There’s a knock on actor Rebecca Schaeffer’s door, the second one in a day. She opens it to see a familiar face but, this time, he’s angry. He pulls a gun from his waistband, points it at her and pulls the trigger. The shot fires into her chest, but its ripples will extend far beyond the Hollywood stoop where she is killed.
On November 6, 1967, Danna and Benson Schaeffer welcomed their first and only child, a girl they named Rebecca. They raised their daughter in Portland, Oregon, and did so in the Jewish faith. As such, by the time she reached high school, the youngster had her sights set on becoming a rabbi when she grew up.
But, after Schaeffer turned 15, it seemed she might have another career option – modeling. According to People magazine, so many people had complimented the teen’s beauty that she decided to give it a try. And talent scouts, such as Nannette Troutman, instantly felt drawn to her.
As Troutman recalled to People magazine, “I took one look and fell in love with [Schaeffer]. She had a fresh, charismatic way about her and was very gorgeous, with big brown eyes, dimples and a beautiful smile.” Soon, the teenager appeared in catalogs for department stores, local commercials and even a made-for-TV film as a supporting artist.
Just before Schaeffer turned 17, her parents gave her the okay to move from Portland to New York City. There, she continued to pursue a modeling and acting career. Douglas Ashe, who once worked at Prestige, a modeling agency, met the teen in Portland, and said she didn’t change as her career progressed.
“I went to Portland and I saw this nice, clean kid. [Schaeffer] was very serious about what she did. We had her room with six other models, and she was always this good kid who never lost her friends or her perspective,” Ashe recalled to People magazine. This trait would come in handy as the youngster chased her dreams.
For one thing, Schaeffer also enrolled in the city’s Professional Children’s School. The college preparatory institution caters to young people who want to simultaneously pursue acting or dance careers while studying. Indeed, having been a great student in Portland, she wanted to continue her education while living in the Big Apple.
As Schaeffer continued her academic career, she started acting, too. Her first foray onto the small screen came on Guiding Light, a soap opera, where the the actor had a small role on the show. Then came a six-month stint as Annie Barnes on One Life To Live, another TV soap.
Simultaneously, Schaeffer continued to model, but her prospects proved to be slim. The 5-foot-7-inch Oregonian didn’t stand as tall her colleagues, so she had a hard time finding work. In 1985, the teen even moved across the globe to Japan, where she thought she might book more jobs. Still, the youngster’s height hindered her there, too.
Schaeffer returned from her stint in Japan ready to concentrate on acting. She waited tables in the meantime, but also had some minor successes. For instance, she booked a part in Woody Allen’s 1986 movie Radio Days, although much of the young actor’s performance ended up on the cutting room floor.
Still, Schaeffer’s biggest break was yet to come. She then booked the cover of an issue of Seventeen magazine. As a result, the image managed to get the ball rolling on her acting career. As it turned out, the bubbly, smiling image of the then-19-year-old had caught the eye of television producers across the country in Los Angeles.
The producers then flew Schaeffer out to see if she’d be a good fit for the upcoming show My Sister Sam. At the time, she’d had her phone cut off because she couldn’t afford the bill. So, when the teen got the part, her agent came by and stuck a note with the good news to her door .
On My Sister Sam, Schaeffer would play the part of 16-year-old Patti Russell, who, after losing her parents, had moved in with her aunt and uncle in Oregon. At the start of the show, though, she shows up on her sister Sam’s doorstep in San Francisco. Why? Because she has decided to live there instead.
My Sister Sam already had a star in its titular role – actor Pam Dawber would play the part of Sam Russell. She earned her fame playing Mindy on the hit sitcom Mork & Mindy. The classic show, which ran from 1978 to 1982, also starred Robin Williams as an extraterrestrial who would eventually become her love interest.
But on My Sister Sam, Dawber played the big sister to Schaeffer – and they eventually took a version of those roles off-screen, too. Having experienced the Hollywood life already, the experienced actor knew what lay ahead for the teen. So, the Mork & Mindy star invited the former model to move into her L.A. home until she found a place of her own.
As Dawber later told ABC News, “We just kind of fell into this sisterly thing.” And for the actor, her connection with Schaeffer struck a chord. She went on, “I’d had a sister. My sister passed away when she was 22 and I was 25. So having another young girl in the house was something I was very comfortable with. It was good for us.”
The pair’s off-screen connection worked well on-screen, too. In its first season, My Sister Sam proved to be a hit. As such, the duo appeared on the nation’s top magazine at the time, the TV Guide. “I was thrilled that [Schaeffer] was getting to really, really enjoy a big showbiz life,” Dawber said.
With My Sister Sam successfully off the ground, the young actor moved out of Dawber’s home and into a place of her own. She started off on Laurel Canyon, but then moved to West Hollywood and a one-bedroom rental. There, as her co-star recalled, Schaeffer was “busy living her life and meeting people and having friends.”
Indeed, those who knew Schaeffer as she rose to fame said she didn’t change under the spotlight. Sean Six, who went out with the young actor in 1988, told People magazine, “She was extremely curious and spirited. [And she’s] the only actor I’ve known who managed to become successful and remain unjaded.”
Schaeffer’s down-to-earth persona also delighted fans of My Sister Sam. One such viewer, Robert Bardo, noticed the young actor in the show’s promotional ads over the summer in 1986. He then began to watch the sitcom, along with any other appearances she made on TV. And he recorded them, too.
