Victim, Suspect From Different Worlds : Actress’ Bright Success Collided With Obsession

Times Staff Writers

From his parents’ house in a treeless, sun-parched subdivision in Tucson, Robert John Bardo wrote letter after letter to actress Rebecca Schaeffer, missives to another world.

Scrawled shakily in pen, the letters were Bardo’s way of reaching out from the boredom and insignificance of his young life. At 19, a janitor at a succession of hamburger stands, he was on the cusp of manhood, but going nowhere.

Filling page after page, Bardo detailed his chaste devotion to the fresh-faced young woman who appeared to him only when his television set glowed. He quoted John Lennon lyrics. He told her he was “a sensitive guy.” In one passage, he explained: “I’m harmless. You could hurt me.”

Rebecca Schaeffer knew little of Robert Bardo’s private stirrings. He was a fan, nothing more, though his correspondence was memorable enough that later, after the worst had happened, her mother would dimly recall having been told of him.

If Bardo’s world was constricted, Schaeffer’s was wide open, as busy and promising as a teen-age girl’s reverie. Independent and talented, the 21-year-old from Portland, Ore., toiled eagerly at her craft, achieving a small measure of celebrity for her role as the ditsy sister on the television show “My Sister Sam” and in films such as Woody Allen’s “Radio Days” and the recent “Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills.”


Rebecca Schaeffer and Robert Bardo shared only a gritty determination. She wanted to be a successful actress. He had to connect with her. If the police account is accurate, they both succeeded.

Tuesday morning, authorities said, shortly before she was to meet with director Francis Ford Coppola about a role she sought in a “Godfather” sequel, Schaeffer opened the door of her West Los Angeles apartment to find a gunman waiting for her. The police say that the man was Robert Bardo and that he fired one deadly shot into her chest.

The slaying of Rebecca Schaeffer appears to have been a collision of Los Angeles’ brightest and darkest strains. Schaeffer came from the ranks of thousands of unsung actors and actresses struggling to win their portion of fame; Bardo stepped out of the legion of nowhere men--in the Beatles lyrics he loved to quote--drawn to the city and its entertainment industry like moths, flitting about the edges but rarely penetrating.

Hollywood’s system for protecting its human assets has always been limited. The wealthiest can hire bodyguards and hide themselves behind estates isolated by iron gates and wired shrubbery. But for comers like Rebecca Schaeffer, unlisted phone numbers and screening services are about all that stand as protectors of security.

Always a Trail

“If a person is inquisitive enough,” said Los Angeles Homicide Detective Dan Andrews, who investigated Schaeffer’s death last week, “a trail can be found.”

Even if there had been other safety measures at Rebecca Schaeffer’s disposal, her friends and associates say it’s doubtful she would have used them.

“She wasn’t really aware of the dangers a celebrity can face,” said Nina Jenkins, a friend at the Portland talent agency that first represented Schaeffer. “She didn’t take precautions.”

On screen, wide-eyed and luminous beneath a corona of curls, Schaeffer projected a kid sister’s helplessness. Off the set, she took risks, nervy enough as a teen-ager to drop out of high school before graduation for an uncertain future as a model in New York.

It was an attitude she inherited from her parents. Her father, Dr. Benson Schaeffer, a child psychologist who trained at UCLA, interrupted his lucrative practice to study Yiddish theater in New York. Her mother, Danna Schaeffer, a writer, supported her daughter’s career decision despite private reservations.

A Move to Oregon

Danna Schaeffer said in an interview Saturday that she and her husband, who both spent their early years in Los Angeles, moved from Eugene, Ore., to Portland in 1980. There, they settled in Laurelhurst, an affluent community of well-kept homes with peaked roofs and sloping lawns.

At Lincoln High, the city’s most elite public school, Rebecca joined the “talented and gifted” program. She talked of becoming a rabbi, but by her junior year she was swept up by the promise of a modeling career.

