In life, actress Sharon Tate lent a willowy, sensual presence to a handful of motion pictures in the storied year of 1967, including "Valley of the Dolls," "Don't Make Waves," and her husband Roman Polanski's "The Fearless Vampire Killers. " Sadly, her work on film and in television was overshadowed by her senseless murder in 1969 by members of Charles Manson's cult, The Family, and her death would remain one of Hollywood's greatest tragedies, as well as a key component in one of the 20th century's most shocking crimes. In subsequent years, the efforts of her family to remember Tate's life in a positive light through advocacy for victims' rights helped to remove the pall of the brutality she endured, and she eventually entered the pantheon of performers whose talent and beauty shone brightly, if all too briefly, for audiences around the world.
She was born Sharon Marie Tate in Dallas, TX on Jan. 24, 1943, the first of three daughters born to Colonel Paul Tate, a U.S. Army intelligence officer, and his wife, Doris Willett. An inordinately attractive child, she won her first acclaim in a Dallas beauty contest at six months of age, but the Tates had no interest in show business - and no time. Paul Tate was frequently reassigned to various bases around the United States during her childhood and teen years, which proved challenging for Sharon; family and friends described her as shy and lonely due to her inability to make lasting friendships.
Despite these issues, she gained attention due to her beauty and poise, and began competing in and winning state and national competitions. In the spring of 1960, she gained worldwide exposure for a photograph that ran in the military newspaper, Stars and Stripes. The picture, which showed Tate in a bathing suit and cowboy hat sitting astride a missile, garnered international acclaim, and sparked her interest in trying her hand at modeling and acting. That same year, she earned her first on-screen credit in "The Pat Boone-Chevy Showroom" (ABC, 1957-1960), which helped to seal the coffin on Tate's original career goal of psychiatry. Unfortunately, any sense of momentum was halted when Tate's father was reassigned to duty in Verona, Italy.
Once there, however, she discovered that the power of her Stars and Stripes image had followed her to Europe. She managed to maintain a level head despite the publicity, and became keenly involved in school activities while pursuing whatever film and television opportunities might be happening in Italy. Along with some friends, she became an extra in the drama "Adventures of a Young Man" (1961), and found an early champion (and love interest) in that movie's star, Richard Beymer. Veteran actor Jack Palance also took Tate under his wing when she appeared as an extra in the Biblical epic "Barabbas" (1961), and arranged a screen test for her.
The Tates returned to the United States in 1962, and Tate lit out for Los Angeles with the goal of finding work in movies and television. There, she found representation through Beymer's agent, Hal Gefsky, who found her work in episodic series and print advertising. Gefsky later introduced her to producer Martin Ransohoff, who immediately signed her to a seven-year contract. Ransohoff, who had been instrumental in developing the early careers of such screen sirens as Ann-Margret and Tuesday Weld, spent a reputed $1 million on lessons and other training for Tate. The payoff was slow at first - Tate's inexperience prevented her from landing substantial roles she desired, like Liesel in "The Sound of Music" (1962) or the female lead in Ransohoff's "The Cincinnati Kid" (1962), but she slowly built her resume with guest appearances on shows like "The Beverly Hillbillies" (CBS, 1962-1971).
While toiling for her breakthrough part, Tate became involved with French actor Phillipe Forquet, to whom she eventually became engaged. The union was short-lived, and their breakup was dogged in the gossip magazines by allegations that Forquet had physically abused Tate. In 1964, she began dating Jay Sebring, one of Hollywood's most popular hair stylists and the later inspiration for the Warren Beatty classic "Shampoo" (1975). He would accompany her to France for the filming of her biggest feature to date, the 1967 supernatural thriller "Eye of the Devil." To mark the occasion of this career break, Ransohoff produced a promotional featurette called "All Eyes on Sharon Tate," which paid considerable tribute to the young actress through comments from her more experienced co-stars like David Niven and Deborah Kerr and footage of her enjoying the sights and sounds of the French nightclub scene.
