Sharon Tate Would be 80 Today

Today would have been the 80th birthday of Hollywood actress Sharon Tate (1943-1969).

The circumstances of Tate’s death possess layers of wrongness: 1) that she died at all; that she died so young (26); 3) that she died in such a cruel manner; and 4) lastly and more lingeringly, the fact that her productive legacy is forever overshadowed by her assassination (that’s actually the right word), and that her name is now forever linked with the animals who murdered her. As it happens, quite coincidentally, I’m in the middle of watching a 2020 documentary mini-series about that topic, but I won’t mention it today. It occurred to me the best way to honor her is to refrain from mentioning the names of her famous killers, to restrain myself from adding to their ill-gotten legend. For Sharon Tate was something more than a victim.

Tate, the child of an army officer, grew up in a half dozen cities in the U.S. and Italy. Her extraordinary beauty was universally acknowledged. By her early 20s she had graduated from beauty pageants to print modelling to bit parts in movies like The Americanization of Emily (1964) and The Sandpiper (1965). She had slightly larger roles in TV guest shots on shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Mr. Ed, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Her characters in these early appearances usually have names like “Beautiful Girl”, “Sailor’s Girl” and “Burlesque Dancer”. During this period she dated Hollywood stylist to the stars Jay Sebring, another of the victims of August 9, 1969, and on whom Warren Beatty’s character in Shampoo is based.

Tate’s career as a screen star per se did not begin until 1966, and her legacy rests on just six movies, starting with Eye of the Devil with David Niven, Deborah Kerr, and Donald Pleasance, which I wrote about here. Her second film was Roman Polanski’s excellent Hammer horror parody The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), which sealed her matrimonial fate; the pair were married in 1968. Next came the Tony Curtis sex comedy Don’t Make Waves (1967), followed by Valley of the Dolls (1967), probably her best known role, which we wrote about in this post.

People are inclined to think of Valley of the Dolls as Tate’s last movie, but there were actually two more. She was in the final Matt Helm film The Wrecking Crew (1968) starring Dean Martin. This gets her very close to having been a Bond girl. In my book, and if she had lived longer, it occurs to me that that would have been a perfect niche role for her (Bond girl), in the same tradition as Ursula Andress, Britt Ekland, Jill St. John, Maud Adams, and Barbara Bach.

But it wasn’t to be. Tate’s last vehicle was the farce The Thirteen Chairs (1969) in which she co-starred with Vittorio Gasman, with Orson Welles, Terry-Thomas, and Vittorio De Sica, based on the same source material as Mel Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs, released the following year. With her knack for comedy, she might have gone on to more stuff like this, too. I could see her in all kinds of stuff, from Giallo films to to spaghetti westerns to Carry On comedies to prime-time soaps. That would have been her metier, I think, or the kinds of films made by the likes of Joan Collins, Diana Dors, Raquel Welch, and others.

As for working again with Polanski, perhaps it might have happened in the short term. While she was only an extra in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), she might have been right to star in his 1972 comedy What? And if he had made Day of the Dolphin (1973) as originally planned, she certainly would have been as good as Trish Van de Vere was in Mike Nichols’ finished picture. The films Polanski made after What? though, I think, were probably above Tate’s reach as an actress. It’s hard to tell though because she had so little experience under her belt at the time of her death. She undoubtedly would have grown, but how much we’ll never know

When Sebring proposed marriage to Tate a few years earlier, she had said that she wasn’t ready, that when she married she planned to settle down and retire from acting. She was an extremely old-fashioned, clean living, and traditional person, despite the media’s efforts to treat her as some kind of drug-addled Hollywood vixen. That said, though she was both married and pregnant at the time of her death, I think it probable that she would not have retired on that account, frankly because the marriage to the philandering Polanski was probably ultimately doomed.

If you are interested in knowing more about who Sharon Tate was as a person, her family have done an exemplary, fierce job of protecting her legacy, and they maintain her official website here.

For some related posts on the less pleasant parts of the story go, here, here, here, and here.