Rebecca’s hairdresser, Rick Putro, had noticed her juvenile sparkle. He put her in touch with Troutman Profiles Inc., a talent agency. Soon, she was appearing in department store catalogues, modeling back-to-school outfits.

In August, 1984, after a summer internship in New York, she moved East, intending to combine modeling with a final year at the Professional Children’s School, an academy for aspiring actors.

Her parents wished her well. Despite their brave faces, they had doubts.

“It was the worst year of my life,” Danna Schaeffer said. “I would go to bed, crying every night for nine months.”

At Home in the City

Rebecca took to the city. Her first day there, her mother said, “she was walking down the street and some guy tried to (fondle) her. She turned around and punched him right in the face. She had no fears.”

Yet, in a town where aspiring models are in oversupply, Rebecca failed to make a dent. At 5 feet, 7 inches tall, she was two inches shorter than the standard minimum height for fashion models.

Rebecca took her slow start in stride, friends said. To strengthen her resume, she went to Japan in 1985 but endured more grief about her height. When she returned, she threw herself into acting.

Quickly, she found roles, first a minor walk-on in “Radio Days,” then a temporary part on a soap opera. But rent payments loomed. She lost her telephone and bank card. And making the rounds of cafes and bistros, she hoped for a waitress opening.

Returning to her apartment one day in 1986, she found a note on her door. It was a request for her to audition for a TV series. The producers of “My Sister Sam” had seen a videotape of Schaeffer. She was perfect for the part as Pam Dawber’s sister, a mixture of youthful radiance and dizzy charm.

Missed New York

Arriving in Los Angeles in her Volkswagen convertible, Rebecca was not thrilled to be in California. “She couldn’t get Chinese food at 4 in the morning,” said her former agent, Nannette Troutman. “The smog, the freeways . . .”

“The whole cast took to her, it was very family ,” said Mimi Weber, Dawber’s manager.

Rebecca played Patti Russell, a free-spirit who moves in with her sister, Dawber’s Samantha Russell, a San Francisco photographer. The show aimed at finding humor in an unexplored sibling generation gap. Critics found it wide of the mark. One called it the “quintessential lost cause.”

“My Sister Sam” lasted from October, 1986, until April, 1988.

But even the most dismal television project draws a cadre of loyalists, the kind of people who write often overly familiar letters to strangers who entertain on their living room television sets.

The day after Rebecca Schaeffer’s death last week, her grieving parents sifted through two sacks of fan mail on her apartment floor. They found two letters--one sent in 1986, another in 1987--from Robert Bardo. By now, of course, they knew their significance. The parents sat on the floor as they read them.

“My husband was just white and shaking,” Danna Schaeffer said. Later, they would be told by police investigators, the letters they found were only a small sample of a regular flow of correspondence that Bardo mailed to Rebecca Schaeffer.

Signs of Obsession

To Danna Schaeffer, the letters showed a confused teen-ager who was “very adoring and worshipful,” a youth “more obsessive than violent.”

The parents read “for something that would give us a clue, but they were very vague,” neither sexual nor even openly romantic. In prose that was rambling but “didn’t seem illiterate,” Bardo told only scant details of his own life.

He enclosed song lyrics of his own and snippets from John Lennon. He had a rock demo that he wanted her to hear. And he told her how he identified with a “My Sister Sam” episode in which her character voiced yearnings for the life of a celebrity.

“I know what you mean,” he wrote to her.

He did not.

There was nothing in Bardo’s life that had ever approached the stuff of celebrity. Until last week, the closest he ever came to connecting with that special magic apparently was when he received a glossy photograph of Schaeffer with vague words of encouragement scrawled on the back. Such replies to fan letters are not uncommon.

According to police and neighbors, Bardo is the youngest of seven children of Phillip and June Bardo. The senior Bardo is a retired airman who settled in southwest Tucson about seven years ago.

