, until we went to the Braille Institute so she could research the role. She immediately stopped being shy at all. She was working, and it changed her. She wanted to learn everything about the experience of being blind.

“She was one of the best instinctive actresses I’ve ever worked with. She had it. No doubt about it.”

The film drew attention for several reasons. It was made on the crest of Poitier’s popularity, and it was one of the first films to feature a sympathetic relationship between a black man and a white woman.

At one point, Hartman gives Poitier a gentle kiss on the cheek. The scene made the film something of a civil rights cause celebre (at one screening, an executive yelled “There goes Alabama”), and it was excised in prints for Southern distribution. Green remembers that MGM “was terrified” of the controversy, but it ended up enhancing the film’s national box-office appeal.

Although much attention was given to Winters’ performance (she won an Academy Award for best supporting actress), the critics fell in love with Hartman.

“The prize of the cast is 21-year-old film fledgling Elizabeth Hartman,” wrote Time, “spindly and coltish as Selina, with a plain-pretty face that can erupt unexpectedly into electric beauty. She wins genuine sympathy by playing up the spunk of her role, playing against the saccharine. She is achingly real without ever being soppy. . . .”

Columnists couldn’t get enough of what they perceived as Hartman’s endearing self-deprecation. (“I was lacking the things they wanted an actress to lack . . . I was disappointed when I saw myself on screen . . . I had a different picture in mind.”)

They loved her shy remarks about Dennis, the aspiring director she was eager to wed (“I just want to be married to the person I love, have children and live in New England and make breakfast for him every day”), and her fragile, childlike qualities. “She is shy, timid,” wrote columnist Sidney Skolsky. “She sleeps in a normal-size bed in sleeveless nightgowns. She always takes her Raggedy-Ann doll to bed with her.”

When Hartman was nominated for an Oscar, sister Janet remembers it was an exciting time.

“We had a party in our apartment. My husband was in law school then, and half the school was there, and most of the local press. We were so proud. The Academy Awards were something you watch from the time you’re a little kid, and there Biff was.”

Hartman’s daydreams had come true. Film offers began to pour in. But the overnight star, who should have been ecstatic, was surprisingly pensive.

“When they bring people to meet me, you can see the look of disappointment. But I can’t be anything but what I am, or I couldn’t sleep at night. Perhaps for this reason, my career won’t be successful.”

And Dennis, who saw Hartman immediately after the first screening of “A Patch of Blue,” recalls: “She said everybody else was wonderful. But she was invisible.”

Really, my life has been so unhappy since I made that film. --Elizabeth Hartman, 1969 interview.

The film catalogue of Hartman is a very brief one. After “Patch of Blue,” she played a sexually repressed wife in “The Group” (with Candice Bergen and Joan Hackett); a shy waif in “The Fixer” (with Alan Bates), a psychotic go-go dancer in Francis Coppola’s first major film, “You’re a Big Boy Now” (with Geraldine Page and Julie Harris); a repressed schoolteacher in “Beguiled” (starring Eastwood and Page) and the victimized wife in “Walking Tall.”

Although her output was not prodigious, critics continued to admire her work. (Richard Schickel, who loathed “You’re a Big Boy Now,” wrote, “If anything, she is too strong and artful for her surroundings, and the harsh light of her work, spilling over the rest of the film, intensifies one’s sense of dismay with its juvenility.”)

Nonetheless, her career never quite took off. There are many theories why.

Her former agent, Howard Rubin, claims the offers were there, but for the wrong films. “We got 20 blind girls, deaf girls, crippled girls. Name the handicap and there was a script for it.”

Says Dennis, who married Hartman in 1969: “The role in ‘Patch of Blue’ was one an actress gets once in a lifetime. She wasn’t perceived as a comedienne, and she was a wonderful comic actress. She wasn’t offered glamorous roles. If she was going to keep getting parts where she was hesitant or insecure, she didn’t want them. But the other parts didn’t seem to exist.”

Dennis says she was offered the ingenue role in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” “But it was just another alternative on the white girl/black man theme, offered to Biff with Hollywood’s usual lack of imagination.”

Hartman blamed the studio, claiming that her ascent began when the star-making machinery was disintegrating along with it.

“I’m the last product of the star build-up,” she said in 1971. “But there was no follow-through. It got to the point where I died.”

But Janet Shoop believes part of the responsibility rested with Hartman herself. “She was a dreamer. We kept telling her to sell herself. We’d tell her, ‘This is a hard business.’ She had such an idealistic view. She’d say, ‘You don’t go selling yourself, you stand on your record.’ She’d audition for roles. But there was none of the using of contacts. That would seem bad to her.

“She liked work and applause. She liked making films better than anything else. But she didn’t want to deal with the reality of the profession. She was capable of acting, but she lacked stamina, and she wasn’t worldly enough to be a fighter. She never could do that very well.”

An example of this--Hartman badly wanted the part of Pookie Adams in “The Sterile Cuckoo” (for which Liza Minnelli later was nominated for an Academy Award). She told an interviewer, “I read for it, and (director) Alan Pakula said, ‘No, you’re just not Pookie.’ ”

“What did you do?”

“I went home,” she said simply.