From there, Bardo began reaching out to Schaeffer. He sent her a slew of fan letters, and the young star even replied at one point. With that, he made the trip from his native Arizona to Hollywood. He then walked up to the studio where My Sister Sam filmed in search of his obsession, but the security staff there barred him from entering.
Soon, though, Schaeffer would not be as accessible to Bardo and the rest of her My Sister Sam fans. Even though the show started out as a ratings success, it quickly fell down the charts. And in April of 1988, during the show’s second season, TV executives canceled the sitcom.
Without the young actor on his screen, Bardo funneled his obsession into other media darlings at the time – Madonna, Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, to name a few. Meanwhile, Schaeffer branched out into supporting movie roles. One, in a film called Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, included a bedroom scene featuring her and another actor.
This scene would change Schaeffer’s life forever. When Bardo saw Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, he instantly felt outraged. The stalker became jealous that the former focus of his obsession had acted in such a part. So, he reached out to a private investigator and paid $250 to find out where the young star lived.
Then, Bardo attempted to obtain a firearm. In making the purchase, though, he happened to mention that he had issues with his mental health At that point, the store owner refused to sell him a weapon. So, he implored his brother to buy the gun instead. He promised that it would only be used for target practice, so his sibling obliged.
But Bardo only had one target in mind. He took the gun and got on a bus from Arizona back to L.A. This time, though, he knew exactly where to find Schaeffer – his private detective had obtained her address from California state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). So, the armed man went to her front door and simply rang the bell.
That morning, Schaeffer sat in her apartment awaiting such a sound. The actor had an audition that afternoon for Francis Ford Coppola in the hopes of landing a part in the director’s upcoming movie, The Godfather III. So, when Bardo rang, she thought it could be the courier bringing her the film’s script.
Instead, Schaeffer opened the door to find Bardo, an obsessed fan who held in his hands the card and autographed photo she had sent him in reply to his fan mail. The actress kept her cool and politely told Bardo that she had an interview later. She then asked that he not return before closing the door.
With that, Bardo walked away and ended up in a nearby diner, where he reportedly ate breakfast. As soon as he finished, though, he went back and rang Schaeffer’s bell once again. This time, the actor wasn’t as friendly. Indeed, she told the man on her doorstep that he had wasted her time. He later recalled her facial expression appearing cold.
At that point, Bardo reached into his waistband and pulled out the gun that his brother had purchased for him. He then fired once, at close range, striking Schaeffer in the upper body. Neighbors heard it all. Richard Goldman, who lived nearby, described her scream as “bloodcurdling” to People magazine. Another, Kenneth Newell, saw the actor’s body crumpled in her doorway.
Newell recalled, “[Schaeffer’s] eyes were open and glazed over. I took her pulse and there was no beat.” Others observed Bardo jogging away from the scene, highly visible in a yellow shirt. Then, first responders came and rushed the actor to hospital, but it was too late. Doctors at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center pronounced her dead 30 minutes later.
Police swiftly apprehended Bardo for Schaeffer’s murder. Indeed, he made the case a simple one for them to crack – before authorities reached him, he had been running through the streets of Tucson shouting that he had murdered the young actor. Eventually, he received a life sentence for the killing.
In the wake of Schaeffer’s death, the state of California had to re-evaluate its laws, since Bardo had so easily uncovered the actor’s home address. Dawber, for one, told ABC News how that fact had incited “rage” within her. Eventually, the state passed The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, barring the DMV from releasing a person’s private address.
But there was more on Dawber’s mind than just Schaeffer’s out-in-the-open address. She and the rest of the My Sister Sam cast came together to honor her at the studio where they’d filmed the show. As the star recalled, “We were all out of our minds with grief. It was like, this is so horrible.”
In an attempt to make sense of the tragedy, as well as do their part to prevent something like this from happening again, Dawber and the rest of the cast came up with an idea. “We decided that we wanted to make a PSA for safe gun laws, background checks,” she told ABC News in 2019. She then took it a step further, she said, by testifying in Congress for “saner gun laws.”
But Dawber later admitted that she felt she didn’t deal with Schaeffer’s loss perfectly. Firstly, she said that the slain actress’s parents, Danna and Benson, had done so with much more grace than they should have had to. As the star put it, they “were so brilliant in the way they handled it.”
“It’s almost like, ‘How did they survive it?’” Dawber wondered. For her part, she said that she’d had to separate herself from her relationship with Schaeffer’s parents. It felt too difficult to maintain while she dealt with the grief of losing a colleague who had been like a little sister to her.
Dawber said, “I [had guilt] for years because I was so devastated, as everyone else was as well. I thought of Rebecca every day of my life probably for two years. But I couldn’t keep diving in. I almost had to let my relationship with her parents go. There’s something just so painful about the thought.”
The actor admitted during her 2019 interview with ABC News that the silence still weighed on her. “I hadn’t spoken to [Danna and Benson] since [Schaeffer’s] death and possibly funeral. And I have felt guilty about that for all those years.” But it was that same sentiment that spurred Dawber and others to “make a difference,” as she put it, in the wake of the young actor’s murder.
While gun control remains a huge topic of debate in America, Schaeffer’s death had an enormous impact on California’s DMV laws, as well as the nation’s stalking laws. The west-coast state passed the first anti-stalking legislation in the country in 1990. Since then, every state in the U.S. has followed suit, aiming to protect their citizens from the same treatment that lead to the loss of such a bright light in 1989.