When filming on "Devil" was completed, Sebring returned to Los Angeles to tend to his business while Tate remained in London to soak up the city's fashion and nightlife. While there, Ransohoff introduced her to the acclaimed Polish director Roman Polanski, who was helming his next picture, a horror-comedy called "The Fearless Vampire Killers" (1967). Ransohoff wanted Polanski to cast Tate as the film's female lead, an innocent and nubile young girl who captures the hearts of both the film's bloodsucking villain (Ferdy Mayne) and a hapless vampire hunter, played by Polanski himself. But the director rejected her because of her obvious inexperience in favor of the more established Jill St. John. Ransohoff persisted, and won Tate a screen test for Polanski; the filmmaker eventually agreed upon the condition that Tate wear a red wig to mask her quintessentially blond American characteristics. The shooting was a challenge for Tate; Polanski was a notorious taskmaster and required nothing less than perfection from the novice actress. But Tate worked hard, eventually winning over her director. Their initially testy relationship soon blossomed into not only mutual respect, but a full-blown romance as well. Tate moved into Polanski's London apartment, but worried that the relationship would hurt Sebring, who was still unaware of the development. She invited him to meet with them in London, and though the stylist was personally devastated by the turn of events, he later became one of the couple's closest confidantes.
The year 1967 proved to be a watershed for Tate in regard to publicity, though not every word written about her was positive. She returned to the United States that year to shoot "Don't Make Waves" (1967), a glum sex comedy starring Tony Curtis as a Lothario on the prowl for beach girls. Tate played the most robust of that lot, a bikini-clad surfer named Malibu; the character would later serve as the inspiration for Mattel's popular "Malibu Barbie" doll. Though Tate had already shot two films, "Waves" was the first to be released into theaters, and reviews were largely negative. Tate herself was disappointed by the experience, and with the direction of her career under Ransohoff. In conversations with Polanski and other friends, she referred to herself as "sexy little me," a somewhat rueful dig at the public's perception of her.
Despite her misgivings, Tate forged ahead with her career, pinning her hopes on "Vampire Killers" and "Eye of the Devil" reversing the direction of her career, which, at that point in time, appeared to be headed towards more mindless eye candy roles like "Don't Make Waves." The most encouraging news came with the announcement that she had been cast as Jennifer North in the highly anticipated film version of Jacqueline Susann's blockbuster novel, "Valley of the Dolls" (1967). Tate herself did not hold the project in high regard, but understood that the picture's profile might be the vehicle to elevate her to more substantial parts.
The filming of "Dolls" proved challenging for the actress; director Mark Robson singled out Tate for much of his venom, and pre-release publicity for the film made unflattering comparisons of Tate to her character, a vain actress admired more for her body than her talent. Undaunted, Tate completed the film and participated in considerable publicity for her three features, including a semi-nude layout shot by Polanski for Playboy magazine, which declared that 1967 was "the year that Sharon Tate happens "
Reviews on "Vampire Killers," "Devil" and "Dolls" were largely mixed. Ransohoff had re-edited the former to a shadow of its former self that emphasized the broad comedy over its Gothic atmosphere; Polanski disowned that version, which was a box office failure, and reviews of Tate's performance were centered largely on her semi-nude scenes. MGM attempted to generate interest in "Devil" with a campaign that centered on Tate's appearance, but the film was a non-starter. And the campy "Dolls" - now a cult classic - was met initially with some of the most scathing reviews of any film from that year or any other, though some critics took the time to pay tribute to Tate's glowing onscreen presence. She would later receive a Golden Globe nomination for "New Star of the Year" for her performance, but lost to Katherine Ross in the "The Graduate" (1968). For a year that was supposed to launch her into the acting stratosphere, 1967 was a mixed bag for Sharon Tate.
One aspect of her career that had not cooled was the publicity, and Tate and Polanski's relationship was under constant scrutiny in newspapers and magazines. Their private life was complicated - though a free thinker in almost every way, Tate was a traditionalist when it came to monogamy, which Polanski found to be her biggest fault. Despite this schism, the couple was married in London on Jan. 20, 1968, after which they returned to Los Angeles and became one of the town's most celebrated couples. They played frequent host to some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, as well as close personal friends like Sebring, Polish actor Wojciech Frykowski and his girlfriend, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, and record producer Terry Melcher, all of whom would play significant roles in the terrible end of Tate's life. The couple kept an open-door policy in regard to visitors, and allowed just about anyone into their home, much to the consternation of friends.
At Polanski's urging, Tate severed her relationship with Ransohoff and began taking the reins of her career. She received strong reviews for her comedic turn in "The Wrecking Crew" (1968), a Matt Helm spy spoof with Dean Martin, and with Polanski's help, signed on to a comedy originally titled "The Thirteen Chairs" but released as "12 + 1" (1968) with Orson Welles and Vittorio Gassman. The biggest news of the year, though, was the announcement that Tate was pregnant with Polanski's child. The couple moved into Melcher's former home at 10050 Cielo Drive in the exclusive Benedict Canyon neighborhood shortly before Tate traveled to Italy to shoot the new film. Polanski went to London to begin work on the thriller "The Day of the Dolphin" (1973), and Tate would join him there after completing her role in "12 + 1." On July 20, 1969, she returned to Los Angeles on the RMS Queen Elizabeth. Polanski stayed behind in London and asked Frykowski and Folger to stay with his very pregnant wife at the house until his return.