A Familiar Figure

The family found a home in Midvale Park, a subdivision with carbon-copy, squat red brick houses. Its streets are named after trees, but there is little vegetation, save for a few shrubs and cacti. Lacking shade, the houses are naked to the sun until dusk.

Robert Bardo ignored the harsh sun. He was a familiar figure on the commercial strips near his home, a slack-jawed, ember-eyed young man shambling the streets like a phantom. “He looked out of place,” said James Lee, manager of a video chain several miles from Midvale Park. “You know, sometimes you’re driving down a road and you pass somebody who doesn’t look right?”

For no reason, he flipped obscene signs at neighbors. Sometimes he burst through their manicured yards, for reasons unclear.

And sometimes at night, after his oppressive day jobs were over, Bardo erupted, marring the desert stillness to rage at neighbors and kin as if they were strangers.

“He was a real ‘Psycho’ guy,” shuddered a neighbor, Sydney Degon.

Tucson police said that Bardo was arrested three times in the last 18 months, though never formally convicted. In the most recent episode, he pleaded no contest to charges of disorderly conduct and domestic violence, sentenced to an unsupervised counseling program in which--Pima County Court records indicate--he never enrolled.

Party Disrupted

Just eight nights ago, neighbors attending a Mexican-American quinceanera festival for a 15-year-old girl across the street from the Bardo home were suddenly confronted by the enraged teen-ager. He cursed the Latino men.

According to Juan DeDios Ortega, a guest, Bardo threatened: “If you don’t shut up, I’m going to get my .357 magnum and shoot you!”

Despite his strain of dark behavior, Robert Bardo had showed signs of promise at Chaparral Junior High School, according to school officials. A “straight A” student, he completed only a year at Pueblo High School, but recently had passed a high school equivalency test.

Robert Bardo showed his shrewder, more determined side when he appeared at the A.A. Investigators detective agency on June 1. According to a firm official Bardo entered carrying a folder containing several letters from Rebecca Schaeffer and a glossy photograph that--her parents later verified--she had sent to Bardo as a gift to a devoted fan.

“He said he needed to get in touch with an old friend,” the A.A. official said.

Sitting down with an investigator, Bardo satisfied the man that he was an acceptable client. “He had a permanent address, a job, lived with his parents, so he seemed legit,” the A.A. official said. “He had Tucson roots.”

Paid $250 for their efforts, the unwitting operatives easily found Schaeffer, using California computer data bases and motor vehicle registration information available to any state resident.

Knew Where to Go

From then on, it was a matter of time. Police believe that Bardo had already made several bus trips from Tucson to Los Angeles in a futile effort to find Schaeffer. This time, he knew where to go.

That a fan’s adoration might veer into dangerous obsession is not an unfamiliar possibility. From Jodie Foster to John Lennon to Theresa Saldana and on and on--the script, depressingly, borders on boilerplate.

Just when Bardo went from fan to fanatic, is not known, police said. He, however, apparently had some awareness of the transformation.

Just before his journey to Los Angeles, he wrote his sister in Knoxville, Tenn., saying: “I have an obsession with the unattainable and I have to eliminate (something) that I cannot attain.”

Tucson police and Greyhound bus officials believe that Bardo left that city on the 7 p.m. bus Monday evening. A disheveled sight in a yellow shirt, spectacles and sandals, he stepped down from the bus and passed through the dismal aisles of the downtown Los Angeles bus terminal just after 5 a.m.

Investigators said that he apparently took an RTD bus west from the terminal. “My understanding is he traveled by city bus whenever he moved through Los Angeles,” said LAPD Detective Andrews.

Despite the information gleaned from the detective agency, Bardo began canvassing the neighborhood near Schaeffer’s apartment just after 6 a.m. She had moved from the Hollywood Hills to a neighborhood near the Fairfax District, a move that pleased her parents because they thought it would be safer.

