Sexy Little Me
Saturday, May 6th, 1967
May 6, 1967 – Sharon Tate had finished her last scenes for The Vampire Killers (later to be called Your Teeth in My Neck), and had no film work for the moment. At 95 Eaton Mews West, London, she moved about in the late afternoon looking for something to do. She sat Buddah-style on the living room floor and put on fake eyelashes, one eyelash at a time. She worried that a sunlamp treatment, taken a few hours before, was going to make red cracks in her face. “Doesn’t it seem to be getting all red on the cheeks? Look close now.”
She wore a gray sweat suit and furry boots, having been to her daily gym class that afternoon. She didn’t like the gym class, but Roman Polanski, her director, had told her she must go. She frowned into a hand mirror, thinking she saw a red streak. She started to bite a fingernail, but stopped. Roman had forbidden any more fingernail biting; she had a tendency to bite them down to the nub. She went to the refrigerator, and amidst Wyborowa vodka and Carlsberg beer, brought out the makings for a salami sandwich. She would not drink a beer because it might bloat her, and Roman was taking her out for dinner.
There was no place in the apartment for her to settle back and relax now. Everything inside had a transient look, as if the tenants would only be there a short season. A complicated stereo set sat on crates; Bach on top of a stack of records, Cannonball Adderly on the bottom. There were no pictures, no pets, no cozy heat. Upstairs on the wall was a framed citation stating that Knife In The Water under the direction of Roman Polanski had been nominated for an Academy Award. As Sharon reached for a folder of still photographs from The Vampire Killers to show a male visitor, she stuck up her bottom in a way she has; as she went through the photos, she pooched out her bosom. But she did it by reflex. Her thoughts were totally on her director, who was not there. She had been in three unreleased films – 13, Don’t Make Waves and The Vampire Killers, all with different directors.
If she caught the public’s fancy in any of these pictures, she would become a movie star. And she was pleased with her work in The Vampire Killers. She was in a nude bathtub scene in it, and in a brief sequence in which she got spanked.
The phone rang; it was a strange female voice with a French accent. “Is Roman there?”
“No, I’m sorry he isn’t,” Sharon said, in her accent of the moment, which was English. “Who shall I say is calling, please?”
“Oh – I just wondered if he were in. Tell him Barbara. Thank you very much..”
Two of Sharon Tate’s three pictures have been produced in Europe. Although Texas-born, Sharon spent her adolescence abroad, and much prefers London to Hollywood.
The dull London afternoon turned dark, and still no Polanski. He could be cutting The Vampire Killers, or he could be tied up in London traffic or he could be sitting in a café. She took off her furry boots and put her feet into his house slippers, which rested at odd angels by a mammoth bed that cost over $600. The slippers were far too big for her. She wondered if tonight she would be thrown with people who would overwhelm her with their wit, their awesome knowledge, their self-confidence. When she was out in public with Roman, she never felt adequate enough to open her mouth. She could only talk to him alone. Her problem was that she had always been beautiful, and people were forever losing themselves in fantasy over her – electing her a beauty queen, imagining her as a wife, dreaming of a caress. Most people had fantasies. But a few people, like Polanski, took charge.
At the age of six months Sharon Tate was elected Miss Tiny Tot of Dallas, Tex. Her mother had sent in photos of the beautiful baby to contest officials. Sharon’s father was (and is) in the Regular Army, and was then stationed in Dallas. (Both her parents are natives of Houston.) As Sharon grew up, the family moved around in Army style, her father frequently absent from home. She remembers that when her father would return from an overseas tour, and she had reached a nubile age, her mother’s first command would be, “Now you, Sharon Marie, button up that night gown when you come out of your bedroom. Daddy’s home.” Her father was very strict with her as she budded through adolescence, turning thumbs down on potential boyfriends and making her stay in nights. He was very strong and knew how to take charge.
But most people continued to do things for Sharon without her lifting a finger. At 16 she was elected Miss Richland, Washington, and a short time later named Miss Autorama. At the age of 17 she was in Verona, Italy, where her father was stationed, and the prizes mounted. At Vicenza American High she was a cheerleader and baton twirler, and was chosen Homecoming Queen and Queen of the Senior Prom. The Vicenza yearbook for 1961 shows her as a very pretty, large-eyed girl, with hair somewhat darker and hips a little broader than now. She daydreamed at this time about becoming a psychiatrist and a ballerina, and had little to do with her classmates. Yet if any far-out stunts or fads were proposed, this terribly quiet girl was ready to lead the way. “If miniskirts had come in then, ” she says, “I’d have worn the shortest one.”
