Sunday, 9 August 2009

The Devil's Business: The Murder of Sharon Tate

The summer of 1969 is a pivotal one in my childhood. It is from that summer, when I was only six years old, from which I have my first clear memories of celebrities dying. The first was Judy Garland, with whom I was familiar from The Wizard of Oz (in fact, I thought she was still only 16 years old). She died on June 22, 1969. The second was Sharon Tate.

My memories of Sharon Tate's death are much less clear than those of Judy Garland's death. In fact, I only remember that most of the adults around me were discussing the murder of an actress and several others by some cult in California. This is not to say that I was not aware of who Sharon Tate was. I was much too young to have seen any of her movies, but I did know her as secretary Janet Trego on The Beverly Hillbillies. In fact, as Janet Trego, Sharon Tate numbered among the crushes of my early childhood.

As I grew older the details of that horrible night on August 9, 1969 became clearer to me. The murders were the work of one Charles Manson and members of his commune/cult of personality known as The Family. I also learned that Sharon Tate was much more than Miss Trego on The Beverly Hillbillies, as I actually saw many of her films. When in my teens I read the book Helter Skelter, about the murders and the ensuing trial, by Vincent Bugliosi, the man who prosecuted Manson and his Family, and writer Curt Gentry. It was the most horrifying book I have ever read. Much of its imagery would haunt me for years. This was not simply due to the sheer gruesomeness of the crimes, but the fact that one of my childhood crushes, Sharon Tate, had been one of the victims.

Sadly, it is as a victim of Charles Manson for which Sharon Tate is best remembered and not her career as an actress. In 1969, while pregnant with her first child (with husband Roman Polanski), her career was only beginning. She had already appeared in major parts in films such as The Fearless Vampire Killers, Valley of the Dolls, and The Wrecking Crew. She was very much an actress whose star was on the rise.

Sharon Tate was born on January 24, 1943 in Dallas, Texas. Her father was a military officer, so her family moved frequently. By the time she was sixteen she had already lived in several different cities. While young she had an interest in psychiatry, but destiny would lead her elsewhere. It was while her father was stationed in Italy that Tate would be drawn into acting. The movie Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man was being filmed in Verona. Sharon Tate was hired as an extra on the film, on which she met actor Richard Beymer. It was Beymer who advised her to go into acting. She would also appear as an extra in the movie Barrabas.

It was in 1962 that Sharon Tate moved to Los Angeles with the intent of pursuing a career in film. She got in touch with Hal Gefsky, the agent to actor Richard Beymer. Gefsky managed to find her work in television commercials, such as those for Chevrolet and Santa Fe cigarettes. She also continued modelling, appearing in print ads. Eventually Tate was cast in the role of Billie Jo Bradley on Petticoat Junction, although she would never play the part. Martin Ransohoff, the founder and head of Filmways, Inc. (the company which not only produced Petticoat Junction, but the hit The Beverly Hillbillies as well) thought that bigger things were in Tate's future than being a regular on a sitcom. Sharon Tate was signed to a seven year contract with the company and Ransohoff started grooming her for stardom. She was given training in acting, speech, and dancing. She was also given the recurring role of Janet Trego on The Beverly Hillbillies.

While still playing Miss Trego, Sharon Tate made guest appearances on both Mr. Ed and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. Ransohoff proceeded with Tate's career slowly, not wanting to launch her as a star until she was ready. Tate herself wanted bigger roles than her recurring role on The Beverly Hillbillies and guest appearances on television shows. Ransohoff then sought out the proper vehicle with which to begin Tate's rise to stardom. She was cast in the part of Christian Rudd in The Cincinnati Kid (1965), but was replaced after only a few days by Tuesday Weld. She tried out for the role of Liesl in The Sound of Music, but did not get it as it was thought she looked too old for the part. At last she was cast in a small but significant part in the horror movie Eye of the Devil, released in 1966.

It was in 1966 that Martin Ransohoff was producing a horror movie spoof to be directed by Roman Polanski, fresh from his success with Repulsion. For the role of Sarah, Polanski had wanted to cast Jill St. John, but Ransohoff insisted he should cast Sharon Tate instead. Polanski agreed only after Tate made a screen test, in which she wore a red haired wig. While Polanski would become frustrated with the then inexperienced Sharon Tate, the two eventually grew closer as the film progressed. A romance bloomed between the two. The Fearless Vampire Killers (AKA Dance of the Vampires) would become Tate's first major film role.

