Friday, August 9, 2019

The 50th Anniversary of the Death of Sharon Tate

It is a sad fact of my life that it has been haunted by the deaths of actresses. In the summer of 1969 I was only six years old and it is from that summer that I have my first clear memories of the deaths of celebrities. The first was Judy Garland, already familiar to me as Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz (1939), who died on June 22 1969 at the age of 47. The second was Sharon Tate, who was murdered fifty years ago today. At the time I was only familiar with Miss Tate as Janet Trego on reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies, and I remember no details about her death from the time, probably because my parents shielded me from it. As I grew older I would see more of Sharon Tate's work, everything from The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) to The Wrecking Crew (1969). I would also learn the details of her death, and I was horrified. Well into my teens I was disturbed by the fact that one of my childhood crushes had been brutally murdered. Sadly, for many years Sharon Tate would be best remembered as a murder victim.That well-known hair stylist Jay Sebring, aspiring screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski, and Folger coffee heiress Abigail Folger were also murdered that night would often be overlooked. Regardless, it has always seemed a tragedy to me that Sharon Tate is better remembered for the events of August 9 1969 instead of her career.

Having died at only 26, Sharon Tate's career was a short one. That having been said, she left an impact larger than many better known stars. Both Filmways and MGM had faith that Miss Tate would be a major star, so much so that in 1967 a short promotional film, All Eyes on Sharon Tate, profiling the young actress was released to theatres. For her role in Valley of the Dolls (1967) Sharon Tate was nominated for the Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer - Female. In the late Sixties Sharon Tate was an actress whose star was on the rise. There can be little doubt that she was poised for superstardom.

Sharon Tate's ascent to stardom is remarkable given she had been shy since her childhood. As a little girl she often had difficulty making friends because she was so timid. Despite this, she entered beauty pageants from when she was very young and it was on pageant stages that her shyness evaporated. She was drawn to acting and appeared as an extra in both Barabbas (1961) and Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man (1962). She made her television debut in an episode of The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom in 1960. Having befriended Richard Beymer on the set of Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man, when her family moved to Los Angeles in 1962 she sought out his agent, Harold Gefsky.

Harold Gefsky introduced Sharon Tate to Martin Ransohoff of Filmways Inc., who signed her to a seven year contract. Miss Tate was initially cast in the role of Kate Bradley's blonde daughter Billie Jo on Petticoat Junction, but Martin Ransohoff ultimately decided Sharon Tate lacked the experience and self confidence for a regular television role and cast Jeannine Riley instead. Despite this, Miss Tate would appear in a semi-regular role on one of the biggest sitcoms on television at the time.  On The Beverly Hillbillies Sharon Tate played the role of secretary Janet Trego in a brunette wig. She would also make guest appearances on another Filmways show, Mister Ed.

Sharon Tate continued to appear on The Beverly Hillbillies from 1963 to 1965. She would have a walk on in The Americanization of Emily (1964). She tried out for The Cincinnati Kid (1965), but both Martin Ransohoff and director Sam Peckinpah decided she was not ready yet. She also unsuccessfully tried out for the role of Liesl in The Sound of Music (1965).  It was in 1966 that Martin Ransohoff finally decided Sharon Tate was ready for feature films.

It was in 1966 in the British film Eye of the Devil (released in the United States in 1967) that Sharon Tate had her first significant role in a feature film. Sadly, aside from giving her experience, Eye of the Devil did little to advance Sharon Tate's career. The film made little money in the United States and largely went unnoticed. Despite this, 1967 would still prove to be Sharon Tate's year. Her next film, Don't Make Waves (1967), received mixed reviews and was not a smash hit, but it did get Miss Tate noticed. In Don't Make Waves she played a beautiful surfer named Malibu whom Tony Curtis's character, Carlo, decides to pursue. There are some who believe that Sharon Tate's character in Don't Make Waves inspired the Malibu Barbie doll, first produced in 1969.