Today the fad among young girls in cosmopolitan circles is to use the old Anglo-Saxon words in everyday conversation, and Sharon Tate leads the way. But back in Italy at 17, she was just starting her worldly knowledge. She watched the on-location shooting of Barabbas, a film about ancient Rome, and the family scrapbook now includes still pictures of Jack Palance and Anthony Quinn in the movie costumers they wore in Italy. As she walked in Venice one day, she was spotted by the choreographer for the Pat Boone Show, which was being filmed in Italy. She next appeared very briefly in one of Boone’s TV shows, and his glossy smiling face now rests in the album with a fond inscription for Sharon.
When the Tate family moved from Italy to Southern California, Sharon decided it was time to live on her own. She was 18, and she paid a visit to Harold Gefsky, then agent for Richard Beymer, a young actor she met in Rome. “She was so young and beautiful,” Gefsky, a softly-spoken man, said in his Sunset Boulevard office, “that I didn’t know what to do with her. I think the first thing I did was take her to a puppet show.”
He also got her work because her father, in Calvinistic style, had only given her a few dollars to sink or swim. One of her first jobs was dressing up in an Irish costume and handing out Kelly-Kalani wine in Los Angeles restaurants at $25 a day. She also appeared in TV commercials for Chevy cars and Santa Fe cigars. People who knew her during this period agree on one thing. She was the most beautiful girl in the world. “Everywhere I took her she caused a sensation,” Gefsky said. “I would take her into a restaurant and the owner would pay for her meal. Photographers kept stopping her on the street. I’ve lived in Hollywood since the mid-Forties, but I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.”
But at this point no one, except perhaps Sharon, knew if she wanted to be an actress. Then one day Gefsky took her by to meet his friend Herbert Browar, who was connected with TV’s Petticoat Junction. He thought possibly Browar could fix her up with a minor role, something to tide her over. Browar took one look at her and rushed her in to see Martin Ransohoff, head of Filmways, Inc.
LEFT: Sharon will be shown off to American audiences for the first time in DON’T MAKE WAVES. On the set, she reacts prettily to a compliment from co-star Tony Curtis. TOP MIDDLE: At 6 months Sharon won Dallas’ “Miss Tiny Tot” award. BOTTOM MIDDLE: Portraying a Las Vegas showgirl who becomes a superstar in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, Sharon had to wear a 10-pound jeweled headdress which “gave her a headache.” RIGHT: This picture of Sharon and her father, Maj. Paul Tate, at a 1965 Fort MacArthur party is from a large “family events” scrapbook that Sharon dutifully keeps.
Ransohoff has a strand of hair combed over his bald dome. He wears loose sweaters, torn windbreakers and breeches that are baggy in the seat. He first started producing TV commercials in New York when food particles were glued onto Brand X’s plate to show the differences in detergents. He branched out into TV programs with such commercial winners as Mr. Ed, The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction. He then tackled movies on the order of The Americanization of Emily and The Loved One, which got mixed reviews but generally made money. He founded the company in 1952 on $200, and today it operates on a budget of over $35 million. He will talk about Oswald Spengler or H. L. Mencken and then croon into his ever-present phone, “Helloooo, Bertie, baby. Where’s the action, kid?” He chews gum till his head rings, smokes two packs a day and sends everyone to the wall with his adrenaline. He can be gratuitously cruel in speaking of others – “She’s got a lunch pail for a mouth,” he said of an aging actress, “and if we take out insurance on her, it’ll have to be that she’ll die.” Then he can take his twin sons to a football game, clean up a dog’s mess in his Bel Air living room, and talk to anyone in the world who has guts enough to call him. A rich man’s son, he sold pots and pans from door to door while going to Colgate and claims the experience taught him what the public will or will not buy. He had little interest in films before he became involved in them, and his favorite actress in the old days was Deanna Durbin – who, coincidentally, was also Polanski’s favorite. Both vividly remember her pedaling a bicycle down a shady street and singing through a dimpled smile. Not everyone has had pleasant dealings with Ransohoff in Hollywood, but all agree he is a super salesman.
When he first saw Sharon Tate, he squinted his right eye and did something that was very impulsive, even for him. “Draw up a contract,” he shouted. “Get her mother. Get my lawyer. This is the girl I want!”