Sharon Tate's role in the sex comedy Don't Make Waves would be even more important. She played one of the women romanced by Tony Curtis's character in the film. Tate also became important in the promotion of the film. Several publicity photos for Don't Make Waves featured Tate. In association with the promotion of the film, she was also featured in ads for Coppertone sun tan lotion. Despite all the publicity, Tate was not particularly happy with how Martin Ransohoff was handling her career. She feared that if she did not get better parts, she might well be typecast in the role of blonde bombshell, playing characters not unlike the one she played in Don't Make Waves. She sometimes regarded her beauty as a detriment to her career rather than an asset.

Tate's next movie would not particularly assuage her fears. She was cast in the role of Jennifer North in the movie adaptation of Valley of the Dolls. Valley of the Dolls was a runaway best seller by author Jacqueline Susann--in fact, it was the fastest selling novel of all time for many years. That having been said, Tate not only thought the novel was trashy, but that the movie was as well. The movie itself would be a hit at the box office, but it was also pummelled by critics. In the end it would be regarded as a prime example of Sixties camp. Tate's fears about the film appear to have been well grounded.

Regardless, by the end of 1967 Sharon Tate had four films (Eye of the Devil, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Don't Make Waves, and Valley of the Dolls) to her credit. It was in March of that year that Playboy said of 1967, "This is the year that Sharon Tate happens..." Indeed, while Valley of the Dolls was ravaged by critics, Tate actually received some good notices from critics. What is more the public had at last taken notice of her. It was just as her star was ready to rise that Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski were married on January 20, 1968.

Despite being married to a critically acclaimed director, Sharon Tate wanted to achieve stardom on her own merit. It was because of this that she asked Martin Ransohoff to release her from her contract to Filmways Inc. Ransonoff only agreed on the basis that he receive 25% of her earnings for the next four years. Although the terms were less than desirable, Tate accepted them as it would give her control over her career. Her first film after ending her contract with Martin Ransohoff would be The Wrecking Crew, the fourth and last film featuring Dean Martin as superspy Matt Helm. It was Tate's first comedic role. The Wrecking Crew received uniformly bad reviews upon its release, although Tate received some good remarks from critics on her role. In his review in The New York Times, the only good thing Vincent Canby had to say about the movie was about Tate, "the only nice thing..." in the film. The Hollywood Reporter also gave Tate good marks for her performance.

While many of her films had received bad notices, by 1968 Sharon Tate was believed by many to be Hollywood's next big star. In The Motion Picture Herald's annual poll, Tate came in second only to Lynn Redgrave as the "Star of Tomorrow." She was also nominated for the Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer - Female for her role in Valley of the Dolls (she lost to to Katharine Ross for The Graduate) and nominated for the Laurel Award for Female New Face. With her role ready to take off, she took a part in the film 12 + 1 (based on the Russian novel The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov. It was at this point she learned she was pregnant. It was because of this that she and Roman Polanski sought a larger home, finding it at 10050 Cielo Drive, the former residence of music producer and son of Doris Day Terry Melcher. Although pregnant and sick much of the time, Tate proceeded with filming 12 + 1 in Europe. She returned to the United States late in the summer of 1969.

It was on the evening of August 8, 1969 that Sharon Tate entertained her friends, Folgers Coffee heir Abigail Folger, actor/writer Wojciech Frykowski, and hair stylist Jay Sebring. Unfortunately, it was also that night that Charles Mason ordered members of his Family to go to "...that house where Melcher used to live..." and to kill everyone there. Charles Manson had met music producer Terry Melcher through Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys. An aspiring musician, Charles Manson had even auditioned for Melcher, who then refused to sign him to a contract. When Manson's violent tendencies became all too clear, both Dennis Wilson and Terry Melcher severed ties with him.

By the time Manson's followers had arrived at 10050 Cielo Drive, it was midnight and the date was August 9, 1969. As the slaughter commenced, when confronted by Frykowski, Manson's right hand man, Tex Watson, simply replied, "I am the devil, and I'm here to do the devil's business." The murders were among the most horrific that the city of Los Angeles had ever seen. Sharon Tate herself, only two weeks from giving birth, was stabbed sixteen times. She was only 26. The murders would dominate the news for weeks to come. The following night Manson's followers murdered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, although at the time the media made no connection between the two crimes.

In the wake of Sharon Tate's murder, both Valley of the Dolls and The Fearless Vampire Killers were re-released and did quite well at the box office. Strangely enough, some elements of the media would actually attack the character of Sharon Tate and her guests. The tabloids would even go so far as to make false claims about orgies taking place at Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate's residence. Those who knew her (actresses Mia Farrow and Patty Duke among them) were swift to come to Tate's defence. At a press conference Roman Polanski would rail against reporters for their treatment of Sharon Tate following her death.

The Los Angeles Police Department was initially baffled by the murders. In fact, as of August 12, 1969, they had ruled out any links between the murders of Tate and her guest and the murders the LaBiancas. It was not until December that members of Manson's Family would be arrested for the murders of Sharon Tate and her guests. It would be later that month that the link with the LaBianca murders would be established.