On the night of Aug. 8, 1969, members of cult leader Charles Manson's "Family" entered the Cielo Drive home with intent to commit murder in the name of "Helter Skelter," his twisted vision of apocalypse that he had lifted from The Beatles' White Album. Manson was familiar with the Benedict Canyon home from his association with Melcher, who had briefly indulged his musical aspirations, only to turn him down later. Manson saw it as the perfect location to begin a terror spree that he hoped would throw the city of Los Angeles into panic and ignite "Helter Skelter," or racial warfare. He was correct about the first part: Family members Tex Watson, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel entered the home around midnight and murdered all of the occupants, including Sebring - who died first after trying to protect Tate - Folger, Frykowski and a teenage acquaintance of the property's caretaker named Steven Parent. Tate, who was eight months pregnant at the time, was the last to die. She was allegedly stabbed 16 times by Atkins, and died pleading for the life of her unborn child - to which Atkins famously replied, ""Look, bitch, I have no mercy for you. You're going to die." Using Tate's blood, Atkins then wrote "Pigs" on the Polanski's front door.
The news of the murders broke the following day following the discovery of the bodies by a housekeeper. A shattered Polanski returned to Los Angeles to oversee the funeral of Tate and their unborn son, Paul Richard Polanski, at Holy Cross Cemetery in Los Angeles. Terror over the murders - which intensified the following evening when Manson's family killed businessman Leno and his wife Rosemary LaBianca in much the same gruesome manner - was mixed with fascination for Tate's short and storied life, as well as speculation over how she had been chosen as the cult's most famous victim. Her films were immediately re-released into theaters for the public to pore over, and her final, posthumous film, "12 + 1," drew curious crowds. Photographs of Tate in what appeared to be a magic ritual were circulated, only to be revealed as stills from "Eye of the Devil." When some members of the press hinted that the couple's supposed "swinging lifestyle" helped contribute to her death; that Tate was a devil worshiper or a drug addict, Hollywood spoke out in defense of the late actress. Her "Dolls" co-star, Patty Duke called her "a gentle, gentle creature. I was crazy about her, and I don't know anyone who wasn't." Mia Farrow said "was as "sweet and pure a human being as I have ever known." Most emotional over the demonization of Tate was her bereft husband, who asked of journalists at an emotional press conference how often they had written that Tate "was beautiful. Maybe the most beautiful woman in the world. But did you ever write how good she was?" While those who knew and loved her mourned her unimaginable suffering and death, citizens in Hollywood, both famous and otherwise, locked their doors and hoped for a breakthrough.
Manson and the members of the Family responsible for Tate's death were arrested in late 1969; the trial, which drew the world's attention for over a year, revealed the horrific details of Tate's final moments, including the pathetic motive that Manson had committed the murders as revenge for his rejection by Melcher and the music establishment as a whole, sending his brainwashed minions out into the night to kill for him. Manson, Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, who had participated in the LaBianca murders, were sentenced to death for their roles in the murders of Sharon Tate and her companions; these were later commuted to life sentences in 1972. All parties remained behind bars, despite numerous parole hearings and testimonies to their reformed behavior, for the next four decades.
In the years following her death, Tate's identity became irrefutably intertwined with the Manson Family; her films and acting ability would not begin to receive their proper due until decades after her passing, when a cult grew around "Dolls" and the restored version of "Vampire Killers" was released on DVD. However, her legacy as a symbol for victim's rights bloomed in the 1980s, when Tate's family began testifying at parole hearings for the Manson Family members. Doris Tate was instrumental in contributing to the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau and Crime Victims Foundation, which helped to promote public awareness and support for crime victims; Tate's sisters took up the cause after their mother's death.
A haunted Polanski gave away all of the trappings of his life with Tate following her death; his subsequent criminal accusations of statutory rape in 1977 forced him to relocate to Europe to avoid extradition, but he continued to pay tribute to Tate in the decades to come, most notably by dedicating his 1979 film "Tess" to her memory. The book was one that the couple had discussed as a project for Tate prior to her death. In 2005, he sued Vanity Fair magazine over allegations that he had attempted to pick up a woman while en route to Tate's funeral. Among those testifying on his behalf was Tate's sister, Debra, with whom he had remained close.