He had not seen a screen test, not even a still photograph. She had hardly opened her mouth. But Marty Ransohoff, like the rest of us, has his fantasies – and Sharon Tate walked into one of his fondest ones. “I have this dream,” Ransohoff said, “where I’ll discover a beautiful girl who’s a nobody and turn her into a star that everybody wants. I’ll do it like L. B. Mayer used to, only better. But once she’s successful, then I’ll loose interest. That’s how my dream goes. I don’t give two cents now for Tuesday Weld or Ann-Margret..”
“I think he’s just trying to pull one over on the public,” Gefsky said.
Sharon signed a seven-year contract, and Ransohoff took charge. Gefsky, a nice man, bowed out. At first she lived in complete fear of Ransohoff, and did as she was told. “She wouldn’t even eat a hamburger if he told her not to,” a friend from that period said. If Ransohoff said she was to appear on The Beverly Hillbillies disguised in a black wig, she appeared. If he told her to go on a moments notice to Big Sur, New York, London, she went. Off and on she studied acting.
Jeff Corey, one acting coach, said, “An incredibly beautiful girl, but a fragmented personality. I tried to get reactions out of her, though. Once I even gave her a stick, and said, ‘Hit me, do something, show emotion’ ..If you can’t tap who you are, you can never act.”
Charles Conrad, another acting teacher, said, “Such a beautiful girl, you would have thought she would have all the confidence in the world. But she had none.” Among her friends, however, she began to refer to herself as “sexy little me.”
Ransohoff tried to place Sharon in The Cincinnati Kid – his own movie – but failed when the director demanded Tuesday Weld. He packed her off to New York to study under the personal direction of Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. “She was only with me a few weeks,” Strasberg said, “but I remember her. She was a beautiful girl.” In New York Sharon had a romance with a young French star, who offered her relief from her Texas style, Puritan upbringing. The actor was tall, dark and very nice. When they broke up, the actor bungled a suicide attempt.
Sharon continued to fear Ransohoff. Once, while driving at a high speed near Big Sur, she turned her car over four and a half times, but somehow managed to crawl out with only minor injuries. Her first thought was that Marty would be mad. The first picture he finally placed her in was his French made 13, in which she plays a chillingly beautiful, expressionless girl who goes about putting the hex on people. Completed many months ago, ’13’ still rests in the can waiting for a 1967 release date. Ransohoff flew Sharon back to Hollywood for her second film, Don’t Make Waves, in which she plays a beautiful, deadpan skydiver. Sharon’s first two directors were older men. Britishers – very polite, very nice and understanding with a novice actress.
And then Ransohoff began dickering with Roman Polanski, the Polish director living in London, to make a picture. Polanski, a tiny, baby-faced man whose explosive manner and Beatle-like appearance belie his much-admired skill as a maker of art films, wanted to do something with Ransohoff called The Vampire Killers, a spoof of horror movies. He wanted to play in it himself, and, as in all his movies, he wanted a beautiful girl in a supporting role.
“How about Sharon Tate?” Ransohoff said. “I was thinking more in terms of Jill St. John,” Polanski said.
At Ransohoff’s instigation, Sharon and Polanski had dinner together. He looked at her from time to time, but said nothing. On a second dinner date he was painfully silent once more. Real weirdo, she thought. What’s he waiting on? She found out shortly. Walking in London’s Eaton Square, he suddenly put a bear hug on her and they fell to the ground, Polanski on the bottom. Sharon clouted him and stormed off. “That’s the craziest nut I ever saw,” she said. “I’ll never work for him.”
Relaxing on the set of YOUR TEETH IN MY NECK, Sharon listens attentively as the Polish-born Polanski explains how she can improve her performance in the next scene.
But Polanski apologized, and they saw each other again. One night he took her to his apartment which had even less furniture than it has now and no electricity. He lit a candle and excused himself, flying upstairs to don a Frankenstein mask. He crept up behind her, raised his arms, and whinnied like a madman. Sharon turned and emitted a terrible scream. It took over an hour for her hysterical weeping to subside. Not long afterward Polanski informed Ransohoff that Sharon would do fine for The Vampire Killers. On the set he treated her as if they never saw each other at night. He cajoled, flattered, got angry – which ever worked – and never had lunch with her. During the nude bathtub scene, he snapped still pictures of her. Still enthusiastic, he had her pose all over the set in the altogether, and then sent the results to Playboy. She plays a gorgeous redhead in The Vampire Killers – and she shows
Roman Polanski walked into his apartment in a sharp blue blazer and high-gloss shoes, carrying a briefcase. He had a good-sized nose and searching, deep-set eyes, and he nodded briskly to Sharon. “A Barbara called,” she let out daintily. “Do you know who that could be?”
