Who Was Rebecca Schaeffer? New ’20/20′ Explores the True Story of the Actress’s Murder

It’s one of the most disturbing stories in Hollywood history: The murder of Rebecca Schaeffer, a young actress cut down in her prime by an obsessed fan. A new two-hour episode of 20/20 airing on April 12 digs into the life and death of the My Sister Sam star, who killed in 1989 by her stalker.

Schaeffer was a rising star

Rebecca Schaeffer
Jenny O’Hara as Dixie Randazzo, Rebecca Schaeffer as Patti Russell, and Pam Dawber as Samantha “Sam” Russell in My Sister Sam | CBS via Getty Images

In 1989, the 21-year-old Schaeffer, a model and actress, was poised to become a big star. She was just coming off a two-season run on the CBS sitcom My Sister Sam, where she played Patti, the spunky younger sibling of Pam Dawber’s Sam. Though the show had been cancelled, her career was going well. She’d landed a part in the dark comedy Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and was preparing to audition for the role of Mary Corelone in The Godfather Part III.

Then it all ended in an instant. On July 18, an obsessed fan named Robert John Bardo knocked on her front door. Schaeffer spoke with him and he left. But he returned a few hours later, shooting her in the chest when she opened the door. She died soon after.

Her killer had been obsessed with her for years

Schaeffer’s murder wasn’t a random act of violence. Bardo, it turned out, had been obsessed with the actress for years. He’d sent her letters and received a photo in reply. When she was still working on her sitcom, he’d shown up at the Warner Bros. lot bearing gifts. Security turned him away.

Bardo’s interest in Schaeffer took a dark turn when he watched Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, where actress appeared in bed with a male actor. Angry, he hired a private investigator to find out her address and then traveled to L.A. from Tuscon with the intent to kill her. He returned to Arizona after the murder but was quickly apprehended when police spotted him running through the streets, shouting that he had commited the crime. When he was arrested, police found Shaeffer’s photo in his wallet.

The case drew attention to the problem of stalking

Rebecca Schaeffer
Rebecca Schaeffer | CBS via Getty Images

Schaeffer’s tragic death drew attention to the little-recognized problem of stalking.

“No one was really aware of the problems of stalkers,” Marcia Clark says in the 20/20 episode. Clark — who later went on to handle the O.J. Simpson case — prosecuted Bardo. He was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

“When I found out how Rebecca was murdered … I was staggered because I don’t think at that time we thought about stalking so much,” Dyan Cannon, who had directed Shaeffer in The End of Innocence, told 20/20. “‘This guy followed her? This guy went to her condo and she opened the door and he shot her and killed her and she’s dead?’ … In that time was unthinkable.”

Schaeffer’s murder made people take stalking more seriously. Soon after she died, California passed the first anti-stalking law in the U.S. (All 50 states now have such laws.) Her death also inspired Congress to pass a law protecting the privacy of driver’s license information. The investigator Bardo hired had discovered where Schaeffer live by accessing DMV records.

In addition to looking at how Schaeffer’s murder changed the way people thought about stalking, the 20/20 episode also features new interviews with the actress’s family and friends, including Dawber and Schaeffer’s father Benson Schaeffer.

“The entire world was just unbelievable to me,” Schaeffer’s father says of his reaction to his daughter’s death. “I would at times see Rebecca when she wasn’t there. The tops of houses and buildings would at times shimmer and sway as if things were fantasy. It was horrible.”

The 20/20 episode Your Biggest Fan airs Friday, April 12 at 9/8c on ABC.  

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