Sharon Tate was next cast in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). Director Roman Polanski initially wanted Jill St. John for the role, but Martin Ransohoff convinced Polanski to cast Sharon Tate instead, provided she wore a red wig. While The Fearless Vampire Killers did very well in Europe (where it was released under the title Dance of the Vampires--Le bal des vampires in France, Tanz der Vampire in Germany, and so on), it fared badly in the United States. Since then it has become a cult film.

While both Don't Make Waves and The Fearless Vampire Killers would fail on their initial release in the United States, Valley of the Dolls would prove to be a worldwide hit. It was based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Jacqueline Susann. While the film did not receive particularly good reviews, for her performance in the film Sharon Tate received a nomination for the Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer - Female. In the film Miss Tate played Jennifer North, a beautiful actress based on both Carole Landis and Marilyn Monroe. Like Carole Landis and Marilyn Monroe, Jennifer worries that she is noticed more for her looks than for any talent she might have. That Jennifer did not appear to have much talent is what set the character apart not only from Carole Landis and Marilyn Monroe, but Sharon Tate herself. Despite her considerable talent, Miss Tate was sometimes simply dismissed by critics and journalists as simply being a beautiful girl. That she projected vulnerability and sensitivity as Jennifer North in Valley of the Dolls is proof that she was much more than another pretty face.

Fortunately, it would be with Sharon Tate's next film that critics would finally take notice of her talent. The Wrecking Crew was the fourth and final Matt Helm starring Dean Martin. In the film Miss Tate plays Freya Carlson, a Danish guide from a tourism bureau assigned to Helm. Freya is a bit clumsy, but nonetheless a skilled combatant. Miss Tate shined in the role, having been coached in the martial arts by the film's "Karate Advisor" Bruce Lee. While reviews for the film would be mixed to negative, critics gave Sharon Tate overwhelmingly good notices for her performance, noting her gift for comedy.

Sadly, The Wrecking Crew would be Sharon Tate's penultimate film. Her next film, the comedy 12+1 (also known as The Thirteen Chairs), was released after her death, on October 7 1969 in Italy and on July 8 1970 in the United States. It would be the first film on which Sharon Tate received top billing. Once more she also gave a bravura performance, proving once and for all that she was a great comic actress. It would also be her final film.

Particularly with regards to stars who have a meteoric rise such as Sharon Tate had, there is a tendency to place them on a pedestal. People forget that they were flesh and blood human beings. That having been said, by all accounts Sharon Tate was a wonderful human being as well as a talented actress. As mentioned earlier, she was shy when she was young, and suffered from a lack of self-confidence even into adulthood. Even as an adult, like many beautiful women, Sharon Tate did not see herself as particularly beautiful. Sharon Tate had a sense of humour, even about herself. She jokingly referred to her role in Don't Make Waves (in which she spends most of her time in a bikini) as "sexy little me" and would later say to a reporter about the film, "It's a terrible movie." While Sharon Tate was terribly shy when she was younger, she was also warm hearted and sensitive, and was known for her kindness. She loved animals, particularly dogs. She was also very intelligent. When she was younger she actually thought about becoming a psychiatrist. Actress Sheilah Wells in an interview published in Screenland in November 1969 said of Sharon Tate, "With all her beauty, everyone loved her. I never heard anyone say a bad word about her, not even another actress. And in this town that's not only a rarity, it's an impossibility!"

If millions of little boys like myself had crushes on Sharon Tate, I have to suspect that it was not simply because she was beautiful. In her various roles Miss Tate's vulnerability, sensitivity, sense of humour, and intelligence shone through. One could believe Sharon Tate was a truly nice person and, unlike many movie stars, she actually was. The tragedy of Sharon Tate's death is not simply that she was brutally murdered, but that the career of an immensely talented actress and a truly good person was cut short. For years Sharon Tate has been best known as a murder victim. It is time that she is remembered for being Sharon Tate.


Dennis Bedard said...

Thanks for an informative piece on an actress best known for how she died. And you never mentioned Charles Manson. Good

Tom said...

Thank you for remembering her today. She was a real person whose life and career was cut too short.