“A Barbara?” he called from the kitchen, out of sight. A pause. “You didn’t get any last name? Always get last names. I don’t know any Barbara that would be calling. Sharon, Sharon. There’s no liquor here. Always see to it that we have enough whisky. Can’t you do that?”
Sharon went on the phone to order some, worrying about which brands to specify. She didn’t want to be embarrassed by asking Roman – although he would certainly tell her. He knew the correct whiskey brands in London, the good pastrami places in Manhattan, and the right topless spots in Hollywood. He learned a country’s customs and its language in a couple of weeks. He took a bath now upstairs, calling down for Sharon to fetch him some tea. Later he descended the stairs in a cowboy outfit and boots, ready for dinner. Some movie friends had shown up, and he led the party on foot toward Alvaro’s restaurant.
At the restaurant Sharon basked in the eyes that roved over her. She listened big-eyed to Polanski explain the difference between the sun’s heat and that on earth, apropos of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. The only trouble was that it was difficult to digest pasta in such a giddy atmosphere, and she complained of her stomach. After Polanski figured out how to work the waiter’s ballpoint pen, he signed the check.
In a dreamlike state, Sharon began slipping into her fox fur coat in the foyer. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a tall Englishman with a prep-school tie and large teeth popped up and put his arm around her. “Ummm, you have a sexy feel, love. Don’t we all love to touch you now..” She squirmed away.
Out on the street, she said, “Roman, a complete stranger began hugging me in there.”
“Yeah? Really?” A short distance away he suddenly spied a blond in fox fur who had the same duck walk that Sharon has. “Hey, there goes Sharon,” he said. “Let’s get her and put the two of them together!”
“Don’t you dare,” she said, her anger flashing. Another day, away from Sharon, Polanski said, “I’m trying to get her to be a little meaner, She’s too nice, and she doesn’t believe in her beauty. Once when I was very poor in Poland I had got some beautiful shoes, and I immediately became very ashamed of them. All my friends had plain, ordinary shoes, and I was embarrassed to walk in front of them. That’s how Sharon feels about her beauty. She’s embarrassed by it.”
Sharon has a quarter-inch scar under her left eye and one beside the eye, the result of accidents which she keeps having. As Polanski drove with her one night in London, meticulously keeping on the left in the custom of the land, an Englishman with a couple of pints under his belt hit him from the right. The only one hurt was Sharon, whose head bounced off the dashboard, spraying blood on slacks, boots and fur. An angry red wound appeared at the start of her scalp, and it will leave another whitish scar on her head. With blond hair combed down over her forehead to hide it, she skied at St. Moritz. And then she caught a jet for Hollywood because Ransohoff had called. She must redo a few scenes for Don’t Make Waves. She grumbled a little. She found she could grumble to Ransohoff now. She hated Hollywood, and she didn’t want to leave Polanski. Also, she hated to fly. She had to be drugged to endure it.
And then she appeared beside Ransohoff at La Scala restaurant in Beverly Hills. She had a black costume that looked more like a slip than a dress, and her blond head caught glints of movie-star light as she turned this way and that. “Oh, there’s David! David Hemmings. David, David!”
David Hemmings, who had been featured with her in 13 and had gone on to star in Antonioni’s Blow-Up waved. Other celebrities flicked glances her way, at each other, to the door to see what majesty might enter next. Occasionally they looked down at food or drink. The place was as crowded as Alvaro’s in London, the customers practically the same. Ransohoff wore an open-neck sport shirt and shapeless coat, and he talked business. “Listen, sweetie, I’m going to have to cut some stuff out of The Vampire Killers. Your spanking scene has got to go.”
“Oh, don’t do that. Why would you do that?” “Because it doesn’t move the story. The story has got to move. Bang, bang, bang. No American audience is going to sit still while Polanski indulges himself.”
“But Europeans make movies differently than Americans, ” she explained to the producer she once feared. “Blow-Up moved slowly. But wasn’t it a great film!”
“I’ll tell you something, baby. I didn’t like it. If I’d have seen it before the reviews, I’d have said it’d never make it. It’s not my kind of picture. I want to be told a story without all that hocus-pocus symbolism going on.”