Whatever the case, the shower of offers turned into a trickle, and Hartman became very depressed. When she returned to Broadway in 1969 to appear in a revival of “Our Town” with Henry Fonda, she voiced her disillusionment to the New York Times, in an article entitled prophetically, “After a Patch of Blue, Gray Skies.”

She claimed that she had spent the past two years at home, just reading and brooding (Dennis says it was actually a few months). “In a way, I expected to fail. Everybody wants to see if you can live up to your big success. Well, the parts that followed just weren’t that good.”

When the inevitable money problems occurred, Hartman was urged to take on more lucrative roles. At first, she claimed she would never do so. “I wouldn’t take any part because of the money,” she told Seventeen. (Says Janet Shoop: “That might have been another reason for the decline in parts. She was a ‘60s intellectual snob in certain ways.”)

But, in 1973, she did just that with “Walking Tall,” the violent story of Southern sheriff Buford Pusser’s campaign to clean up his town, at a risk to himself and his family. Hartman played the wife who was ambushed and killed. (Hartman hated violence and her sister says she never saw the film.)

As usual, the critics had nothing but praise for her. “Elizabeth Hartman is a gifted actress who appears too seldom,” wrote Pauline Kael. “A delicate-featured redhead with a beautifully molded brow, she has the appealing quality that the young Janet Gaynor had. You want to reach out to her, she’s huggable. (Director Phil) Karlson uses her for as much tear-jerking potential as he dares.”

Joe Don Baker has equally fond memories of Hartman. “I liked her an awful lot. She was such a sweet lady. She was fragile, a lot more fragile than I thought. There was a distant look in her eyes. But she was a wonderful actress. She helped me so much. She looked in my eyes and made me feel just like a hero.”

It was her last major screen role. Shortly after its release, Hartman began her descent into mental illness.

I’ve spent years being unhappy. What it is is that when things become so important, they’re no fun anymore. Making movies should be fun.

--Elizabeth Hartman, 1975 interview.

The signs were small at first. An increased paranoia, an oversensitivity to fancied slights. (“She’d walk down the street, and if someone didn’t smile back, she’d fall apart,” remembers a production assistant on one of her films.) She continued to voice her dissatisfaction about her lack of work. But when acting jobs were offered, she began to turn them down. Dennis says she rejected the Dyan Cannon role in “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” She even fired her publicist.

“If I encouraged her to work,” her ex-husband says, “she’d say I was betraying her. If I didn’t encourage her, she’d say I was betraying her. That’s the trick with mental illness. There are always reasons.”

She became a virtual recluse. Dennis would return home to find she had not left the house or eaten since his departure. (A reporter described her at the time as “5 feet 5 inches tall, 103 pounds, with a chalk white face.”)

“She’d cry all day,” he says, “or sleep all day, and then refuse to let me sleep at night.”

The turning point, says Dennis, was when he was offered a job writing additional scenes for “Apocalypse Now.” “I was told I had to stay in the Philippines a month. I realized we’d be out of our financial hole. It should have been a joyous time. But the moment she heard, she became incredibly paranoid.”

Dennis returned home one day to find Hartman had collected a dresser drawer full of paper scraps that she claimed contained threatening messages from an unseen enemy. She said she had gathered them in the yard. He says, “I knew then it had gone far beyond what I could handle.

“I realized what I had perceived as shyness, lack of aggressiveness and overdependence, were actually symptoms of a much greater problem. I only stayed on location for two weeks, so I wouldn’t be away from her too long. But I knew then I would not be able to survive it much longer. It was an extremely difficult decision, and a terrible, terrible time.”

Janet Shoop says simply, “Gill couldn’t handle her anymore. So he sent her back home.”

In its Sept. 7 article on Hartman, People magazine contended that it was chiefly her growing mental problems that caused her career to come to a halt after “Walking Tall.”

But Shoop claims that Hartman’s determination to be ready for the right role--the one that never came--contributed to her fall.

“Biff was determined to maintain a heightened sensitivity. She felt her sensitivity gave her good qualities in acting. But the same sensitivities caused her to become unglued in real life. She didn’t want to be in reality, fantasy was better. The fantasy was that she was going to get a film she would love, and be proud of, as ‘A Patch of Blue.’ The reality was she was having career problems. They frightened her, and she became less and less able to cope.”

“I wanted her to work,” says Dennis. “She was happier working. She got out of herself. But everything became a rationalization for her retreat, after a while. ‘I don’t want to do this role because I don’t want to be typecast.’ ‘I don’t want to do TV.’ Then she’d get offered a movie role, and she’d find a reason for rejecting that. It’s a tremendous thing, that kind of torment.”

Whatever the case, Hartman arrived at her sister’s home in Oakmont, a suburb of Pittsburgh, “not in good shape at all. She was very paranoid. She was unable to sleep, unable to talk, unable to literally do anything.”

She was institutionalized (the first of 19 hospitalizations before her death) and later alternated between staying with the Shoops and with her mother in Youngstown. (Her father had died in 1964.) In 1978, she was sent to the Institute of Living in Connecticut, a facility that helps the mentally ill learn to take care of themselves. Hartman spent a year there, eventually taking an apartment near the institute and even doing a bit of community theater. By 1979, she felt ready to return to Hollywood.

Dennis helped her move her furniture into a new apartment. After that, he never saw her again. They divorced in 1981.

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.

“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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