Homes for Actors

The street where she lived, Sweetzer Avenue just south of Beverly Boulevard, abounds with 1940s-era spacious apartments and sunny courtyards. Some rent for upwards of $1,000 to Hollywood strivers like Schaeffer.

It was a neighborhood where everyone at least recognized each other. Dina Gofman, who runs a tailor shop down the block, knew Schaeffer not as an actress, but rather as the “pretty young girl” who came in once to repair an antique dress.

Robert Bardo was a stranger in this neighborhood, just as he was in Tucson. He showed the glossy photograph he had once treasured to a resident named Irene Tishkoff, but she looked at him as if he was crazy.

“What?” she muttered, walking away.

In the minutes before the shooting, Bardo called his sister. He told her vaguely of his plans, but not enough to force her hand. Later, after learning of Schaeffer’s death, the sister contacted a friend in the Tennessee Highway Patrol, who then contacted Los Angeles police.

When her door buzzer rang at 10:15 a.m. Tuesday morning, Rebecca Schaeffer was not prepared for it. The night before, she had thrown a 71st birthday party for her grandfather, who lives in West Los Angeles.

Rebecca was in her bathrobe. Her clothes were laid out for an 11 a.m. meeting with Coppola.

Richard Goldman, a writer across the street, heard what sounded like an automobile’s backfire. He heard two screams and rushed out into the street. He saw a woman’s legs protruding from the arched entrance at 120 N. Sweetzer. And in the alley behind “was a man with a yellow shirt and short kinky hair, trotting up the block.”

Evidence at Scene

Later, acting on information supplied by Bardo, police would find a gun holster in the alley just south of and parallel to Beverly Boulevard. A yellow shirt was found on the roof of a cleaners. And on the roof of a rehabilitation center came a final piece of evidence--a red paperback copy of the novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” the same book John Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, had carried to the scene of the crime.

In the days after Rebecca Schaeffer’s death, there were more interruptions than the neighbors could fathom. Reporters hounded them for the same quotes. Men from the tabloids rooted through Rebecca Schaeffer’s trash. For several days, detectives hopped from rooftop to rooftop in the hunt for what the killer may have left behind.

But among those who passed through the neighborhood were a few people who were conspicuously out of place among those who had to be there. Drawn to Sweetzer Avenue by emotion alone, these few came up silently to Rebecca Schaeffer’s doorstep, pausing to drop bunches of carnations and sunflowers beside the pruned oleander shrubs.

Some were actresses, like a red-haired woman named Sharon, who identified with Rebecca Schaeffer’s promise. “I’ve never gone to anyone’s porch before,” the woman said, “or done anything like this. Except once before. I went to the place where John Lennon was killed.”

And some were good-hearted people like Mardie Ruff, a Beverly Hills resident who leaned against Rebecca Schaeffer’s security door and sobbed. Like Robert Bardo, Ruff was a fan. In death, the actress had touched Mardie Ruff the way she had touched Bardo in front of his television set in Tucson.

“I just wish I could somehow have averted this tragedy,” Ruff said. “I never knew her, but that doesn’t matter. I feel like I did.”

The scene at the Bardo house in Tucson was different, but not altogether so. There had been visits from strangers. A sign on the door, written in black ink, said “no reporters please.”

“We have been offered a lot of money from people who want to talk about my son,” Phillip Bardo politely said. “We were offered money by the National Enquirer and we turned them down.”

As for Robert Bardo, he was in custody in the Pima County jail, awaiting extradition on a murder charge. On Thursday, he made his only court appearance thus far. To accommodate attorneys in the Tucson courthouse, the brief procedure from Bardo’s jail cell was conducted via closed-circuit television.

Stephen Braun reported from Los Angeles and Charisse Jones from Portland, Ore. Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers George Ramos in Tucson and Darrell Dawsey, Paul Feldman, David Ferrell, Robert Welkos and Tracy Wood in Los Angeles.