“But that one scene, Marty. When the girl show’s her, ah –” (only Sharon said the Anglo-Saxon word). In Hollywood, New York and London they all talked now about Blow-Up, dwelling on that scene.
“Yeah, I got to hand it to the guy for that one.” Ransohoff said, chuckling. “He pulled a good one off there.”
“Oh, I want to do a complete nude scene,” she said. “Say you’ll let me!”
“OK, OK,” Ransohoff said, bored, looking toward the door. “Yes, yes.”
“Do it now. Don’t just say it.” Then Sharon got bored.
Early in the morning Sharon appeared before the camera at Malibu Beach, redoing a scene for Don’t Make Waves. The sun had a hard time getting through the wisps of fog, and strong klieg lights helped out. In a sequence with an undraped David Draper, “Mr. Universe”, Sharon stuck out her backside and shot out her front. Magically, a button or two came undone on her polka-dot blouse, and after close examination of camera angle, director Sandy Mackendrick decided to leave it that way. He gave Sharon guidance in rubbing mineral oil over Draper’s bare back, as the scene called for. “Treat him like a horse,” he said. “Pat him just as you would an animal. That’s the way..”
She lovingly went over Draper’s muscled back, and then went “ugh” when the camera ceased to roll. The scene was done over and over. In her tiny trailer dressing room, she took a break and smoked daintily. “I’m happier when I’m working,” she said. “I don’t have time to think to much that way.”
One thing to think about was a visit to her parent’s home in Palos Verdes Estates, an hour’s drive away. (Her father was stationed in Korea, her mother and two younger sisters were at home.) Driving to the house one night in a heavy seaside fog, she became quieter and quieter, her words less Anglo-Saxon. A passenger beside her remarked, as the car neared its destination, that the fog reminded him of snow. “You know what it looks like to me?” she said. “Vomit.”
Her mother – a pleasant, plump, dark-haired woman – turned Sharon’s face this way and that. “Have you had your blood count recently, honey? You look so pale to me.” What did she think of Sharon’s becoming a movie star? What did she think of Roman Polanski? “You know,” she said, in the voice of every middle-class American mother, “I don’t care – just as long as she’s happy.”
Back in Hollywood Sharon moved from hotel to hotel, from one friend’s home to another. She talked to Polanski by phone. (It embarrassed him to try to write letters in English because of his mistakes.) So many things were unresolved, shadowy. Ransohoff was sore at Polanski because Polanski had gone way over the budget on The Vampire Killers (“Very un-Hollywood of him,” a Filmways executive said; another only referred to him as “the little–.”); Polanski was mad at Ransohoff because Ransohoff was cutting away at his film and postponing its release in the States. (Ransohoff had also had difficulties with Tony Richardson, the English director, over the budget and the cutting of The Loved One.) “The thing is,” said Sharon, “that Roman is an artist.”
At night Sharon went to The Daisy, a private discotheque in Beverly Hills. She wore an aviator’s leather jacket, slacks, and tinted Ben Franklin glasses. Seated near the dance floor, she silently watched young actresses her age go through their gyrations. Suzanne Pleshette and Patty Duke did subdued turns; Linda Ann Evans, in a miniskirt, did a much more spirited fling. Carolyn Jones, who only yesterday had played the ingénue, now looked like a chaperone. Sharon gave Linda Ann Evans the once over and said, “I’ve worn a much shorter mini in London. That’s nothing.”
From another table a slim, bronzed young man with a pampered black hair ambled confidently past Tina Sinatra, Patty Duke, Suzanne Pleshette – and hovered over this strange blond beauty in an aviator’s leather jacket. He had the air of a football star in a small town high school, who was used to having his pick. He showed his beautiful white teeth and said, “Let’s dance.”
“No,” she said, “let’s not.”
He kept the smile on his face as he backed away. He was now another who had tried to bring Sharon Tate into a private fantasy – but he didn’t know that she had passed his type long ago.
She was going to fly to London and get engaged to Roman Polanski. Then she was going to fly back to star in Valley of the Dolls. Ransohoff was lending her to 20th Century-Fox to play a sexy bombshell who goes to Europe to star in nudie movies and who bewitches the world with her improbable lushness.
By John Bowers
Used with permission of The Saturday Evening Post © 1967 Renewed BFL&MS, Inc, Reproduction rights reserved. To purchase a copy of this article contact The Saturday Evening Post.