It was on October 7, 1970 that Sharon Tate's final film, 12 + 1, made its debut in Italy. The film was released in the United States on May 1, 1970. Although the film received only a lukewarm review from Variety, Sharon Tate received good marks for her performance.

The trial of Charles Manson and his followers involved in the Tate and LaBianca murders began on June 15, 1970. On January 25, 1971 Manson and his followers were found guilty. It was on April 19, 1971 that they were sentenced to death. It would be in February 1972 that this would be reduced to life in prison when the California Supreme Court temporarily abolished the death penalty. While the death penalty would eventually be re-established in California, that decision did not affect Manson or his cohorts.

Unfortunately, Charles Manson is now more famous than his most famous victim, Sharon Tate. In fact, with the exception of Jack the Ripper, no other murderer has ever had the impact on pop culture which Manson has. Short of Adolph Hitler he may well be the most notorious man of the 20th century. The murders which Manson orchestrated were so grisly, his plot so horrific, that they could not help but become a part of the collective unconscious. Helter Skelter would become the best selling true crime book of all time. There would be films, ranging from documentaries to movies about Manson and the murders. Sickeningly, even some of Charles Manson's songs have been recorded. In effect Charles Manson has become the symbol of evil for our era.

It is then a sad fact that Sharon Tate is perhaps better known as a victim of Charles Manson and his Family than she is for her career as an actress. This certainly should not be the case. While Sharon Tate never really received a chance to fully display her talent, it was readily apparent that she had plenty of it. Even when the films in which she appeared (Valley of the Dolls, The Wrecking Crew, and so on) were less than stellar. Sharon Tate would shine. In her role of Jennifer North in Valley of the Dolls, Sharon Tate was the only actress in that film to come out looking good. Had it not been for her performance as Freya Carlson in The Wrecking Crew, that film may well have been unbearable. Sharon Tate clearly had talent. If not yet a star, Sharon Tate was certainly poised to become one.

It should be noted that not only was Sharon Tate a talented actress, but from all reports she was one of the sweetest, kindest people ever to work in acting. Her friend Sheila Wells once said of Tate, "In the six years that I knew her, she never said an unkind word about anyone." Her co-star on Valley of the Dolls said of Sharon Tate and her role in that film, "Everybody was competitive with everybody on the set. The only one that I felt was above it was Sharon Tate, the sweetest, purest, most open spirit." Tate was active in charities, such as fund raisers for the Los Angeles Theatre of the Deaf.

Sharon Tate would have her own impact on pop culture and even beyond, quite separate from her grisly death. The Fearless Vampire Killers would become a popular cult film. Although critically savaged on its release, Valley of the Dolls would become a camp classic. Although Mattel has never issued an official statement, rumours have persisted over the years that Malibu Barbie was inspired by Sharon Tate's part as Malibu in Don't Make Waves. Curiously, when the doll first came out in 1971, her swimsuit was the same colour as the one Tate had worn in the movie. Her character from The Wrecking Crew, Freya Carlson, inspired the character of Felicity Shagwell in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Currently there is a campaign for Sharon Tate to posthumously receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

When most people think of Sharon Tate today, it is often her gruesome death that comes to mind. She is perhaps better known as a victim of Charles Manson than she is as an actress. To me this is a grave miscarriage of justice. As for myself, when I think of Sharon Tate, I think of her as Janet Trego, the prettiest secretary at the Commerce Bank of Beverly Hills, or as secret agent Freya Carlson in The Wrecking Crew. The simple fact is that Sharon Tate was so much more than the most famous victim of Charles Manson. She was a kind, gentle person with considerable talent who could well have been a major star had she not been murdered. While it is impossible that her name will ever be separated from that of the man who orchestrated her murder, I hope that one day she will be remembered for the talented actress she actually was.


Holte Ender said...

I remember it well, it was headlines In England where I grew up. Can you imagine the media circus if it had happening in 2009. It was bad enough then without 24 hour TV news.

Snave said...

I can recall this event pretty clearly, and it was so horrific my parents didn't really want to watch the news about it, let alone let me watch. I was 12 at the time.

I still think about this one from time to time, even 40 years later. I remember hearing the news come on that evening. We had the TV on before dinner, and I think it might have been Cronkite reporting the story.

Thanks for the article, Mercurie. I had never given much thought to what movies Sharon Tate had been in or what her career had entailed, because her murder is always the first thing to come to mind when most of us think of her.

George Vreeland Hill said...

I am writing this on the 42nd anniversary of Sharon Tate's death.
It is a shame what happened to her and the four others.
They were all good people who had so much to live for.
God bless the victims.
To hell with the killers.

George Vreeland Hill.